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SIS software evolves to meet more complex needs

Latest student information systems combine mobility with a wide range of enterprise-related data

By Meris Stansbury, Assistant Editor, eSchool News October 30, 2007 With a heightened focus on accountability spurring the use of data to track student progress, a robust student information system (SIS) has become a critical component of today's school systems. And companies are striving to meet this need by developing ever more dynamic software. Among the latest trends in SIS technology are all-encompassing systems that combine student data with analytics tools and enterprise resource planning (ERP) features, and solutions that enhance mobility by allowing school leaders and other stakeholders to access information from either a desktop computer or a handheld device. Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas, says he sees SIS products heading toward complete ERP environments that combine all areas of school leadership into one fully integrated solution. Plano has been working with Austin, Texas-based Prologic Technology Systems Inc. "to help develop the future of SIS," Hirsch says. Prologic's TEAMS Student Management solution uses a single, web-based software infrastructure to tie student information to a school's resource needs. Hirsch says this program is perfect for his district, because it was "developed with the administrators, teachers, staff, parents, and students in mind, with a simple web interface that includes essential functions and information relevant to their needs and interests." The system integrates student, human resources, and financial information under one ERP platform. Using TEAMS, parents are able to view their children's grades and attendance information online, and school leaders can allocate resources to specific campus needs through a single database. Another attractive feature is that it's based on an open-source development platform, Hirsch says, meaning it's available to the general public with relaxed intellectual property restrictions. This allows users to create additional features through incremental development or collaboration. Hirsch has taken advantage of this ability by embedding Web 2.0 features such as blogs and wikis within the software's environment.

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Another example of a system that combines SIS and ERP functions within a single solution is the School Management System from Skyward Inc. Scott Glinski, vice president of sales and marketing for Skyward, says the School Management System "allows districts to run all of their financial management, human resources, student management, food service, and special-education administrative tasks from a single database." Combining student information and ERP functions through a single software platform eliminates redundancy and increases the accuracy of information, Glinski believes--and this, in turn, "provides districts with a return on investment that can be measured in terms of increased productivity and better allocation of staff resources." Besides the integration of SIS and ERP features, another emerging trend in SIS software is the growth in mobile solutions. Glinski says parents, teachers, and administrators have told his company they want "data pushed out to them in real time to a device of their choice as events happen." For instance, parents might want a text message sent to their cell phone if their child is tardy or absent, or if their child receives a low score on a homework assignment or test, or if their child's lunch balance drops below a predetermined amount--so they can apply funds online with their credit card. A good example of how mobility is being built into SIS technology is Oracle Corp.'s PeopleSoft Enterprise Campus Solutions, an SIS program designed for higher-education institutions that reportedly is used at more than 800 campuses in some 20 countries. Oracle recently demonstrated a feature that allows administrators and students to access information via Apple's iPhone. Already, Northwestern University has seen tremendous results with the software. Kelly McGrew, an Oracle spokeswoman, says Northwestern's students "enjoy the new 'shopping cart' feature, which enables them to select courses and store them in a shopping cart, just like commercial online shopping. ... The university plans to leverage additional features, including the ability to develop online roadmaps that help students track their progress toward degree requirements." Pushing information out to various mobile devices and platforms raises security concerns. But Oracle "is protecting all databases that record information about students, faculty, applicants, recruits, visitors, alumni, employees, and nonemployees," says Jim McGlothlin, vice president of higher education for the company. This combination of mobility and security has led the City University of New York (CUNY) to select Oracle's PeopleSoft Enterprise Campus Solutions as its SIS software. CUNY will implement the software to streamline its student information processes and improve service to its 430,000-plus students. In the process, CUNY will replace its legacy systems--some as many as 25 years old--which were restrictive and difficult to maintain. The new software will allow CUNY to implement a single student database for the entire university in a multi-institution configuration, campus officials say. Yet another company that is creating innovative SIS software is Century Consultants, which offers "a secure, multi-platform, web-based, centralized, scalable, real-time SIS," says Nancy Gerber, a marketing representative for the company. "In addition to our SIS, which includes a portal feature, we offer a

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bidirectional handheld device for information on-the-go and a data analysis tool." For now, major SIS providers are helping to make schools and districts perform more effectively. However, there is always room for improvement. "We want to enable our students, teachers, and parents to use knowledge and system intelligence in decision making. We want this [information] to be mined for the wealth of intelligence it contains to help us make better decisions in everything we do," says Plano's Hirsch. For Hirsch, even greater ease of use and more intuitive interfaces should be critical elements of any future SIS developments. Bob Moore, executive director of information technology services for Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan., agrees. "I would like to see [SIS software] continue to become easier for teachers to learn to use and faster to update information," Moore says. Already, companies are working on creating on-demand portals to fill these requests. Glinski says Skyward's on-demand portals will "allow administrators to quickly drill down [through] data and make informed, data-driven decisions without the need for someone on their IT staff having to create custom reports for them." John Weidenhammer, president and chief executive of Weidenhammer Systems Corp., says his company is developing dashboards, user-defined reports and queries, and end-user customization for its SIS solutions. With schools and districts growing in size, parental involvement in their children's education increasing, and the tracking of students made necessary thanks to No Child Left Behind, SIS software is a "big and growing" market, Weidenhammer says. In fact, Oracle's market analysis estimates total SIS-related spending at $15 to $20 per student, per year, not including staff or training costs. One reason for the growth in SIS spending among higher-education institutions is what Oracle's McGlothlin describes as the "creative diversity of education," such as degree programs for adults changing jobs in mid-career and the rise in virtual schooling. "Education institutions are growing, changing their missions, and entering into new ... markets as specified in their strategic plans," McGlothlin explains. "To maintain this growth, institutions must evolve simple ... activities to enable supply-and-demand forecasting--predicting which classes and how many sessions of those classes they need to offer to meet the demands of the students. This valuable insight--made possible with SIS [technology]--will make institutions more nimble and proactive than reactive." Links: Plano Independent School District Prologic Technology Systems Inc. Skyward Inc. PeopleSoft Enterprise Campus Solutions

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