Student information systems, revisited

Student information systems, revisited

Summary: Talk about scary technology...Have you seen what's passing for student information systems these days?

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It was a dark and stormy night and I was reviewing a recent dump of transcript data from our student information system.  The more comma-separated values I read, the more my heart was gripped with icy fingers of dread.  Duplicated records, failed imports, incorrect credit and grade calculations...It was a grisly scene.

I've talked about student information systems before [Scheduling (enough said) and So about those student information systems...], but, as the horror builds with my own SIS implementation, I thought it was about time to revisit the subject.  It is almost Halloween, after all.

The problems with our particular implementation, like those of many schools and higher education institutions, are manifold.  Sure, the problems began when some very non-technical people (who thankfully are no longer with the district) decided to jump on the web-based SIS bandwagon.  These same people jumped at a system without defining user requirements, conducting prototyping and testing, or otherwise taking any of the other steps that most reasonable IT folks would consider essential steps of the systems development lifecycle.

Even better, the system they chose was incredibly immature, lacking many basic features and filled with a variety of vaporware that was supposed to appear in "future releases".  While many of these features did eventually appear, the system remains hard to use, hard to administer, and incredibly resource-intensive, both from a hardware/networking standpoint, and from a financial perspective.  In fact, the only requirement that it actually satisfies is that it produces NCLB-style reports fairly easily for administrative staff.  

I've also made it pretty clear before that I don't see a place for early adoption of new technologies in most areas of Ed Tech.  As a case-in-point, because we adopted this product so early in its development, a number of bugs, screw-ups, and workarounds were built into our implementation.  Our vendor was so severely lacking in understanding of the final product (as were many vendors for this SIS), that the consequences of said bugs, screw-ups, and workarounds are only now becoming apparent as the SIS matures.  We've taken to calculating GPAs and class ranks in an external database that a consultant built for us since we don't trust the transcripts that our SIS produces (it's not just paranoia, either; the data dump that I described above, though a bit dramatically, does, in fact, show a variety of corruptions and errors).

I'm hoping that this story has a happy ending, though.  I was talking with another vendor of student information systems the other day.  He actually asked some questions about end user requirements.  He also told me that their system wasn't web-based and alluded to the same backlash against slow, buggy systems deployed from a web server.  The system that he sells is client-server based; they deal with remote access through Windows Terminal Services, allowing a much richer, faster environment, unconstrained by browsers, cookies, sessions, etc.  Better yet, when I asked him about NCLB reporting requirements, he said, "Oh yeah, we have a module that takes care of that stuff, but we really focus on the day-to-day uses of our system."  Hmmm...Where was he 4 years ago when the horror began? 

Like the bad teenage actors who plunge onward in our favorite horror movies, despite the knowledge that they will soon be hacked to pieces, I will make my way deeper into the world of student information systems and let you know how it goes if we make a switch.  Or if I just get cut into a lot of pieces by a chainsaw-wielding madman and we just stick with our current system.

Topics: Servers, Browser, Operating Systems, Windows

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.

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5 comments
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  • Time to become your own boss

    Well it seems to me that it's time to become your own boss and write your Ultimate SIS: Design Document 1.0 and shop it around to some educational investors and get The Ultimate SIS on the shelves instead of just compalining about it. Contact me if you'd like some collaboration on the white paper.

    -Bryant Thompson
    World's Foremost Authority,
    TinkerToyTech.com
    tinkertoytech
    • You're probably right, but...

      This wasn't just a rant session on SIS in general. This was an anecdotal look at the long-term consequences of poor planning and poor understanding of requirements. As I noted, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel - There are some pretty good products on the market right now into which we are actively looking. I just don't have the good fortune of using one myself at the moment because of bad decisions made years ago. Long live the SDLC.

      cad
      mrdatahs
      • PLANNING & UNDERSTANDING ...

        These two words are the cornerstone of any transition from a paper process to an electronic process. Electronic systems always require a different paradigm than paper systems. Few people understand that. Unless your software vendor thoroughly understands your environment, they will not provide you what you need.
        M Wagner
  • Web based horrors, and Terminal Server licensing

    We use eSchoolPlus and Pertaine. Pertaine is still the old VTERM like terminal from Minisoft, used for transcripts and everything. It's not fancy, but most importantly, it [i]works.[/i]

    I sympathize with the whole web crap. Why "fix" something if it isn't broken? I could understand updating the software to work with more modern high-speed line printers, and [i]maybe[/i] as far as a web interface that just relays the terminal info.

    As for eSchoolPlus... oh dear gods. I have a Holloween story that'll scare your socks off. So our technology staff (who are very competent) were shopping for a new web-based SIS. They took a look at PowerSchool, eSchool, plus a few others I had never heard of. They were sold on eSchool because it was cheaper than PowerSchool and offered a cheaper rate for custom modules. Since we'd be a pilot school for their system, we got it extremely cheap and it allowed us to use the rest of our budget for some upgrades on our servers for the new school system.

    The reason we looked at web-based system was because, well, it's web-based. We wanted to make sure it'd work with our Macintosh users as well (Parent Home Access and Teachers, we don't know what people have at home.)

    "Oh sure!" they promised us, "It's web based. It'll work on anything." *queue scary music build up*

    So we spend all this money and hard work to get it implemented, only to find out the damn idiots were using client-side ActiveX controls. (ARGH!!!) They told us it'll work with Macs... but they didn't tell us we have to use an outdated, unsupported, Internet Explorer 5 (FIVE!). Two months later Microsoft announces they're completely pulling the browser from their website and all support is dropped.

    Fast forward about 8 months and tons of complaints from other school districts, Sungard decides to completely rewrite their school system so it doesn't rely on client-side ActiveX controls.

    So we're testing the new-new system before we implement it. The new system [i]only[/i] works completely in Internet Explorer for Windows. It dosn't even work on any other browser on Windows. After extensive testing, it sort of works with Safari [i]and/or[/i] Firefox on OS X, but every other browser (OmniWeb, Opera, etc.) crashes a horrible death on the webpage.

    So we call them up, asking if they can test it on their end to make sure it's not something wrong with our server, and what do they tell us? "Oh, we don't have any Macs to test it on. We'll need to find someone."

    *screeeeeach, KABOOM!*

    These guys design, devlop, and test everything on a Windows PC using Internet Explorer... then assume it works on every other browser and platform. Completely assbackwards.

    Just for kicks, I tested the webpage with various integredy programs (W3C XHTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc.) and it completely fails.

    In the end, this is what we did: Bought VirtualPC with XP for the iBooks (unfortunately we didn't have MacBooks, which would've been great) and put some older PCs in the hallways.

    PowerSchool was looking more and more attractive, but after all the work we put in for the eSchool system, there was no way in Hell we were going to try and migrate all our student data to yet another SIS.
    olePigeon
    • Oops, forgot about the Terminal Server.

      The only draw back to the Terminal Server option is the licensing. It's [i]very[/i] expensive. Cost effectiveness of thin-clients versus desktops has been a big debate for quite some time.
      olePigeon