Friday, 15 July 2016

School Management Information Systems

This is a subject that’s engaged me for many years. Unlike almost all the other posts in this blog this one isn’t inspired by a report or piece of research I’ve read. There seems to me to be several key issues in this area.

The first of these is the monopoly that Capita’s SIMS has over the schools’ MIS market. In 2013 SIMS was still used by 80% of schools in England and Wales (see here). This monopoly hasn’t been significantly affected by the appearance of competitor products, for example Progresso and Arbor. This monopoly and market domination is the primary cause of other key problems. Capita SIMS sits astride the schools’ MIS market without any competition significant enough to drive down their prices. As a result Capita SIMS costs are very high. Not only are their costs high for the schools using their software but they also charge other suppliers for the right to write to their data systems.  These costs suppress the development of innovative add-ons to SIMS.

Innovation is also suppressed because of the high costs of market entry and the difficulty in getting any market share when up against such a dominant competitor. School MIS systems are very complex. They need to include data fields relating to a wide range of student assessment items across phases and sectors (primary, secondary, special, independent and state). Data fields relating to parents and families, to staff and students are very numerous. Alongside these are the complexities of timetables and financial management. There are also behaviour data, attendance and systems to track students’ performance in these areas. Most of these need to be customisable to varying degrees to suit the local policies and systems of individual schools.

New competitors also have to cope with the rapidly changing demands of government regarding data reporting from schools. Teachers, Heads and MIS providers all suffer from the ever moving goalposts that the DfE have on wheels. Probably the recent change in Secretary of State will soon yield a new set of requirements. Every time that the DfE decides they need a new data item reporting, for example a phonics score for every year 2 student, suppliers of MIS systems have to update their product. This is an overhead that must be challenging to manage.

Right from the very beginnings of SIMS as an amateur development project the interface has always lagged behind the best software. The origins of the product were focused on providing schools with ways of collecting, holding and understanding the main datasets that related to school performance, and not to empowering teachers in the classroom with solutions that significantly reduced their workload and increased their efficiency. Some developments have done so. The introduction of e-registration (led by Bromcom originally I believe) made life much easier for teachers and administrators. Instead of having to trawl through paper registers each morning looking to see which students are absent it’s now pretty much automated process to identify missing students and message parents. But it has been painfully slow. Only in the last few years have tablet apps that allow teachers to quickly record behaviour incidents appeared. The potential to do so has been with us for at least 4 years on tablets and more like 10 years with laptops.

Local installations are still extraordinarily common for MIS systems. This makes it much more difficult for schools to ensure the availability of their MIS. Even small primary schools need local technical support expert enough to maintain the MIS server, update it and back it up. A number of years ago I went to a local primary who had lost their SIMS server to hardware failure. They had a local support contract but had never checked that included back up of the SIMS database. So not only had they lost the server but they also had lost all historical data.

The potential for MIS systems to transform the ways schools function is enormous, the surface has only be scratched. When data is in the Cloud there is potential for schools to learn from others in the same system.  How helpful would it be if your MIS was able to point you at other departments in other schools where students with a very similar profile (in terms of prior performance, social characteristics and attendance) were achieving better outcomes? Wouldn’t it be great if you could see what strategies had been successful before with a student who was misbehaving in your class? I’d like to see seating plans and behaviour systems showing you which students have the best chance of working without incident together. It would be very useful if teachers were able to track the effectiveness of homework.  If they could assign a category or tag to a homework, for example as extended writing or reflective writing and then look back over the term they could see which types had the best completion rates. They might be able to see what types of homeworks led to better results in end of module tests. Including lesson planning in an MIS would also allow tracking of results; in other words which categories of lessons had the highest or lowest rates of behaviour incidents, or best end of module test outcomes? Obviously this kind of data wouldn’t always provide clear answers but aggregated across departments it might lead to some very useful and well informed professional discussions. In the 15 years I spent as a teacher all these professional discussions were always based on hunches and anecdotes not data.

Teachers are the very best source of ideas about how to innovate MIS. But you have to ask them the right questions. If you ask them how their present MIS might be improved you’ll probably get some good ideas about enhancements to the interface, shortcuts that reduce the number of steps to complete a task and complaints about illogical nomenclature. But ask them what takes up inordinate amounts of their professional time or what they would really like to be able to do with data and with a good understanding of both teaching and data you could begin to develop some exciting innovations.

So how can this situation be unpicked? At the level of government policy intervention in the marketplace might be very helpful. With our present administration with its high opinion of the power of free markets this seems unlikely.

Competitors need to find ways to offer a very compelling alternative to Capita SIMS. Schools are generally pretty conservative (small ‘c’) so changing their MIS isn’t something they consider very frequently. The present pressure on school budgets might make this happen a little more as schools get around to looking very critically at all their areas of spending. A big barriers is the institutional costs of changing. Unless the new system is very intuitive and simple there will be very big costs both for staff training and lost productivity when staff need help remembering how to use this new system.  If Capita didn’t take a fee from systems building on theirs there might be ways to stealthily eat out SIMS from the inside.  You provide one compelling add-on after another until there is very little the school uses of the original SIMS system below your products. Then they are ripe to be transitioned completely away from SIMS. Another big problem for the kind of Cloud based opportunities I mentioned earlier is that they become more and more powerful as the user base increases. With several thousand schools there are very real benefits from being able to learn from other schools, but that isn’t true if you are the third to use it.

Perhaps a far sighted capitalist will see the opportunities here and invest in the development of a product that takes more than a decade to produce real returns? If so we could see some very exciting innovations in MIS functionality.

Flipping Alone isn’t the Answer

This is a piece of research that appeared in CBE—Life Sciences Education in July 2015 (available here). The study looked at the performance of students studying for a Biochemistry Major at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Over a five year period the researchers captured student performance in online homework activities as well as end of semester tests. The study looked at the performance of 489 students over the whole period. Of these 244 engaged in active learning in the face-to-face sessions, this meant using “personal-response hardware in class” or “student–student interactions facilitated by instructor” and “team-based, collaborative student interactions in class”. The chief conclusion of the paper is that a combination of flipped learning alongside active learning in class made a significant difference to outcomes in end of semester tests. As they say this approach “encourages students to become more engaged with course material, persist in their learning through more timely and accurate preparation, and, ultimately, perform better”. The effect is greater “for lower-GPA students and female students”.

Another interesting corollary to the research is the context of the study. “The initial impetus to convert the course described here from a standard lecture format to the flipped format was to keep class sizes from growing (due to increasing numbers of student majors) without substantially increasing the in-class time commitment of the instructor.” In other words as well as improving outcomes the approach reduced the face-to-face commitments of instructors. But this “increase in instructor efficiency is counterbalanced by the need for extensive development of online material on the part of the instructor, although that effort rapidly diminishes after the first offerings of the flipped course”. After a substantial initial investment in instructor time (and presumably some training for these staff) to create the online resources, less resources were then required to achieve better results. This study was in the United States and took place within a STEM course at HE and the numbers involved are relatively small. Allowing for these provisos this research should be prompting other HE providers to look at investigating the benefits of such an approach.
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