Sunday, 2 November 2014

MIS MARKET MOVES 2014: SIMS still dominate; Scholarpack and RM are up; Advanced Learning are down

Good news for School Information System obsessives like myself - I've got hold of some newish data on English market moves from the past year. There's lots to report.

But first, a quick word on the data source. It turns out that the DfE have now agreed to circulate raw data on MIS market share to vendors, and one of them has been kind enough to share the 2014 files with me. In preparing this analysis I've therefore combined these new datasets with the 2012 and 2013 autumn census information I used in my previous blog on the same subject.

So, as last time, here's the data in Tableau for you to play with, followed by my take on the main headlines.

What jumps out immediately is that Capita's SIMS clearly know how to hold on to an 83% market share. In my last article I pointed out that SIMS had seen a significant reduction in schools using the system between 2012 and 2013. Well, the new data show that they reversed those losses (and then some) by Spring 2014. At the last count they were serving 18,206 schools. (Incidentally I recently discovered that SIMS really don't like selling licenses that start on any day other than April 1st, so I guess it follows that Spring is when all their annual gains show up.)

Looking beyond SIMS, there are two obvious winners and one big loser.

RM (1,844 schooks; 8.4% market share) and Scholarpack (212; 1%) will be the ones celebrating - they've each added close to 100 schools over just two terms. In the case of Scholarpack, one reason for the rapid growth is that they seem to have worked out how to win a big local authority contract. You can see this from the above tables: go to the "totals" tab and filter for Cumbria LA. You'll see Scholarpack now have 106 schools in the region. Most of those schools switched away from SIMS. So while SIMS look secure for now, that could change rapidly if more LAs start to see insurgents like Scholarpack as a viable alternative.

Advanced Learning (1,147; 5.2%) are once again the big loser. They've shed another 66 schools over the past two terms. And don't forget these figures represent combined sales from their legacy product (Facility CMIS) and their new cloud offering (Progresso). 139 schools also moved away from Pearson (158; 0.7%), but seeing as they're no longer even supporting their product, if anything the surprise is that 158 schools are still persisting with the software!

What of the smaller pretenders? Well, it's mildly surprising that Arbor (31; 0.1%) aren't gaining market share faster - it feels like a lot of people are talking about them, but this this isn't yet flowing through into significant sales. Bromcom (73; 0.3%) picked up a creditable 32 schools over the two terms of new data, but like Arbor, they haven't yet managed to break into three figures. Pupil Asset (22; 0.1%) are emerging as one to watch - they are selling a MIS off the back of their primary assessment tracking software, and this "upsell" strategy seems to be bearing fruit. iSAMS and Schoolbase are both strong in the independent sector, but they're not really getting any traction in the state sector yet. And spare a thought for Tribal (3; 0.0%) - they're big in university MIS, but after two years of plugging away their school system (Synergy in Schools) is struggling to sell to anyone.

What will it take to bring about really significant change in the market? Well, the smaller vendors could make a bigger deal about how they can remove the barriers and costs of switching. They could also be clearer about which segments they are targeting with their functionality (Primaries? Academy Trusts? Local Authorities? Schools with a strong analytics focus?)

A final thought: I do think that commissioners (like academy trusts and local authorities) can play an important role in increasing competition in the marketplace. For example, they could structure procurements in a way that creates room for more than one vendor to share the business. After all, there are more and more ways for commissioning groups to aggregate data from multiple schools without them all being on the same system (e.g. by using products like Groupcall Xporter and Zinet Connect). Ultimately, if purchasers want to see more innovation, they have to create a procurement environment that allows smaller vendors a fighting chance.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Dear graduates, school data management is the best career you've never heard of.

Everyone has been taught, so everyone knows that teaching is a viable career choice. Schemes like Teach First and school-led initial teacher training programmes mean that there are more ways than ever to train. So if you want to be a teacher, and you are capable, there's a good chance you'll get to be one.

However, speak to any head and they'll tell you that they need more than great teachers. All kinds of non-teaching roles also contribute to a school's success. And in the world that I work in, the key person is the data manager. It's a sometimes unheralded, but always pivotal, position.

