Tuesday, 22 December 2015

MIS Market Moves: 3,000 schools now use cloud MIS

The last six years have not been kind to school MIS providers who live in the cloud.

Of the 22,000 schools for which data is available, the number of schools using cloud MIS went from approximately 2,300 in 2010 to 2,400 in 2014*.  In other words, the market flatlined, and suppliers struggled. Of the twelve organisations to have released a cloud MIS, Pearson and VS no longer have any presence in the English market, and while Tribal have five schools left using Synergy in Schools (down from ten in 2014), they are no longer promoting the product on their website. Even Capita - the market titans, with an 83% market share - have seemingly put their cloud "SIMS 8" project on hold (there's nothing about it on their website, at least) to focus instead on the locally hosted core SIMS product. So you'd be forgiven for wondering whether suppliers should just stop trying to make cloud MIS happen.

But hang on.

The 2015 data has just been released (following a FOI request from ScholarPack CEO Rich Harley), and it turns out that in the past year, some 600 schools moved their MIS to the cloud, taking the total to 3,000+. That's a 25% YoY increase in the cloud market share, and that's significant. Both standalone schools and Local Authorities are clearly signing cloud MIS deals with newfound enthusiasm.

Here's a short Tableau "Story" (a sort of data-driven Powerpoint, if you will) showing the news highlights in a short series of graphs. Click on the < and > arrows at the top to navigate your way through. Then look below for a bit more commentary from me on what's going on.

Promising players are emerging, with RM leading the way: they now have 2,236 schools (mostly primary), up from 1,894 in 2014. It's heartening to see others following hot on their heels - ScholarPack topped 300 schools this year and Pupil Asset also came from the relative obscurity of 31 schools to an impressive 119 (largely thanks to a 100+ schools deal with Norfolk LA). Arbor, Bromcom and Progresso are also all up near the 100 schools mark. That means there are now six cloud players who now have sufficient scale to kick on and compete for business across the country, which can only be a good thing for the sector.

Of course, cloud is not the answer for everyone - 18,162 schools still choose SIMS (down slightly from 18,247 in 2014), and they do so because it's a strong product that meets their needs. So nobody is suggesting that the cloud is the only way to deliver a good MIS just now.

That said, you only need to look at the Advanced Learning trajectory to see what happens when schools stop believing in a locally hosted system. Since 2010 their market share has almost halved (from 1,380 to 714 schools). It's worth bearing in mind that during this time they've actually started selling Progresso (a cloud system), so the drop off for CMIS (the locally hosted system) is even more dramatic.

To be clear, I don't personally endorse or take issue with any MIS. In my most recent role at Ark I have worked directly with a whole host of suppliers and I've seen something to like in every system I've encountered. My new role is to lead Assembly, a joint venture between Ark and NEON that helps schools do more with their data (more on that in the new year), and our approach is to partner with any and all MIS suppliers. Rather, what matters to me is that customers know what's happening in the market, and can make an informed choice.

*It's hard to know for sure - Advanced Learning have both a local hosted MIS (Facility CMIS) and a cloud MIS (Progresso), and they show up as the same thing on the DfE MIS statistics releases. It is widely known that Progresso counts for a fairly small proportion of the total, but the exact breakdown is not published, so I am making my own assumptions in arriving at these figures.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Ark/PEAS SchoolTool Project (Part 2): System Evaluation

In my previous blog post I discussed progress in our project to get SchoolTool working across the PEAS network in Uganda. In this post I'm reflecting on the system more generally. But before I get to specifics, I'm going to digress for a few paragraphs.

Before I joined Ark, a friend and I set up a company called Unlocked Guides producing children's travel books. Here are the two main lessons I learnt from the experience:
  1. Make your customers part of the design process. They know what they want, and aren't afraid to tell you. Especially nine year olds.
  2. People massively overvalue ideas, and massively undervalue execution.
The background to point 1 is that the first draft of our first book (London Unlocked) was, with hindsight, terrible. Lots of pastel colours. No real structure to the pages. Not enough jokes. But mercifully, we workshopped the design with two hundred children before launching. And they told us that the first version was rubbish. So we iterated and iterated and in the end created a children's board of directors to gain regular input from our target audience. We ended up with a great product which still sells a few thousand copies a year, six years on.

