So about those student information systems...

So about those student information systems...

Summary: Did you know that IT planning is still important, even for us educators?

TOPICS: Servers, Software

Earlier last week I read the article "Student data systems going south."  I was struck by the similarity to my own post from a couple months ago (Scheduling (enough said)), in which I actually called for an open-source solution to these student data systems.  For any of you fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with these systems, they are large, enterprise database solutions for tracking a plethora of student information.  Everything from student schedules to grades, to demographics, to discipline, all stored in a database accessible via the web.  The exisisting systems are exceedingly expensive and still largely immature and, instead of making our lives easier as educators, have made our lives astoundlingly more challenging.

Did you know that real information technology planning still has value, even for us educators? As it turns out, I'm not sure that the folks who designed these systems knew that.  More importantly, I have serious doubts that the people who signed on the dotted line to purchase and install these systems had the least sense that an information system should meet the requirements of a majority of its users.

When information systems are driven by policy and politics rather than user requirements, failure is virtually guaranteed.  Whether in the public or private sector, IT planning must be requirements-driven.  However, in the case of the current crop of student information systems, IT planning is being driven by data reporting dictated by state and federal agencies, in particular, No Child Left Behind.  While very little thought was given to the actual business rules and workflow in place in our school districts, massive sets of tables designed to provide "rivers of data" (according to the New York Times article on these systems) are creating headaches across the board.  While our colleagues in private industry will surely understand the way in which database design is ideally reflective of the way a company does business, politicians, educators, and school administrators generally haven't taken too many data modeling courses in college.

As an example, a number of staff members in our superintendent's office have commented as to how much easier it is to assemble data for state and federal reports now that we have rolled out our particular flavor of student information system.  However, my district (currently on the edge of significant teacher layoffs and substantial budget cuts) is paying a consulting group to create a student transcript, since these are no longer natively available as they were with our old system.  Although integration of longitudinal data and built-in transcripts are supposed to be available in future versions of the software, graduating seniors, whose college matriculation is dependent on complete transcripts, tend to be less than sympathetic.

States are currently spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on these systems.  Yet our district (and many others like ours) can't afford the full-time database administrators or the server farms it takes to run these systems effectively.  My Introduction to Computing students never understand why I make them memorize and simulate the Systems Development Lifecycle until they are blue in the face.  Then I start talking about our student management system and the countless ways it fails to meet the requirements of 95% of its users.  Suddenly, it becomes much clearer.  What was that IT commandment that has been floating about on ZDNet?  Put thy users first above all else.  More politicians should read ZDNet.

Anyone with some helpful tips on getting these systems to suit your needs on a shoestring, please talk back below - I'm sure there are lots of us who could use some help.


Topics: Servers, Software

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Not much help, just agreement with the problem

    We piloted software called Powerschool, it worked decent, we got in cheaply as Beta testers, and off we were, with a nifty app that did grades, student reports, class reports, district level reports, and would do attendance as well. After about two years Apple bought them out, and we suddenly had some issues with our PC machines, and the price was going up. We had to hire a person exclusively to handle the system, so add 1 to our IT staff of four. Big percentage jump there. Now we get updates every few months that usually break on a PC, attendance doesn't work as easily as they have changed through several iterations of toggle through absent/tardy/present versus type an A/T/nothing vs highlight the date on a matrix of kids, choose a value from a pull-down menu at the bottom left, and hit save at bottom right for each kid. It has gotten WORSE every time, but they won't respond to our desires. Theoretically, we can track your childs attendance at the office live, but teachers have returned to the paper based roll since the electric one takes longer, and they put the data in the machine at the end of the day, so that feature has become useless. And the tale goes on. Fortunatley, the grading works well, it is easily gathered at the office and District levels, and easily accessed in read-only web form by parents and kids with passwords.
    But why are we paying MORE fo r aprogram we like LESS?
    Come on OSS, help us out!
  • Its daunting

    We are in the process of moving to a specific SIS because of grant requirements. We are trying to do it the right way. Sketching an expected acrticture overview, going through the process and data analysis by interviewing those who will interface with the system the most on all levels. Defining our core requirements and then fighting the vendor tooth and nail to get what we can out of the system and plan to circumvent/develop workarounds as needed (as long as we can correctly identify what to circumvent/develop workarounds for up front).

    Its a daunting task but unless we try to address this properly it will be unused junk that someone spends several days performing data entry during the reporting cycles as opposed to modestly useful junk which we will manage under Continous Process Improvement. If we do that at some point we will have a system or set of systems in place so that we can remove the junk label, and users will be reassured that we are doing our best to accomodate their real needs.
  • Not just K - 12

    I work for a university and they have a really bad outside information system. Meanwhile we offer Masters degrees in Software Engineering, Computer and Information Sciences, and System Engineering
  • Open Source Student Information systems

    I trust that since your column you have become aware of Centre and Focus/SIS to name two open source student information systems. Centre is installed in thousands of schools.


    bobalston9 AT yahoo D O T com