Friday, 26 November 2010

What’s wrong with MIS systems?

Reading the MIS forum contributions on Edugeek, it’s interesting the number of people who are apparently happy to come up with 'workarounds' to get round the failings of their MIS.
Someone, an IT technician in a school usually, will post a query on the forum asking for help with a particular issue he’s having with the school’s MIS. The replies usually run along the lines of “No, you can’t do that on SIMS (CMIS, e1, Integris, whatever) but you can ...” there follows some description of a workaround usually ending with “Dunno why, but it seemed to work for us”. I suppose this is okay if you were paying 150 quid a year, you might expect to have to do that. But MIS systems are very expensive; I could buy a decent car for what some high schools are paying annually for their MIS. Would I be happy to pay £20k for a car, only to find that it did not, for example, do left turns and I had to ‘workaround’ that by doing three right turns? I think not. So why do schools apparently seem happy to do that with their MIS solutions? One reason is the perfectly human and understandable desire to stick with what you know and are comfortable with, foibles and all. The other reason is ... well, what is the alternative? This is a good question; all the MIS systems available from the major suppliers are all (more or less) equally expensive and each has its own particular drawbacks. So, the argument goes, you might as well stick with what you know, workarounds and all. I’m sure that these MIS systems like SIMS and CMIS were good bits of software when they were first introduced. However years of bolting bits on, adding extra functions, being worked on by a succession of different software developers have taken their toll and the software becomes less and less reliable over time. These sea changes happen slowly, not in quantum leaps, so that the shortcomings creep up slowly on data managers in schools. After a while you just get so used to a way of working that you don’t question it.

There has been a rather unfortunate tendency from MIS suppliers in recent years to try and provide a ‘complete solution’ for schools. MIS systems come complete with attendance modules, parent portals, achievement trackers, finance packages and more, usually all at extra cost. Alongside this there is the suspicion that some MIS providers contrive to make it difficult, by means of stiff licence fees and conditions, for smaller independent companies to compete in this ‘add-on’ market. Frequent changes and updates to the MIS software also serve to make things difficult for the small provider; though to be fair, the situation is complicated by the continuous stream of demands coming out of the DfE. Constantly having to update MIS systems to accommodate these statutory requirements has been cited as being one of the reasons for them being so expensive. Schools vary so much in size and character that it is unlikely that the solutions bundled with the MIS system will be flexible enough to provide exactly what each school wants and needs. This is why we need to small, independent suppliers who can fill these niches with bespoke products. Unfortunately, the tendency for MIS providers to want to dominate the whole supply chain is stifling this market.

Increasingly, schools are beginning to question this status quo and are looking to alternative solutions. This has been accelerated by the growing concern about possible financial cutbacks. There are some other commercially available MIS systems around, but they tend to be so poorly featured that they are not really suited to use in a big secondary school. Many fill a niche market, providing for small independent and private schools. There are some open source (OS) solutions available; but data managers in schools tend to be wary of these, citing lack of support, documentation, inter-connectivity and training as being some of the reasons for not using them. There is also the old adage ‘nobody ever got sacked for buying IBM’. Bring that into this context and it becomes nobody ever got sacked for buying SIMS. It’s a safe choice, Capita is not likely to go bust anytime soon and there is a big support base available, both formal and informal. So there is a gap in the market for a fully featured, reliable, simple, low cost, inter-connective MIS system for schools. Any takers?

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

When is a punishment not a punishment? Are some schools confusing behaviour modification with punishment?

Many schools use the system of ‘on report’ for managing individual pupil’s behaviour. This can take several forms, but the most usual is a card or sheet with the day’s lessons in a grid and a space for the teacher to make a comment or mark a grade and sign. Often there will be some sort of target set for the day or week. Most schools will have several types of report, usually at increasing levels of staff seniority: Form Tutor Report, Head of Year Report, SLT or Head Teacher Report, for example. On report can be a very useful tool in modifying pupil behaviour, but I wonder to what extent some staff in schools just miss the point?