You can't be an outstanding school without being on top of your data. But where do you go to find a great data manager? It's a question that's regularly asked in the country's secondary schools, since nearly all of them employ at least one data person. And the reason they need to ask it is because it's devilishly hard to find them.

There are lots of reasons for this supply/demand imbalance:
  1. Graduates don't know the job exists. You won't find any evidence of the role at careers fairs. So graduates don't consider it as a viable pathway. Most people fall into it by accident - they stumble across an ad, or they hear about the role from a savvy school-based acquaintance who spots their relevant skills (numeracy, IT, spreadsheet wizardry etc) and converts them to the cause.
  2. Schools are not always well placed to train data managers. Most schools only have one data manager, so there's rarely a more experienced colleague around to pass on their accumulated wisdom. Data managers may be line managed by either a school senior leader (the assessment co-ordinator, for example), the Head, the Finance & Resources Director or the IT manager. This means that there's a high chance that their boss doesn't know how to do the job in detail. That's entirely understandable given the other things these people do - but it does make training tricky.
  3. There is no relevant accreditation or induction of any sort. I am not aware of any formal data manager qualification. That's a problem that you don't find in other professions where practitioners may have a unique skillset within their organisation. For example, before they go "in-house", lawyers and accountants go through a slick training process via a large employer or a university to turn their raw talent into proper expertise.
  4. Prospective data managers can be put off by the misguided perception that there is a lack of career progression. Many data managers I've met have expressed a concern about how to move onwards and upwards in the data manager world. After all, if you're the only person with your skillset in the school, you can't really aspire to a more senior position within that school. But I think there are loads of great things that data management can lead to... and so below I'll give some options.
Points 1-3 are structural problems with education that I've discussed before, and my team spends quite a bit of time thinking about how ARK can help to solve them. For example, we're building a team of great central data people who support our schools, and in some cases actually do the job of a data manager on behalf of our schools. In the latter case, the school buys into a service from our skilled team, rather than relying on a single individual based at the school to do the job. Our hypothesis is that this is cheaper (because the school only pays for the number of days they need) and better (because the service is provided by a well-trained team with a range of specialisms). But it's early days, and there's loads we need to do to improve things further.

Point 4 stems from a lack of understanding of the richness of the broader education data sector, and also of the transferability of the underlying skills. Here are just some of the things you could do with a data management background:
    • Move to a different education data role. There are way more relevant roles than you might imagine. This very useful blog lists 14 UK SIS providers - and they all need school data skills. Most local authorities have data teams, usually containing people with a school data manager background. Data is huge in higher ed. Edtech more generally values people who understand school data. You could create your own edtech startup. I have a pretty cool job - and I'd probably be better at it if I'd been a data manager at one point. I could go on.
    • Move to a different data / analytics role in a different sector. Data is a huge growth area. There aren't enough people with good data skills. So if you want to move to another sector, with a bit of CV finessing you'll be very well placed. For example, our data people are starting to use Tableau - an awesome data visualisation tool. Try googling jobs for people with experience of working with Tableau. There are more and more of them every week, and they pay well. So school data is a great entry-level route into data more generally.
    • Move to a different school. Increasingly, you can progress just by moving to a different school or academy group. I've met data managers who cover two or more schools within a Multi Academy Trust. Academy groups also now have people covering lots of schools called things like "Director of Data". Bigger schools can have 2+ data people. And you could use the skills anywhere in the country. Career progression doesn't have to mean more money - it could involve the opportunity to use your skills in a different part of the country where you'd be happier.
So if you're smart, and struggling to find your calling, and you like numbers / spreadsheets / databases / technology, you should look seriously at a career as a data manager. And if this tempts you as a career option, but you're not sure what to do next, do get in touch for a chat (twitter is a good way of contacting me). One of our team would be glad to meet up with you to discuss the sector in more detail...

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

You want a free School Information System? Try SchoolTool.

