Student information systems meet Web 2.0

Although I have had few kind words for web-based student information systems in the past, recent previews of latest generation Web 2.0-style SIS apps have certainly given me reason to reconsider.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

Although I have had few kind words for web-based student information systems in the past, recent previews of latest generation Web 2.0-style SIS apps have certainly given me reason to reconsider.  I currently administer an implementation of Chancery SMS that was dumped in my lap a few years ago.  This system is so bad on so many levels (both in terms of the implementation in our district and in terms of the product itself) that we've finally managed to overcome budgetary limitations and are hopefully headed for greener pastures.

First, a little background.  When I first started with our district, we were using WinSchool and MacSchool, both also made by Chancery.  Neither was perfect, but they were snappy little client-server systems that did what we needed them to.  Unfortunately, as I've noted before (see "Student information systems, revisited"), some misguided and now long-gone administrators decided that a centralized, web-based system was the way to go, leaving our WinSchool and MacSchool servers hopelessly replicating against a sad excuse for a web server and horribly complicated SQL Server back end.  Long story short, most of our schools began using the web-based system, abandoning our highly-functional legacy systems.

In large part because a huge amount of money had already been invested in this system, we really did try to make it work.  It worked in Chicago and Houston, why not Athol?  As it turns out, several districts with resources far greater than ours haven't had a lot of luck making it work either (Howard County, MD, for one, Memphis, TN, for another).  Now Chancery (and another web-based competitor, PowerSchool) have been purchased by Pearson, who also makes a web-based SIS. Where these companies are headed, I'm not sure, but I am certain they aren't headed anywhere near my users' desktops.

So what's my point?  My point is that my experience with this particular incarnation of a web-based SIS left a very bad taste in my mouth, as well as the mouths of my users and administrators.  As we continue our search for a replacement, we have encountered web-based, client-server, and hybrid systems.  We have also spoken with a variety of users, some of whom love their systems, some of whom tolerate their systems, and others of whom are in the process of fleeing just like we are.  Not surprisingly, given industry trends, there is a preponderance of web-based systems.  What is surprising, however, is just how mature some of these systems are and how robust the interfaces seem to be.

In fact, although the browser-based systems tended to be much "clickier" than their competitors (for example, client-server systems tend to allow several windows to be open at once, while web-oriented systems require more navigation back and forth between screens), their interfaces are remarkably slick.  These systems, unlike Chancery SMS, take advantage of all of the scripting and user interface improvements that have allowed Web 2.0 applications to enter the mainstream.

The idea of a web-based system was never a bad one. Who wouldn't want to be able to enter grades from home or access student schedules from anywhere (including smartphones and PDAs)?  I know I'd rather not maintain client software on every user's desktop or deal with Terminal Services licensing unnecessarily to make client-server systems accessible cross-platform.  It appears that a few systems (X2 and IPASS, most notably) have finally managed to get their implementations to catch up with the idea.

Talk back below and let me know if you've found other web-based systems that can compete with the client-server SIS software that seems, unfortunately (???), to be slipping into obsolescence.

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