The only 3 platforms your school needs

In the digital ecosystems of international schools, there’s no magic all in one solution. You’ll often hear the promise of “it’s all in one” or “this is everything we need” but the reality is this just doesn’t exist. A platform may offer various features that key staff members want but the reality is the successful operation of a school requires more than one platform. This results in a lot of work to manage and maintain various systems and often a results in a great deal of overlapping features, as well as being quite costly. This article sets out to explain the right balance of systems across three areas: School Management, Website Service and Learning Management.

The number of platforms shall be three. In the words of Monty Python, “Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out!

5 is right out.

Often though, international schools struggle for the right configuration of platforms, using many for various one-off purposes. It may even be that schools are stuck with a platform that does one thing, or they’re unaware of a better alternative which may be offered by a licenced platform the school already uses. This is exacerbated by the turnover of staff, where different ideas on what is needed or required comes and goes. And even with multiple systems, too often schools still end up relying on spreadsheets and shared documents.

Unfortunately, there is no “one stop shop”, no “this is the only platform you’ll need” solution for international schools. Sure, you could try using a Learning Management System along with endless spreadsheets resulting in siloed information of minimal use across the organisation, with many long lost work hours just to keep things ticking along.

Whilst there cannot be only one system, there must be one MAIN system.

Whilst there cannot be only one system, there must be one MAIN system. One system that is the detailed, accurate and ongoing record of a student’s time at the school. Other systems should be kept to a minimum to simplify the need for data to be synchronised as well as managed by school IT or admin.

Most importantly, there should be no more spreadsheets and copies of online documents with vital student information. Google Drive is not where important student information should be.

The key is to be purposeful and very clear about system categories and be prepared to say “pass” on the latest new platform that comes along that can do one or two things well but ends up being another headache for IT staff and a likely battle or at least annoyance to ensure user data is up to date.

Having previously worked in New South Wales Public Schools, one of the largest and perhaps best organised school systems in the world, and now working in international schools that have gone through major reviews of various platforms and data management needs, I’ve come to realise just how vital it is to have well organised, efficient systems and workflows in place for the successful management of school environments.

Simple, efficient, professional and purposeful digital platforms should not just be an aspiration for a school, they are now essential to a school’s future success.

In addition to saving everyone time, as well as providing key information for staff, students and parents, the right use of various systems can save money for an organisation as well. Afterall, time is money.

I’ve arrived at what should be a simple blueprint for international schools that outlines what is, in my opinion, the best way to organise for success in the management of student data, school administration and the management of the school’s public online presence. There are other needs, such as the use of an Active Directory Server to ensure that user passwords sync between systems but let’s just look at the three system categories that will affect most users in an international school and would be the main yearly expense in the school’s digital ecosystem.

The three platforms are:

  1. School Management System (SMS): to house student data records and be the foundation of everything that relates to student information.
  2. School Website Service (SWS): this is a school website and app platform. Ideally this will provide a pathway to begin the enrolment process, feeding into the School Management System.
  3. Learning Management System (LMS): often this is the first system schools look to buy and mistakenly view it as the their main system. However, I recommend keeping the purpose of this system as simple as possible, do not try to use it as a SMS because, frankly, it isn’t one.

Let’s now go into some detail of each of the three systems and look at what each should do.

System 1: School Management System

This should be the first and most important system in a school’s digital ecosystem. It should be the source of truth for student record information. It will also be, appropriately, the most expensive system subscription in the school.

Many international schools attempt to get by without a proper SMS, with various Learning Management Systems, activities platforms and spreadsheets getting them by. However, the number of manual hours lost managing simple data, which ends up being separated silos of information, often slightly out of sync, is a big drain on the efficiency of the school.

A big professional platform for managing student information, from attendance, reports, activities and tracking data, not only saves time and improves school efficiency but it also opens greater opportunities to interpret and analyse student trends, events, needs, allowing all staff to be better informed to make decisions and act in the smooth running of the school.

A very good School Management System also saves on ancillary staff allocation. This is where the administration and record keeping in the school takes place, no more spreadsheets. Features it should include are…

  • Admissions management (finalising of placements, management of school numbers)
  • Student profiles / records (source of contact info etc) – this should keep all relevant info, essentially a record card of the student. Everything from report cards, diagnostic tests
  • Attendance – Most LMS attendance features are completely insufficient for a school to rely on as a true and accurate record of student attendance. In public schools in Australia, the attendance roll is considered an important legal record of student attendance and as a result must be very accurate, particularly in times of late arrival or early departure. Also with attendance modules, an optional integration with school card systems is very important to consider into the future. This can allow for students to tap through the front gate and have their attendance updated into the main system. Whilst most SMS do not offer this themselves, they are usually willing to work with some 3rd party ID software and hardware companies to accept attendance data integration into their system.
  • Report cards and transcripts – the ability to create highly professional and easily customised reports that tie to a student’s record. Also, possible integration with Group 3 platform.
  • Activities registration – sign up for parent conferences, extra curricular programs, excursions etc.
  • Health information – all the vital information on student health needs that can be toggled viewable to some or all staff, optionally flagged in the attendance roll (so that teachers are aware of students with important health issues, such as epipen) is a common feature of most SMSs.
  • Communication source – as the source of truth of students in classes, grades, activities, parent contact details, this makes for a good integration with System 2 platform.
  • Student welfare tracking / incident tracking – providing a record of positive, negative, notable incidents the student have been involved in that is visible to select staff. This provides a very important record and overview of incidents across both the school and at an individual student level. Schools must have this data in a system that allows for a rich overview and ability to select a privacy / viewing restriction level based on the contents of the incident being recorded.
  • Individual learning plans – it is crucial that this information is easily found and carries on over various academic years, providing a detailed record of student support. Thus, it should only be here on this platform.
  • Continuum tracking – the ability to have checkbox style continuums for teachers to mark student progress providing longitudinal data in important competency areas such as Literacy and Numeracy.
  • External data tracking – for example, results from tests such as NWEA MAP tests or ISA tests. Having this information saved here provides a richer context in which to interpret it… and find it.
  • Letter generation – letter templates are an essential part of a school’s operations and being able to easily perform a mail merge and send to select students and parents can save hours of work. These simple efficiencies are thanks to having one main admin system to work in.
  • Alumni – up to date info, as well as an ability to easily update info, of student alumni.
  • Cashless payments (optional) – it’s definitely best to have this integrated through this system than running another platform for parents to access and staff to maintain.
  • HR/staff management (optional) – not essential but a nice tie in.