A group of us at ARK (@ARKcharity) and PEAS (@PEASchools) are collaborating to work out how to approach the School Information System (SIS) in developing countries. The first task is to get something working for the PEAS network of 24 secondary schools in Uganda. But we’d also like our solution to be viable for publicly funded schools in any developing country.

To have a sense of the size of that challenge, you need first to understand the funding disparity between schools in the developed and developing world. Let’s take rich countries first. The latest data show that OECD countries annually spend $7,637 from primary through tertiary education, on average. The cost of the SIS in England currently hovers around the £10 ($16) per pupil per annum (pppa) mark, or around 0.02% of total funding. So basically, if you are a school in a developed country, you can afford an SIS.

However, for schools in developing countries, it’s an entirely different story. It's harder to find up-to-date data from the developing world, but research from our international team shows that per-pupil expenditure is generally between $40 and $150 in Sub Saharan Africa (South Africa is the exception, at over $1,000 per pupil per annum). In India it is not a great deal higher - the primary average is a little over $200. So a School Information System at UK prices would effectively swallow up to a third of a Sub Saharan African school’s budget. Given that schools need things like teachers, buildings and books, that's clearly a non-starter.

With that in mind, the PEAS / ARK hypothesis has been that the developing world needs a free, open-source system with minimal support requirements. (Remember, it needs to be affordable even at per pupil funding of $40 pppa!) It would also have to have decent functionality, covering all the key areas such as attendance, assessment, behaviour, fees, timetable and reporting. And it would need to handle both network and individual school reporting needs. That’s quite a big ask.

At first we thought we’d have to build something from scratch. But then we researched the market, and we found that quite a few projects with similar aims were out there already. The following seven were all promising:

Of these, the ones in bold (with links) were the most interesting, so we looked into them in a bit more detail. And, in our opinion, SchoolTool was the best. It is still being actively developed, it has solid technical underpinnings, and an impressive array of functionality. We also liked the fact that it had the backing of the Shuttleworth Foundation, the charitable vehicle of Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu. Some of the systems we looked at took a "freemium" approach, where the entry-level free version can be upgraded to a premium, paid-for option. We like that business model in principle, but we needed more functionality in the "free" version than was available in those we studied. SchoolTool, on the other hand, wants to be free: it is open-source in the philosophical, as well as literal, sense.

SchoolTool has some technical quirks – it only runs on the Ubuntu operating system, for example, and it’s been developed using the increasingly archaic Zope Python framework. But these are fairly small quibbles and by no means deal-breakers; the more important thing is that it’s free, and it works.

Our requirements went beyond SchoolTool’s current specification, so we paid for some further development to increase functionality and make it work for a network (as opposed to a standalone school). Then in mid-June Sunesh (one of ARK’s SIS systems gurus) went out to Uganda with Sabina from the international team to get it set up in two pilot schools. (Sabina’s Twitter feed has several photos fromt the week, including this one of a training session in mid-flow.)

The initial feedback from PEAS is really encouraging. We’re told the schools are finding it valuable and easy to use. It also runs on cheap hardware, so the support requirements should be minimal.

There are one or two technical teething problems (for example, it turns out that Ugandan mobile Internet Service Providers don’t like it when you try to push scheduled data packages over their network. Who knew?) But they all seem surmountable, and anyway, that’s why you have pilots, right?

Long-term, I wonder whether anyone will ever work out how to make a School Information System that looks like a platform and which solves developed AND developing world problems. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to me to imagine an SIS that combinesMoodle’s open-source approach and depth of functionality with Salesforce’s usability and appExchange. But until that exists, we reckon SchoolTool is a great way of getting your developing world school (or network of schools) online. And crucially, it’s free, which is my favourite price.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Denmark and Netherlands: 2014 Eurovision dark horses

I'm attempting to predict the Eurovision winner. It's 10.42pm and they're about to vote, so this could become an embarrassingly inaccurate post in under an hour... But nonetheless, let's give it a go.

Looking at historical results, the thing that really stands out to me is that in the past nine years, nobody has won Eurovision from earlier than 17th on the running order. (There have been between 24 and 26 entries each year.)