The context for point 2 is that several times before and after launch, we got nervous about other people attempting the same thing as us. Lonely Planet launched a rival book. Sandi Toksvig wrote a children's travel guide. And, adorably, a furious parent approached us one of our book launches and told us she had been thinking of doing the exact same thing, but that her (as yet unlaunched) concept was much better than ours. But the thing is, because we'd worked so hard to make our product great, we never really suffered too much from competition. Rivals either fell by the wayside or ended up helping us by creating a new, browsable bookshop category (before we launched, children's travel wasn't really a thing). And we never did hear again from the furious "better idea" lady.

Which brings me back to SchoolTool.

If we're being super-picky, we'd say that SchoolTool hasn't had enough customer input over the years - particularly when it comes to school improvement functionality. For example, assessment was a rather thin module when we first started working with the system - it only tracked absolute scores, which made performing analysis really hard. And while the attendance module had some neat features for fast data entry, the standard reports available to track attendance changes over time were either limited or non-existent.

So we've become the nine year olds. As well as implementing the system in Uganda, we're speccing features we think will make the system work for school improvement, and paying for their development. (SchoolTool may be a free, open-source system, but it doesn't have an active volunteer developer community, so new features come at a price). Since we're requesting features based on both input from PEAS users during the product rollout AND our own experience of supporting SIS in the UK, we're comfortable we're asking for the right things.

At the moment these features sit in our own project branch on the SchoolTool code respository, but they should all make it into the main project code in the coming months. The features we've funded include:
  • upgraded assessment module (making it much more flexible so it can handle a wide range of assessment structures)
  • upgraded attendance module (added group filtering and colour coding for easier data entry)
  • new assessment and attendance reports
  • central data sync and dashboard to allow a central office to see data from multiple schools
When it comes to to ideas vs execution, in contrast, SchoolTool has a fabulous and unique story to tell. I've lost count of the number of people who have conceived of an open-source SIS. We reviewed six before selecting SchoolTool. Scholarpack (which is now in over 300 schools in the UK) started out as a free, open-source product. We even considered developing our own.

But to our knowledge, the Schootool team are still the only ones that have actually done it at any scale and stuck with it. And it's still free. And it works. The problems mentioned above - and the ones covered on the previous blog post (like the fact that it only works on Ubuntu, and requires some technical knowledge to install) have no doubt constrained uptake. But our experience has been that if you can overcome these fairly minor hurdles and get the thing installed, it'll do a great job for your school at my favourite pricepoint. So sure, it could be better. But give the guys credit - they executed well on their vision of a free SIS where others have changed tack or given up.

What's next
For the next phase, Fran and Sunesh are looking at how we could reduce the barriers to uptake of SchoolTool further. For example, what if we could pre-install the software on cheap, compact hardware so that a school just needs to plug it in and bingo, there's a SchoolTool server up and running? And how could we produce better user guides to make adoption possible without requiring training sessions from experts?

We're also planning to test alternative ultra-low-cost SIS products in different contexts - we'll talk more about that in a few months time. But for now, if you're reading this and considering whether to use SchoolTool in your school, we encourage you to give it a go.

Ark/PEAS SchoolTool Project (Part 1): Implementation Report

Ark/PEAS SchoolTool Project (Part 1): Implementation Report

As we wrote last year, some colleagues of mine (Fran and Sunesh) have been working with the  PEAS network in Uganda over the past year to get SchoolTool up and running as their School Information System (SIS). It's been a fascinating project, and by helping PEAS deploy SchoolTool in nine schools we've really got to see the product up close. In this blog post, I'll update on progress over the past twelve months. In my next post, I'll reflect on SchoolTool more broadly.

