It's that time of year again. Student course requests are pouring in, administrators are counting beans and wondering just how many teachers they really need to satisfy those requests, and those of us on the database side are probably not sleeping much. Here in lil' old Athol, we've finally gotten a clue and are dumping our old SIS for something new and improved (I hope).
For those of you uninitiated in the joys of the Student Information System, also known as Student Management Systems (SMS) or, my favorite, Student Information Management Systems (SIMs), these are the ultimate data stores for all things student-related (including course scheduling) in schools, districts, and even universities; recent legislation in several states also requires them to be the ultimate data stores for all things staff-related as well. Massachusetts DBAs have been hearing about EPIMS (Education Personnel Information Management System) for a while now and are gearing up for our first official reporting period at the end of this year.
The point of all of this alphabet soup is that these massive database applications are necessarily taking a front seat in educational technology, as we certainly can't meet reporting requirements without them and certainly stand, if we can find some good products, to better serve our students from an information management standpoint.
Recently, several products have begun integrating workflow management into these information systems, capitalizing on the massive amounts of data available to end users rather than simply being a reporting tool used to meet state and federal requirements. Similarly, a number of modern student information systems contain robust algorithms for determining and optimizing schedules for students and staff, ending the days of staring at a "conflict matrix" to best balance sections and offerings by hand.
Similarly, an increased integration with web portals such as EdLine (or portals built into the SIS themselves) allow for straightforward communications between students, teachers, and parents, while keeping all such communications archived for legal purposes.
As we have seen, not all SIS's are created equal. Ideally, you won't select and migrate to a new system during scheduling as we are. Trust me, it's no fun (of course, it's more fun than scheduling in the old system, so I guess it's all relative). As with all things IT, your choice of SIS depends upon your requirements, user sophistication, and ability to support the system. While some systems are incredibly comprehensive in terms of the data they can store and report, the necessary database administration to manage these data may be entirely overwhelming for a small staff (or for the teacher who happens to know about computers and gets drafted to be "The Scheduler"). On the other hand, really simple implementations may lack the advanced database management features needed in a large district or desired by more sophisticated admins.
Often, the deciding factor may come down to cost. These systems can range from $10-$15k/year to a variety of licensing models costing 6 figures annually. Good news on that front as well...The open source community is finally getting behind this and has included early tools in Edubuntu and elsewhere (for example, check out http://www.schooltool.org/ and http://www.miller-group.net/). While these tools won't meet most state reporting requirements yet, free and freely-modified open source applications may be the best solution for schools who would rather devote hundreds of thousands of dollars to infrastructure rather than costly and complicated student management systems.