This Tableau visualisation shows the average points for each position in the running order using data from the past five years. It's pretty clear that performing between 17th and 24th is a good thing.

Right now the very strong joint favourites are Austria and Sweden. They performed 11th and 13th respectively. Hmm.

The most favoured countries performing between 17th and 24th are Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands. Of those, Denmark has the strongest record over the past 5 years. Nobody hates the Danes, so they don't suffer from any boycotts when the voting comes around. And Sweden, Norway and Iceland usually come through with a helpful high score for them. None of that means they'll win necessarily. But I reckon they're a decent dark horse. I also wouldn't rule out the Netherlands - they were solid last year and also benefit from being seen fairly universally as a country of Good Folk.

Of course, Austria and Sweden may have the better songs... but nobody really thinks it's a song contest... right?

Update 11th May, 9am
So I didn't pick the winner. Austria took the prize from 11th in the running order. I guess their act was memorable (an endearing, bearded drag act called Conchita Wurst), which may have helped to counteract the less favourable place in the running order.

However, one of my two picks, the Netherlands, did come a close second. That's encouraging. It remains pretty obvious that countries placed 17th - 24th get a big points boost.

Monday, 21 April 2014

How the DfE could turbocharge innovation in edtech

I was at the hugely inspiring Emerge Education event last Thursday night. A big theme of the night was how to remove the barriers to innovation in UK edtech. Listening to the diverse pitches, it struck me that most of the products in the first Emerge cohort need some form of data interoperability to make them work. That’s not easy in the UK right now.
Here’s the problem. If you dream up a great edtech idea with the goal of improving student outcomes (like the promising, Emerge-backed Reward System, for example) the chances are you want your product to interact with pupil information. That data is stored in the School Information System (SIS) - eg SIMS, CMIS etc. Right now it is hard to get to that data, for the following reasons:
  1. It's complex and costly to connect to all vendors. If you want to sell to all schools in England, you need to interact with quite a few school information systems. SIMS may have 83% of the market but RM and Advanced Learning also have over 1,000 schools each, and increasingly, recent entrants like Arbor and ScholarPack are gaining ground (my previous blog post covers the market in more detail). So if you want to interact with all of them, you need a way of maintaining multiple interfaces.
  2. It’s complex and costly just to connect to SIMS. OK, you might say, so I’ll just sort out an interface with SIMS, since that covers the majority of schools. Well, Capita will let you do this, but they'll charge you to be a partner. Their APIs also don’t give you access to all data in all ways, and you need Visual C skills to use them.
  3. Vendors have different data models. In an ideal world, all vendors would coalesce around a common data interoperability standard to make it easier for people to interact with different SIS. Something like SIF, for example. The problem is, in the UK we’re a long way away from an ideal world. Opinion is divided on whether the SIF specification adequately covers everyone’s needs, and anyway, adoption is patchy. In the US, initiatives like Ed-Fi offer an open-source data model (a bit like SIF) which states and districts are adopting. That leads vendors to standardise their data models around that framework. However, one of the reasons this approach is gaining traction there is that the American SIS market is much more fractured. In a fractured market, adoption of a common standard benefits everyone. That is not the case when there’s a dominant player, since there’s no incentive for the market leader to accept the trade-offs that come with standardisation. In fact, there's a powerful disincentive, since openness encourages greater competition.
  4. The UK doesn’t yet have its own “Clever. Looking to the US once more, Clever is solving the problem laid out in point 3 above by offering an easy-to-access, best practice (“REST”) API layer with start-up friendly business models. The closest thing to that in the UK is Groupcall Xporter, which lets you access data from multiple MIS. It’s helpful, but my understanding is that it is a scheduled extraction tool, rather than a REST API, which would offer full read/write access to an application. Groupcall also comes at a cost which may prove be prohibitive for startups.
So how do we solve the problem of data interoperability in the UK? Well, one great place to start would be for the government to make data interoperability an eligibility criteria for the next IMLS framework. This framework is the main procurement route by which schools, LAs and academy groups choose their SIS. In other words, it's important, and software vendors care about being on it.