System 1 users:

  • Staff: granular access to various modules as set out above, with different administrators for various sections.
  • Students: access their record file, reports, house points, appointments, school calendar, library enquiry, all of which could be available through a custom school app via integration to System 2.
  • Parents: As above plus full list of communications and notices from school, payment options etc.
  • Alumni: Update their contact information with the school, access their academic history, see alumni events.

Examples of School Management Systems

  1. Sentral Education
  2. iSAMS
  3. Veracross

System 2: School Website Service

This is the second major platform subscription that an international school needs. It provides the outward face of the school for prospective parents as well as a dedicated school app to be used by all members of the community. It should cater to the following areas of need:

  • School website
  • School app
  • Admissions applications – featured on your school website, this then feeds into the admissions management module of System 1.
  • Newsletters, blogs etc
  • Integration with System 1 e.g. customised school app where users sign in to see personalised info, communications, attendance etc.

System 2 users:

  • IT admin
  • Designated web-master
  • Admissions team
  • Marketing team
  • Students and parents sign in to see personalised info, announcements etc.

Examples of School Website Services:

  1. Digistorm
  2. FinalSite

System 3: Learning Management System

This system is something that is less static and constantly evolving – thus keeping it to do the things it is intended to do, without trying to use it as an admin system, will ensure it can be used most effectively and efficiently. It should receive student data and rosters from System 1 but not do the long term administrative items such as attendance, which System 1 is much better equipped to take care of.

Consider the LMS as the equivalent of the teacher’s record book and student workbook, it is used during the school year but once a school year is done, its role reboots and the setup for it may be different in the new year based on changing curriculum. This is where ManageBac is useful for IB schools, in that it receives latest updates from the IB.

  • Unit planning
  • Gradebook
  • Specialty management – e.g. CAS, EE, PP in IB schools
  • Student portfolio (optional)

System 3 users:

  • Staff: posting assignments, checking project progress, providing feedback to students.
  • Students: work submission, receive feedback
  • Parents: view feedback and student progress

Examples of Learning Management Systems:

  1. ManageBac
  2. Toddle

Whilst Google Classroom isn’t a full LMS, I think Google Workspaces and Microsoft Teams will likely supersede the benefits and capabilities of LMS systems for Learning Management in the classroom with students. As it stands, most teachers I’ve worked with prefer using Google Classroom for distributing, collecting and providing feedback on assignments. Though, there will always be the need for dedicated curriculum planning, which currently is still best served in Learning Management systems such as those listed above.

Are Microsoft and Google a threat to the traditional LMS? For the time being, schools still require a dedicated LMS for curriculum planning needs.

How to start your reorganisation of platforms

Perform an audit of every system in your school. Create a flowchart showing where they tie together. Also, look for platforms that you might be paying money to do something that one of your other systems can already do or can achieve in a slightly different way.

After auditing and looking at the 3 systems model above (SMS, SWS, LMS) it becomes easier to see where rationalisation and simplification can take place. Make sure to identify the people in your school who work in various systems and share your vision with them. Show school leadership the amount of time spent and number of staff members involved in maintaining the current setup at your school.

Book demos with various companies, see if they can meet your needs and importantly ensure they will work together with other platforms. When someone says they can do everything… don’t believe them. This is a long process that may take up to 12 months just to decide what configuration of systems will work best for you.

You may also be surprised to see that subscribing to various systems for separate purposes without having a dedicated SMS can actually end up costing you more money each year.

Bringing it all together

I’ve touched on the integration option of using a school app (part of System 2, the SWS) through integrations between the SWS and SMS / LMS. This would allow students and parents to sign in to your custom made school app and see select items from the SMS (such as latest attendance, house points, perhaps a digital version of the student ID card) and the LMS (including latest grade info, upcoming assignments).

A school app can be a great way to tie it all together but is really a final step in the process of platform rationalisation. However, with minimal platforms, it is also less of an immediate need. If your SMS can bring in data from your LMS, then this means parents would only ever need to sign in to one place to see all that they need.

Treat the school app as the icing on the cake, the last step in the reform process.

Most importantly, schools need the expertise of experienced educators who are also skilled in technology systems to map out the path to a simple and effective digital ecosystem that meets the broad needs of the whole organisation. By employing the right people to look at the big picture of digital platform use across both administration and curriculum, international schools can achieve exciting improvements for their school community… and for the bottom line.

Has your school got the balance right? Do you have a SMS, SWS and LMS? How many platforms are you using and are you getting the most out of them?

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