Pleasingly, after a year of hands-on experience, our view of SchoolTool remains the same as at the outset: it's an intuitive and easy to use system. Teachers have little trouble getting started, even if they've never used an SIS before. Thanks to its usability, nine PEAS schools are already using it effectively to track student and teacher attendance, and a few trailblazers are also using it to manage assessment. That's big progress, and a testament to all involved (with special mentions to Abraham and Jakub from the PEAS team).

I was out in Uganda in the Eastern province in late May, and visited four PEAS schools in Malongo, Mukongoro, Nyero and Ngora. Malongo has had the system live since February and the impact on performance is already evident. Teacher and student attendance has increased, and crucially, the school are thinking through how to take action based on the messages contained in key system reports. Fran facilitated a fabulous conversation in the school around how to improve teacher attendance further. One teacher suggested putting the main teacher attendance report on the staff room wall to encourage shared ownership of performance on this key metric. That's the kind of conversation that makes you know that something good is happening.

Group discussion at Malongo about how to use SchoolTool effectively

Mukongoro, Nyero and Ngora all had the system installed during our visit, and broadly speaking, it was a smooth process in each case. The SchoolTool setup process isn't completely intuitive, so we still find that we need technical expertise on hand to be sure that things are established in the right way. That said, we've become accustomed to the potential pitfalls now, so troubleshooting takes minutes / hours, rather than days. Also, the schools had all done a great job of preparing spreadsheets for data upload, which is in many ways the part of the setup process where things are most likely to go wrong. Also, between our team and PEAS, all schools got a solid set of training on how to get started.

It was particularly heartening to hear school leaders from these three schools talk about their colleagues in other schools who were already using the system, and how they plan to share knowledge and expertise. Another nice touch was that Fran and Abraham had planned joint training sessions. Since there will only be a few users in each location, shared training works well - as with all systems, everywhere, the trick to high quality adoption is to become part of a community of users sharing experiences. PEAS are well on the way to making this a reality.

Training at Nyero 

A final thought: I think it's important to empahasise that in all the schools I visited, the value of data was well understood BEFORE SchoolTool was implemented. See the colourful notice boards in the above picture from Nyero? Well, several of the displays were filled with well-presented tables and charts showing key school metrics. I mention this because it's important to acknowledge that part of the success of our project to date is that we're working with people who already "get" the importance of data. So it's worth remembering that a good deal can be achieved with school data even without a School Information System. The value of SchoolTool is that it streamlines data collection and enhances analysis. Crucially, that then leads to more impactful data action.

Ark/PEAS SchoolTool Project (Part 2): System Evaluation

Thursday, 12 March 2015

What the sale of Pearson's Powerschool says about the sad state of the global SIS sector

Pearson are looking to sell Powerschool. Here's why, in the words of Pearson CEO John Fallon:
"After careful consideration, we decided that these systems do not align with Pearson’s stated commitment to focus on products and services that shape student outcomes in a way we can directly measure and improve."
That sentence says a lot about the sad state of the global School Information System (SIS) market. The CEO of the company that produces the world's largest SIS (70 countries 13m students; $97m revenues; $20m operating income, according to Edsurge) doesn't see his product as something that can shape student outcomes. Think about that for a second. The SIS is, after all, the home of student data. It's where you store attendance, assessment, exam, behaviour and other contextual data. You know, the things that, umm, shape student outcomes.

I want to stress: I'm not in any way criticising Fallon. His rationale for describing Powerschool as non-core for Pearson does make sense to me. (Mind you, the FT and the Economist are not obviously school improvement products, but that hasn't prompted Pearson to sell their stake in either just yet.) What I'm saying is that his comment points to a terrible truth: the education sector sees the SIS primarily as an administrative tool, rather than as a school improvement system.