Specifically, the DfE could specify that products need to have free, open source, fully documented,RESTful APIs to be IMLS-compliant. That would make it much easier and cheaper for edtech companies to interact with the SIS, and it would also lead to the rapid emergence of cost-effective, Clever-style products. It would also nudge vendors from a closed-product mentality towards a platform mindset, where others are encouraged to interact with or build on top of the system. (As I’ve said before, I like platforms.)
This may all sound rather niche, but the more I look at the area, the more I think that the DfE should take a stand on data interoperability. It could be the small step that leads to big innovation in edtech.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The School Information System market is changing faster than you think

In my first blog post I referenced this rather wonderful Edugeek forum thread in which members managed to get trend data on which School Information Systems (SIS) are being used nationally, thanks to judicious FOI requests on the 2012 and 2013 autumn school censuses.

The dataset is comprehensive - it gives you the details of the SIS used by every school in England over the past two years. Given that richness, I thought it would be fun to create some visualisations to explain the data in Tableau. (Tableau is our new office toy by the way - we're building it into our in-house analytics approach.)

You can click between the tabs on the following to see the data for yourself.

Here are my initial conclusions:

1) SIMS are still way ahead of the pack...
This "Totals Table" tab shows how SIMS retains an 83% market share with 17,912 of the 21,591 English schools offering a census return. That's way ahead of RM in second place with 1,746 schools (8% market share), and Advanced Learning (CMIS / Progresso) with 1,213 schools (6% market share). (Incidentally, I'm assuming that the vast majority of Advanced Learning's schools are still on CMIS, though it's not possible to tell from the data.)

2) ... but SIMS and Advanced Learning are losing ground faster than you might think.
Switch to the "YoY change" tab and you see a different story. SIMS and Advanced Learning were the big losers in absolute terms, with net losses of 138 and 79 schools respectively. Both would tell you that this is a small percentage of their total market share, and they'd be right. But I'm not sure that's the right way to approach the issue. Looking at the underlying data (on a spreadsheet, because I couldn't work out how to do it in Tableau), by my reckoning, only 373 schools chose to switch supplier between 2012 and 2013. That means that the SIMS net loss is 37% of the total number of schools switching, and the Advanced Learning net loss is 21% of the total. For AL in particular, that is a big hit, given that they only had a 6% market share to start with. Just imagine what will happen if their competitors start to get a reputation for making the move painless for schools...

3) RM and ScholarPack are the big winners, with Arbor also gaining traction.
RM picked up 128 schools and ScholarPack added 84. The ScholarPack gain is particularly remarkable. They have just a 0.6% market share, yet their net gain was equivalent to 23% of schools switching! Both ScholarPack and RM are likely to have continued this trajectory over the past few months, with Scholarpack having picked up notable clients including the Elliot Foundation, and RM being named by Pearson as their preferred switching partner after they announced their intention to withdraw their e1 product from the market at the end of this academic year. Arbor and Bromcom also deserve honourable mentions for moving from 1 to 19 schools and  22 to 41 schools respectively.

4) The cloud is finally starting to influence decision-making. 
What do RM Integris, ScholarPack, Bromcom and Arbor have in common? They're all cloud based. What do SIMS and CMIS have in common? They're not. So most people going out to tender end up choosing the cloud. Suppliers, take note...

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Thank you for offering to sell me public data, but I think I'll pass.

A company I like approached us recently, offering to sell us a "schools collaboration portal". The sales pitch was something like:

We can create a bespoke collaboration portal for you so you can compare your schools to any schools nationally. You can find similar schools and then contact them so you can share best practice. Imagine how amazing that would be.

After some clarification questions, I think their pitch could be better summarised as:

Please buy free, public data from us. It's worth paying for because we've put it all in one place with a pretty CRM front end. 


