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A break from the Classmate to talk SIS

I decided to take a short break from my ongoing series on Intel's Classmate PC to give a little insight into the state of the art in student information systems. I recently attended a meeting of the X2 Advisory Council (a standing "focus group" assembled by our SIS developer) and got some insight into new features in their upcoming release, as well as the perspectives of several other school districts who had recently migrated to X2 from other data systems.

I decided to take a short break from my ongoing series on Intel's Classmate PC to give a little insight into the state of the art in student information systems. I recently attended a meeting of the X2 Advisory Council (a standing "focus group" assembled by our SIS developer) and got some insight into new features in their upcoming release, as well as the perspectives of several other school districts who had recently migrated to X2 from other data systems.

While I can't reveal anything too far out in X2's crystal ball, their recent additions to the system certainly give some indication of where the industry is headed. Just as Google leads the drive into an increasingly web-based approach to the modern office suite, student information systems are making use of innovative technologies to help us not miss the client-server SIS that has largely gone by the wayside.

A few systems (notably Rediker Software) still employ client software to interface with a database. This has the effect of allowing the SIS to look and feel like a desktop application, with multiple open windows and without the limitations imposed by web sessions and cookies.

However, as with Google Docs, Zoho, and other similar web-based productivity applications, fully web-based systems like X2 and PowerSchool offer a significant level of platform independence and anytime, anywhere acccess to student data. For example, when problems cropped up with export data for our state reports while I was at a conference on Friday, I whipped out my Classmate, tapped into the free WiFi from the Athol Public Library next door to Town Hall where we were meeting, and fixed the problem on the spot. All I needed was a web browser and WiFi and who doesn't have access to that?

The new breed of Web-based student information systems really become user-friendly and powerful, however, when they start to tap Web 2.0 technologies like AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript and XML). X2's Aspen SIS, for example, allows many records to be loaded while users interact with single fields (e.g., scores in an electronic gradebook) without refreshing the page. The page refreshes tend to be a major factor in the performance differences between web-based and client-server SIS products; AJAX makes Aspen feel much less like a series of forms running in your browser and much more like an application. Not surprisingly, AJAX drives all of the Google Docs products, as well as Google Maps.

While X2 has largely limited their sales of Aspen to the East coast for now to control growth, this raises an interesting question to pose to SIS vendors that you may be evaluating. See how they handle a question like this: How do you handle the speed and bandwidth issues associated with on-screen refreshes of hundreds of records? Or better yet, how do you leverage Web 2.0 technologies to address the inherent complexities of SIS database access via the Internet? If they say "AJAX", keep them talking. If not, they better have a really slick answer that will keep you from tapping your fingers every time you update a record. If this seems like a no-brainer, it really isn't. AJAX is still seen as fairly cutting edge and the stuff of mashups rather than SIS applications, despite the significant usability gains that companies like X2 have demonstrated.

It should be noted in the interest of full disclosure that my district uses X2 Development Corporation's Aspen Student Information System. If I speak highly of the product, it is not because we receive any discounts or perks. Rather, this is a system with which I am quite familiar, so I've seen its innovative features firsthand; it also stands in striking contrast to our previous product, Pearson School System's Chancery SMS, and is worth highlighting in this column. Please talk back if your SIS has particularly cutting edge features or is especially user-friendly (don't hesitate to share your problems, too).