A pupil may be put on report following a repeated pattern of transgressions, but on occasion I have seen pupils placed on report following a single, one-off incident. For me this raises the question of what the teacher instigating the report is trying to achieve by this action. In the latter case, and even in the former, it sometimes appears that the report is being used as a form of punishment. Indeed, I’ve even had heads of year say as much; as if the bearing the responsibility and inconvenience of carrying the card round from lesson to lesson was, in itself, a punishment. For me this completely misses the point of being on report. The purpose of being on report should be therapeutic, not punitive. On and off over the period of a year or so I asked pupils in my classes and who were on report two questions: i) ‘ what do think is the purpose of you being on report’ and ii) ‘what happens if you don’t meet your target for the day’. The answer to question one was invariably ‘because I’ve been naughty’. Every single one viewed it as a punishment; not one child replied with any suggestion that there might be some sort supportive or therapeutic purpose to being on report. The response to the second question, what happens if you don’t meet today’s target, the answer was often “nuffink, sir” i.e. there was no sanction for failing to meet the set target for the day. Occasionally a pupil reported a significant consequence for failing to meet a target, e.g. a detention, but the most often reported consequence was simply a warning to ‘do better tomorrow’; in other words, no real consequence at all. There is no point in setting targets at all unless there is either a reward for meeting the target and/or a sanction for not meeting them. On report targets should be:
• based on previous behaviour. E.g. a pupil with a history of being late to lesson may have a target ‘Arrived to lesson on time’.
• Challenging but not unachievable. Setting targets which are too easily met or too difficult to achieve will not help modify the pupil behaviour.
There should also be a clear exit strategy and a final goal in mind when the pupil is put on report. These outcomes, and the purpose of the report (i.e. behaviour modification), should be clearly explained to the pupil at the outset. The report should be for a set period, e.g. a week, and the pupil should know what he needs to do to get off report at the end of the period and what will happen if the targets are not met. Open-ended reporting periods, vague or non-specific targets and lack of incentive for success will generally make placing the pupil on report a waste of time.

Consider this analogy: through my own silly behaviour, I fall over and break my leg. At the hospital the doctor chides me for my stupidity, plasters my leg and sends me off with a crutch. Now I could be resentful that the doctor has punished me by making me carry a damned, awkward crutch around all day, or I could view it for what it is; a support for me to lean on until my leg gets better. How do your pupils view being on report, as a punishment or as an aid to help them improve their behaviour? Understanding the pupil perception of being on report can dramatically affect its efficacy.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Detention without notice - a good idea?

I was watching David Cameron doing a public Q+A session a week or so ago. In response to a question from a teacher he began to explain what the coalition was going to do to help teachers improve pupil behaviour in schools. One of the ideas he pushed quite strongly was to give teachers the legal right to detail pupils without notice. Good soundbite: let's get tough on the little blighters, show 'em who's boss, eh?

But how many schools would actually make use of the legal right to detain without notice? There are good reasons why schools give parents 24 hours notice; and those reasons don't go away if you remove the requirement for notice. Detaining children after school without notice would do nothing other than damage the relationship between schools and parents. Many pupils have familial responsibilities outside school time, from collecting younger siblings to doing shopping on the way home. They may also have appointments with a dentist or doctor. How thrilled would you be if your family visit to see Gran in hospital was kiboshed by little Johnny being an hour late home from school, no note no explanation?

It's simply not worth it for schools to implement a no-notice after school detention; it would undo much of the work schools do to build a positive, supportive relationships with parents. So thanks, Dave, but you've offered us a bit of a chocolate teapot there, mate.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Server upgrades

Over the last few months we have been monitoring a steady increase in traffic to IRIS which was starting to result in periods of degraded service. In response to this we upgraded the primary server. The upgrades have been successful and all users should be enjoying a much faster IRIS experience.

For added peace of mind we have also implemented CDP (continuous data protection). This is an improvement over the live backup of just the database that we use to have. If for any reason our primary server fails we can restore from CDP very quickly.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

When did pupils become 'learners'?

Who decided that pupils in school should now be called 'learners' and, more to the point, why?

There is obviously something about the term 'pupil' that a lot of educationalists don't like. Some years ago my school started referring to them as 'students'. No reason was given, it was just an announcement form the head that henceforth that term would be used. Now, I was was fairly ok going along with that, us being an 11 - 18 school. The term 'student' does embody quite similar connotations to those of 'pupil', except that 'student' has a more 'adult' feel about it, as in university student for example.
For me the term 'pupil' describes a young person who is being taught some knowledge or skill by one (the teacher) who knows more or is more skilled. It also implies the learning of not just a single skill or piece of knowledge, but somehow more than that; perhaps a philosophy or certain life skill, for example.