To be fair, it's not the worst idea in the world. Just because data is public, I get that software to analyse it might not be. And the people that pitched the idea are impressive and smart. Also, they aren't the only ones thinking about this, because a few minutes of googling (or "binging", to quote our Microsoft relationship manager), led me to stumble across, who seem to offer a similar product with a freemium model. I've signed up and am looking forward to having play once my account is validated.

But clearly, free would be even better than freemium. So I'm dearly hoping that the rumours are true and that the fragmented mess that is Edubasethe performance tablesOfsted reportsOfsted dashboards, and Idaci data will be combined into a single portal very soon. That would immediately raise the bar for what is worth paying for. (I'm not saying these are bad initiatives in themselves, by the way. I like the Ofsted dashboards in particular. They're simple and graphical, which are both good qualities for data dashboards to demonstrate. But they're only a small part of the picture.)

And I still think my dream product is much bigger than whatever the DfE or (or is likely to do. Imagine if someone cast the net wider and also built in population trend data, or the pupil intake ward data that's in the London Schools Atlas. Basically, any publicly available data that helps inform our view of what's going on with schools nationally. It would be a hugely beneficial open source project. Anyone up for it?

The technical challenge is not overwhelming. In the absence of a combined government portal, a few of us at ARK went ahead and created a National Schools Database in Salesforce. We've uploaded all the data sources I listed a couple of paragraphs ago, plus a few other bits and bobs. It's still quite homemade, but it's useful nonetheless, because we now have one place where we can go to answer any question about key schools data. And the fact that Salesforce is a CRM is a bonus, because we can add comments, notes and additional data in custom fields whenever we like. Perhaps we should have done it in CiviCRM - then we could have produced a fully "pre-loaded" version for others to use for free?

Anyway, geekery aside, my main point is that information wants to be free. And that is particularly true of public data. So thanks for offering to sell it to me... but I think I'll pass.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Salesforce-style platforms are the future of edtech

In my previous blog I mentioned my recent talk at BESA's edtech special interest group. A central theme of my presentation was that schools need cloud-based platforms, not standalone desktop products.

I worry that people like me are prone to saying "we should move towards the cloud" without being clear about what we mean. Jose Diaz at ARK worries about this too. I'm paraphrasing, but I think his (very sensible) challenge to me was something like: "do you mean we should move towards browser-based software instead of desktop products (which could be achieved with local hosting) or do you have a theory of why the cloud is better than local hosting?"

I assume the cloud does offer benefits compared to local hosting, such as simpler backing up, cheaper and more reliable hosting, and easier upgrades. But I imagine those benefits could be mitigated in other ways. To be honest, the infrastructure aspect isn't my area of expertise.

So I'm going to stop saying "we should move towards the cloud", and start saying "we should move towards cloud-based platforms". And I think I should focus on the "platform" bit of that sentence in particular, because we need great edtech firms to be building apps that bolt on to platforms with common standards. We really, really don't need endless standalone products that do not integrate with each other.

I think Salesforce is the best example of what a winning platform should look like. It started out life as a tool for managing customer interactions, but that isn't really what it's about anymore. The way I think of it is as an endlessly configurable database, linked to a simple user interface, with great integration tools and a built-in app store. The technical term for this kind of approach is Platform as a Service (PaaS). The Salesforce website gives a fuller description of what this really means. It also offers a nice explanation of how this links to Software as a Service (SaaS).

Definitions aside, the crucial thing about Salesforce for me is that you can make most of the functionality changes you'll ever need through configuration clicks, not coding. When you need to make bigger changes, you can usually find a plug-in app to do the job. Either way, if you can define the business logic, you can usually mould Salesforce to make it fit.

Platforms like Salesforce are different from the app stores that link to operating systems, such as iTunes (Mac OS) or Google Play (Android). App stores give you super-simple integration with your device. Platforms give you close integration between apps and your core business processes.

Now, imagine if something like Salesforce existed in UK schools. Users wouldn't have to familiarise themselves with a new interface every time they buy a new product - they'd just plug it into their platform and get started. Curriculum software would integrate with a school's standard approach to testing and data analysis. Cost would also come down, in the same way that mobile apps have radically disrupted the price of consumer software. It would be awesome.

