Filemaker Pro + Filemaker Go - The ultimate SIS (and much more)?

There are countless turnkey student information systems available, but Filemaker makes a compelling case for creating your own - fast.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

Why would you possibly develop your own student information system, special education management system, library information system, school financial system, or other data collection and reporting tools? There are so many turnkey solutions on the market, from free and open source to expensive and proprietary, it hardly seems necessary, right?

A long, long time ago, I made my living programming Microsoft Access front ends for clinical trial data collection tools. Access was (and still is) quite powerful, but getting it hooked into the web, especially with built-in tools, wasn't exactly an elegant process. I've built more than a few rocking Access applications through the years, but most of that went by the wayside as the world moved away from client-server applications and towards web-based LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL, PHP) solutions to data collection and reporting.

So when the folks at Filemaker contacted me and suggested I check out some of the educational applications of the Filemaker ecosystem, I was a bit skeptical. Filemaker Pro is their design and desktop client software, Filemaker Go is the iPad client app, and Filemaker Server dishes out applications via the Web and via that same client-server architecture that seemed to have otherwise disappeared.

As it turns out, my skepticim was completely unfounded. Filemaker (now owned by Apple), has taken the RDBMS (relational database management system) to a particularly elegant, user-friendly, typically Apple-esque level (although it runs on both OS X and Windows). This is a relational database for designers, for people who want to ask questions and do something useful with the answers, and is absolutely not the sole domain of coders. Not to say there isn't awesome power here, but it's considerately kept behind the scenes where teachers, school administrators, and parents can collect, submit, and query data without being intimidated.

It also brings some capabilities to the table that earlier systems didn't or don't. For example, Berklee College of Music here in Boston uses Filemaker Pro and the free Go iPad app to provide their recruiters with a custom application with which they can record auditions around the world on their iPads and store the recordings and all of their notes in the database. When a recruiter hears a brilliant audition in Seattle, admissions and department staff can hear the recording immediately by accessig the Filemaker database in Boston. The ability to store any multimedia files in the database is a bit deal and drastically streamlines application develop, whether the application is targeted at the Web, the iPad, or the desktop.

Things got even more interesting when I spoke with Michael Weinstein, the assistant principal at Leon Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn. Michael and his team have not only designed their SIS from the ground up using Filemaker Pro, but actually made a business out of selling custom solutions to other New York Schools. Mr. Weinstein cited the ability to rapidly prototype applications and easily build on a framework of functionality as a key reason for their success.

More importantly, though, teachers at Leon Goldstein can access a variety of aggregated data in a single location instead of analyzing state standardized test scores in one state-level database, entering grades in another system, finding student data in another, and tracking formative assessments somewhere else. They can do all of this from their desktops, the web, or iPads and the publishing capabilities are driven by just a few clicks. Filemaker Server sits on the backend, serving up data and reports. The data can be examined in the aggragate or sliced and diced anyway they need and developing custom reports, forms, and templates is fairly trivial.

The point of all of this is that Filemaker (Go, Pro, and Server) are incredible tools for pulling together all of the disparate data that teachers are expected to use to drive instruction in their classrooms. Even if you don't have the time or resources to build your information systems within Filemaker, there are plenty of developers and vendors with solutions built in Filemaker (and who can host the server end of things) that bring a variety of tools and benefits to the education vertical. Not the least of these benefits is the Go App that makes data collection, reporting, and interpretation particularly easy for teachers and adminitrators.

Building or customizing a solution in Filemaker has the added benefit of being able to include data elements for everything from school lunches to library collections to ERM to budgeting to content management.

Haven't checked out Filemaker recently? There's a free trial download of Filemaker 12 available at filemaker.com. Even if your data collection and reporting needs are less ambitious, it's worth a week of testing before summer is over. I think you'll be very surprised by how far the company has advanced the state of the art for the RDBMS.

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