In English we tend to reserve the term 'learner' to someone, of any age, who is learning a specific skill or piece of knowledge, as in 'learner driver' for example. The term also usually indicates that the person is still in the process of learning. Now, you can learn something without being taught it by someone else. The boy in my Y10 bottom set science class quickly learned that it is not a good plan to cut through the power pack cable with metal scissors while it is still plugged in and turned on at the socket. I didn't need to teach him that, he learned it all by his little self. We are called teachers because we, um, teach. So, the pupils should be called pupils, not learners. Now, get back to teaching your pupils (Teachees? Educatees?...)

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

This is what's wrong with school MIS systems these days

Why is there so little choice of good cheap target tracking, attendance and behaviour programs for schools? (Well, apart from IRIS anyway). The answer lies in the way that the dominant schools MIS providers lock up school's data. Here's an example:
Last week I went up to Tyne + Wear to demo our product to a school up there. When I got there it turned out to be a brand spanking new build. I did my demo to the behaviour leaders in the school. They liked it; thought IRIS was the best they'd seen and said they would like to move on to a trial. No problem, except that in order to get the shiny new building they had to sell their soul to the devil, in the form of that great Universal Step Backwards ... a managed service! They used to have an MIS provided by the dominant supplier, not perfect they would agree, but they were reasonably happy with it. Now, they have to use a different one provided by the company awarded the managed service contract; like it or not, it's all part of the 'service'.
So, the next thing is the school arranged for a nice man from the company to phone me up to discuss data transfer from the MIS to IRIS. What do we need? Oh, yes that's fine we can do that; yes, no problem we can do that too. Just when I thought things were going just a bit too well, came the 'but'. Well, you can guess what it was. In order to release the school's own data from the MIS system (that they are paying for, mind) we have to pay said company £2500 per year plus another £129 (where do they get the 9?!) per school per year!
Here we are, just trying make an honest crust and yet again being shafted by the big guy. It's the school's own data, for heaven's sake! They own it; it's their's! They want to share it with us but are effectively being prevented from doing so by the people holding their data on their proprietary system . If this happened on the high seas, it would be called piracy. The school is paying god knows how much per year to the company for the 'service' that they provide; part of that service should be facilitating data sharing with whoever the school wishes, NOT preventing them from doing so putting physical and financial barriers in the way.
In this way small companies are squeezed out of the market place and competition is reduced. The natural concomitant of this is that quality of product decreases while price increases. Until we remove the dominance of a few major players in the school MIS market this situation will continue; schools will continue to be provided with poor, overpriced software. Big companies are milking the school ICT market for millions of pounds per year. Becta estimated in 2005 that schools in the UK spend over £80 million on MIS services alone. That's £80 million taken away from schools and pupils and put into the pockets of shareholders and CEOs of the big companies who care less about education than they do their bottom line.
It is our intention to do our bit to open up the market by provided connectivity to IRIS FREE to whoever wants it (unless, of course it's one the big guys!)
;-)

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Call me pedantic, but ...

Y'know those Google ads that pop up next to your mail? I saw one yesterday advertising a bit of equipment operated by a 'foot pedal'. Is it the teacher in me or what? But that really grated ... foot pedal, is there any other sort of pedal?
If it wasn't foot operated, it wouldn't be a pedal, would it? And if it's a pedal then the word 'foot' is tautological and is superfluous. Why do people feel the need to qualify the word pedal, but not handle? If you said to someone 'Oh, turn this hand handle' they'd look at you as if you were a bit simple - but for some reason the term foot pedal is quite common. I'm waiting to see a cunning bit of machinery operated via a hand pedal...
And, while I'm at it, whatever happened to 'fewer'? Fewer seems to have been universally replaced by 'less'. Statements like, 'There are less people here than usual' are quite commonplace; I've heard BBC reporters saying it. Do they not know any better? Well, of course they do - they know they should say 'fewer people' rather than 'less people'. So why do they do it; laziness, after all 'less' has one FEWER syllables? Or is it dumbing down in a patronising way to the illiterate masses? Apparently the Beeb has made a corporate decision to dispense with the plural 'referenda' and use 'referendums' instead. Is this another example of dumbing down for the masses? Or am I just being a reactionary old fart? (No, don't bother replying). After all, we all seem to be quite happy to say 'data is' when we mean 'data are'. The singular 'datum' has fallen into disuse and 'data' has gone the way of 'sheep' i.e it is used both for the singular and plural.
Oh, and don't get me started on the Grocer's apostrophe!