It would be wrong to imply that nobody has thought of doing this already - in fact loads of people are trying to build an app ecosystem. Frog has the Frogstore. RM Unify is an app store for education. Moodle relies on its plugins directory. Sharepoint links to the Office Store. So the problem isn't aspiration. The problem is that hardly anyone in education is using platforms in this way. I'm also not yet convinced that any of these platforms can match Salesforce for configurability and simplicity of integration. (I can't find any data on the current market share or usage levels of these platforms and app stores - if anyone knows more, I'd love to hear from you.)

I asked the 13 UK edtech companies at the BESA session which of them were integrating with a learning platform right now. Most had not even tried. A few had experimented with Frog or Moodle integration, but had seen minimal customer uptake. One told me they were considering RM Unify, but they hadn't built anything yet. So basically, they're all still selling standalone products. I don't blame them, because there's no money in creating a great app that nobody buys. But this has to change.

We really need two or three platforms to take off. We need people like Renaissance Learning to feel confident that if they make products like Accelerated Reader available on platforms we'll actually buy them. And in an ideal world the winning platforms would extend beyond learning. They'd also make it easy for productivity, finance, HR, MIS and other school systems to plug in.

At ARK we're currently reviewing our entire approach to learning platforms. The route we take will be the one which we think leads us, and all UK schools, to the most Salesforce-style vision of the future.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

I do not believe you when you say you know "that company"

I spoke today at the snappily named BESA SATSIG. It's a UK edtech special interest group, and also a very nice bunch of people who offer excellent sandwiches and wine at lunchtime in exchange for a lively and mutually interesting chat. I like groups like this.

However, as they each introduced themselves, it brought home to me just how much I still have to learn about UK edtech. These are solid, decent-sized businesses, yet of the thirteen present, I knew nothing at all about six of them, a little bit about five, and a good amount about just two.

Now, there are two conclusions you could reasonably draw from this. The first is that I am in no way qualified to call myself an expert in edtech (and you'd be right). The second, and the one I want to focus on in this post, is that people's knowledge of their own sector is often scarily limited. The problem is particularly acute when it comes to something as dizzyingly fast-moving as education technology.

Here is a summary of what I often hear people say about companies, and what I think they mean when they say it:
  • Oh yes, I think I know the name. Oh no, I do not know the name, but you said the name so enthusiastically I really feel like I should know the name. I hope I remember to google the name later. What was the name again?
  • Sure, I know those guys. I walked past their stand at a trade fair. I vaguely remember their logo. There were no free pens, so I didn't linger. With hindsight, perhaps I should have lingered. 
  • What they're doing is really exciting. I don't really know whether what they are doing is exciting, but I'm chuffed that you mentioned a company whose business model I can just about explain.
And so on. Anyway, my intention is not to poke fun at the ill-informed. I know I've bluffed before - it's a natural human instinct. My point is that the sector is so young, and evolving so fast, that we should all feel confident enough to admit what we don't know. 

Also, the knowledge gap is inevitable just from the sheer number of players in the sector. There are 822 products currently listed on the excellent EdSurge Edtech index. It's US focussed, so I have some justification for not knowing them all. But given that I work with education data, I feel like I should at least know a bunch of the 26 US data systems they list. So I tested myself. This is how I did:
  • Know nothing: 22
  • Can tell you what it does: 2 (Clever, Learnsprout)
  • Have actually been in touch with them: 2 (Schoolzilla, Ed-Fi)
Not great, is it. If you'd have asked me before I undertook the exercise, I might have claimed that I knew a bit about the US education data landscape. In fact, it turns out what I mean is that I read Edsurge and Techcrunch sporadically, I've read Driven By Data, I've spoken to three helpful edtech investors, and been in touch with two actual US data companies. Bully for me. That's tip-of-the-iceberg stuff. So: time to start googling the other 22...

Monday, 10 February 2014

The structure of the education sector makes data innovation really hard

I've never been a teacher and I'm not a statistician. So there are loads of people who you should ask about school data before coming to me. People like Daisy Christodoulou, ARK Schools' R&D Manager, for example. My job involves improving the way we use data and systems, but I defer to others on the educational philosophy which underpins our approach.