It doesn't have to be like this. After all, most school leaders now understand that if you use any half-decent SIS properly, you'll improve outcomes. Strong schools take time to decide what inputs to record. They then use the SIS to store and track those inputs: things like attainment, progress, attendance and behaviour. And most importantly, they analyse the data and take appropriate action based on what it tells them. So the problem is not that the SIS can't improve outcomes; it's that vendors haven't worked out how to give themselves an edge in this area.

Vendors who understand this have an opportunity to disrupt the sector by making it their mission to do exactly what Fallon things is not possible: measure and improve how the SIS can impact student outcomes. Here are some approaches they could consider:
  1. Make it much, much easier to track assessment. Anyone who's set up assessment templates in an SIS will know that it is often a bit of a mission to get a progress tracking system set up in a school. It's harder still if you want to use the same assessment model across multiple schools. There's just way too much manual, non-intuitive work involved. And there's no reason why an SIS couldn't include tools to make data collection and moderation easier, like online tests and past papers. 
  2. Set the data free with open APIs. If you've read my blog before, you'll know that sooner or later I shoehorn in a reference to open APIs. That's partly because I'm by nature a boringly repetitive person. But it's also because I'm right. Indulge me for a second while I rehearse the argument: in any industry, anywhere, ever, innovation in sector-spanning data systems requires agreement on how to share data (think BACS, for example). But way too often, SIS vendors make it hard or expensive to interoperate with other systems. So if you want to build a great testing tool, or parent portal, or analytics system, you have to work really hard to make your system talk to the different SIS out there, let alone integrate with other systems (e.g. HR, finance). That's holding everyone back. So SIS vendors need to start believing in open APIs. Even better, they could converge around common standards and principles. SIF 3.0, anyone? 
  3. Think about how to track the effectiveness and cost of interventions. I've not yet seen any school really nail how they track initiatives (new curricula; one-to-one interventions; pupil premium spend) in a way that properly interrogates their value for money and impact on progress. That's in no small part because I'm not aware of any software that really makes this easy to do. SIS vendors might want to get on that.
  4. Be more global. Powerschool is a rarity, in that it is a global SIS. Most vendors make a system for their home market, and in doing so, they keep their horizons - and development budgets - small.
  5. Integrate the SIS more tightly with the learning platform. To move this along, one of the big platform vendors, like Blackboard, could buy one of the big SIS, like Powerschool. Oh, hang on...
A huge amount of money is flowing into edtech, but school information is not getting its fair share of investment. And yet, when used in the right way, the SIS really can be a school improvement goldmine. It's time for investors and innovators to open their eyes to its potential.

Monday, 9 February 2015

MIS Market Moves: SIMS stride on; the Cloud gathers momentum; innovation will come from smarter procurement

If you're interested enough in school Management Information Systems (MIS) to to read this blog, chances are you already know that Capita's SIMS dominates the English market. What may surprise you - particularly if you went to BETT this year and saw the many shiny stands promoting rival vendors - is just how hard others are finding it to establish themselves. Over the past five years, SIMS has actually managed to grow its footprint slightly, rising from an 82.1% market share in 2010 to 83.1% in 2014. Pity the poor blogger who attempts to spot exciting trends behind that headline story.

And yet. Thanks to the discovery powers of Tableau, and the granularity of data on school MIS choice that we now have at our disposal*, there are actually all kinds of fascinating things we can deduce from looking more closely at what's going on. But before I get to my conclusions, have a look for yourself. Here's a Tableau dashboard showing MIS data over five years. You can use the check boxes in the top right corner of the dashboard to include or exclude data from specific supplier. (E.G. if you uncheck "CCS-SIMS" you'll see the five year trend excluding SIMS.)

So, after wading through the numbers, here are my main insights.
    1. RM is now the nation's clear second-favourite MIS. Since 2010, RM has increased its market share from 7.3% to 8.6%. That's almost 2,000 schools using their system. And, significantly, the third and fourth favourite suppliers from 2010 (Advanced Learning and Pearson respectively) have dropped away since then. AL has declined from 6.4% to 5.1%, and Pearson have exited the market entirely. Scholarpack has finally broken the 1% market share barrier, but in the big picture, everyone else is still a rounding error.
    2. Cloud suppliers are steadily gaining market share. It's hardly a revolution, but those suppliers who ARE gaining share are doing it from the cloud. RM (1,586 schools in 2010; 1,894 in 2014), Scholarparck (0; 244), Bromcom (5; 85) and Arbor (0; 66) now have a 10.4% share between them. 
    3. If you want to succeed, find yourself a niche. SIMS has actually lost primary market share in each of the past three years. That makes sense, because it's also the area where they're experiencing the most competition. Scholarpack, for example, is an apologetically primary-focused solution: they don't have an exams module, so if you have a GCSE cohort, they wouldn't be able to handle your requirements even if you wanted them to. And RM's growth seems to be tied to an increasing primary focus: in the secondary market they're actually declining quite rapidly (they had 60 secondaries in 2010 but that had dwindled to just 27 by 2014). SchoolPod are also interesting - in 2013 they had three schools (a big academy, a studio school and a special school) but since then their growth to 20 schools has come about exclusively from special schools and PRUs. All this points to the fact that it's complex and costly to make a MIS that suits all schools, so it's understandable that some suppliers aren't even trying.
    4. The market may be tough to break in to, but that won't stop 'em from trying. A cautious tech entrepreneur might look at teh numbers and conclude that the English schools MIS market is more hassle than it's worth. But clearly caution is not in abundance in such circles, because since 2010, no fewer than TEN suppliers have decided to have a crack. In order of popularity, they are: Scholarpack, Bromcom, Arbor, Pupil Asset, iSAMS, SchoolPod, Aspen (deceased), Databridge, Tribal, Schoolbase and VS. Between them they can boast almost 500 schools. Welcome, folks.
So that's the national market. But it gets even more interesting when you look at the data broken down by local authority. Here's an interesting question, which you can use the following Tableau visualization to answer: over the past five years, how many LAs have undertaken procurement exercises that have had the effect of reducing the SIMS market share in the borough by more than 15%? Look at the "% SIMS diff LA" tab and you'll see the answer is.... 

...Two. Yep, only Oxford (53% decline) and Cumbria (35% decline) have seen a significant change in SIMS market share in the past 5 years. Props to Scholarpack, RM and Bromcom, who have all won over schools in these LAs. And, to be fair, props to SIMS for maintaining such a strong position. But let's be clear: the story behind these data is not that LAs keep running big, open tendering exercises and SIMS keeps winning. I'm told that only two procuring bodies have actually used the government's IMLS procurement framework in the past three years. Of course, there are other procurement routes, but I don't think it's controversial to deduce from this that large-scale, open procurement processes are a rare beast in the English MIS market. Until this changes, the market will stay stifled.

This brings me back to the conclusion from my last post on the subject: those of us who want to see more innovation in the MIS market have a responsibility to procure in a way that gives everyone a fighting chance of winning business. Personally, I'm an increasing fan of localised frameworks that give a subset of schools (one or more LAs or Academy Federations) the ability to purchase from a shortlist of approved suppliers. To their credit, Telford & Wrekin and Middlesbrough have both taken an approach along these lines, though Middlesbrough have also been open about the complexity of running such a process. But all challenges are surmountable - and LAs who share their experiences do the rest of us a commendable service, since we can all learn from how they've handled things. So whether you're a standalone school, an Academy Federation or a Local Authority, please think about the bigger picture when you choose your MIS.

* The data used to prepare this blog came from FOI requests over the past five years, and most recently from the irrepressible Graham Reed. As well as helping to get hold of the data, Graham also kindly makes the raw data available to interested onlookers in a historized form. Graham works for Groupcall and also runs the Eduware Network. His Twitter handle is @grazreed. He is well worth a follow.