Even from a technical perspective, I am not anywhere close to being an expert. Instead, I would describe myself as at the "repeat-what-clever-people-tell-you" stage. So here's what clever people have been telling me over the past months:
  1. People are confused about what school systems do (part 1). The core administrative system in UK schools is usually referred to as the Management Information System (MIS), but I don't think this is a great description. To me a MIS is a system that lets you analyse data for management purposes. School "MIS", on the other hand, are always used for data collection, and only sometimes for data analysis. So it would be more accurate to call it an Information System.  
  2. The "MIS" market is not structured to foster innovation. 83% of schools in England use Capita's desktop-based SIMS product (this helpful Edugeek post has the full breakdown). Cloud-based systems such as the promising, primary-focused Scholarpack are barely 1% of the market. Capita are not exactly hurrying towards the cloud. Maybe this is because they are happy with the way the market is working for them. Maybe I'd feel the same if 17,912 schools were paying me to sell them a legacy product.
  3. Gathering data is hard... Plenty of schools do have an assessment model and so generate data, but it can be a huge endeavour to get the data of a quality that stands up to proper analysis. For example, are you holding common tests across age groups? Are you moderating teachers' marking? Do you know how to tie your progress measure to curriculum?  
  4. ... and analysing it can be even harder. Not all "MIS" have good analytics, and some are really bad at it. So many schools choose to handle analytics outside their "MIS" by using products like Target Tracker or Go4Schools. That's fine, but it can feel like double-paying - particularly when the core product is called a Management Information System. 
  5. People are confused about what school systems do (part 2). Lots of schools have something they call a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Others call it a Learning Management System (LMS). A few call it a Learning Platform (my preferred term). Whichever way you badge it, I'm not convinced that many schools are using them for learning. A more accurate description would be "fancy shared drive", or "intranet". In other words, I've mostly seen them used for passing around documents (eg handing in homework), and for school administration (eg booking a room). These are useful functions, but they're not the same as online learning and assessment.
  6. No-one in the UK is blending data well. Even schools that do analytics well are unlikely to have managed to blend data from multiple source systems. The main problem is that analytics is usually tied to a single source system. For example, you might use SIMS Discover to analyse your SIMS data. That will do a job for you, but what if you want to look at SIMS data alongside data from your learning platform, or your HR system, or your finance system? In a big data world, it's usually preferable to handle analytics outside of your source systems, for example by blending data in a data warehouse and then attaching that to your analytics tool. That's what we're working on at ARK Schools right now, taking inspiration from the hugely impressive Schoolzilla in California.
This brings me to my central point: these problems persist because the structure of the education sector makes data innovation really hard.

Things like point 6 above are mindbendingly complicated, and you need specialist resources and lots of time to get a solution in place. In most multi-billion-pound sectors, you'd expect to find a few big fish with huge technology budgets who can commission clever solutions. Smaller fish would then benefit as the solutions trickle down to them over time.

But schools can't do that, because there are no big fish. There were 24,327 schools in the January 2013 census, and the largest mainstream school was Nottingham Academy, with 2,543 pupils. I'm guessing that gives them a budget of £12-13m. After teachers have been paid, that sort of scale doesn't leave much room for big data innovation.

Local authorities arguably have the have the scale to help, and many do employ smart data people, but the number of schools under local authority control is declining as the academies sector grows. This inevitably leads to shrinking budgets, and shrinking budgets are not the best place to look for whizzy innovation.

Academy groups should help to fill the gap, but I wouldn't overstate the extent to which this is happening yet. The sector is very young, and growing rapidly, and as a result many groups are struggling to cope with even the most basic systems challenges.

ARK Schools have done a lot with data - I'm sure I'll write about the awesome reporting tools built by Jose Diaz in future posts - and I'm excited about where we're going. But I'm still getting my head round the fact that we can't really improve by copying best practice, because best practice doesn't exist yet.