In 2013 our development team embarked on a new project to create a school administration system called Educonnex from the ground up. Right from the start we decided that this new system would be totally hosted online – in the cloud – aka software-as-a-service (SaaS). Delivering a school administration system like this is a radical change in this market, but it provides many benefits to its users. It has also brought challenges for us as the software provider.
Why make a new school administration system?
There are already more than 25 different administration systems being used in Australian schools. So before looking at the benefits and challenges of a cloud based school administration system, it makes sense to step back and ask “why make a new school administration at all?”
A message we’ve heard over and over from schools that have used our other products and services is that they don’t like their current admin system
Here are the motives and goals we had in making Educonnex:
- A message we’ve heard over and over from schools that have used our other products and services is that they don’t like their current admin system. This lead us to take a fresh look at school administration and what we could do with modern technology to build a system that schools will like.
- Traditionally, administration systems have been focussed on school administrators and staff. School is about educating students but very few existing administration systems can be described as “student-centric”. We’ve aimed to make Educonnex a system that’s centred on students and management of their education and welfare.
- The largest part of a school’s community isn’t its students or teachers. Rather its parents, alumni and volunteers. Other systems have treated parent access as an optional extra or as some kind of bolt-on or “portal” function, typically leading to a very poor experience for parents. Our aim has been to open up school administration so that access for parents and others is fully integrated so that the broader school community can easily access the information and functions they are should be able to see.
- A wealth of amazing information is available inside schools, in areas such as attendance to academic performance to student welfare. Unfortunately much of this information is often locked away either in paper files, or on a server somewhere that only the IT staff access (and they are often so busy they can’t really look at this data at all!). Our aim is to capture this information for schools in a way which can be used to help staff at a school do what they do best: teach students, and to help students to learn in a better and more efficient way.
So why do school administration in the cloud?
What are the benefits of having a school administration system in the cloud? Why should a school consider using a cloud-based system?
Better access for more of the school community
An online system enables better access for a wider range of the school community, including those outside the walls of a school – especially parents. Being able to access information directly from the same system that the school uses provides more consistent and up-to-date information, gives parents more insight and confidence in the education their children are receiving and can cut down on the administration that the school needs to do. For example, when a parent can log in and provide an explanation for their child’s absence for a given day without needing to send a note home (which might get lost in a school bag) or call the school, this frees up administration staff to focus on their job and help the school run smoothly.
A fully integrated web-delivered system
In recent years we’ve seen two side effects of school administration systems NOT being available online:
- An increasing number of niche apps popping up trying to meet the demand for online access, because core administration systems aren’t accessible via the web (or access is severely limited to a “portal”). Individually these apps have varying levels of success, but they aren’t strategically helpful because they simply add one more animal to the menagerie of systems that must be supported and paid for.
- The rise of “web-front” systems. These systems sit on top of the core system and provide web front ends to the non-web-enabled core system. Again the success of this approach is varied, but the big disadvantage is the effective doubling of costs as both layers have to be paid for.
In Educonnex all users access the same system, with appropriate security and functionality depending on their role. There is no need for a web front-end or portal because the system is already delivered via the web. Niche apps become less relevant as functions are added to the core system or via our partner apps program.
Allowing users to access the system from a range of devices also helps to promote wider use, which in turn benefits the school and its broader community. To this end we are continuing to invest in ensuring our system runs on different devices, from desktops all the way down to mobile devices.
Easier to manage
An online system allows easier management for a school for a number of reasons.
There is less infrastructure, such as servers to run the administration system that need to be managed by the school. This frees up IT staff to better manage other areas of the school’s IT needs without worrying about maintaining the administration system.
Our support team have constant access to the system so there’s no “remoting in” required when dealing with support issues.
Not having to perform lengthy and cumbersome upgrades to administration systems installed locally at the school also benefits the school by freeing up IT staff as well as allowing for faster changes to the system to introduce new features and resolve issues.
Faster upgrades = a better product quicker!
A cloud-based system allows us to have a faster upgrade cycle which is a benefit to us as the software provider and to schools who use the system. Being able to deploy a set of changes and not having to wait until a school installs them during the end of year holidays means we can get feedback and make improvements faster, which allows us to use our time more effectively. So far this year we’ve done 23 major and minor releases as well as being able to fix issues within minutes of them being reported. This flexibility and responsiveness is simply not possible in a traditional locally-installed system. Advances in development and deployment tools have allowed us to do this, and I’ll be writing more about this in the future.
What are the challenges we’ve faced making a cloud based school administration system?
Making any new software system has its challenges, and developing Educonnex is no exception. There have been a number of challenges we’ve faced and overcome, and new challenges keep coming!
Helping schools move to the cloud – a new mind-set
In the past, school administration systems have typically been locally installed and internally managed. An administration system is crucial to the running of a school and maintaining total control of this system provides a degree of comfort for those involved. Putting this important part of your school’s operations into the hands of an online provider, where you can’t see the servers, requires a big shift in thinking as well as trust in the provider of the system. To address this we’ve invested heavily in ensuring our system is stable and reliable, and has top level security and privacy. We also work closely with the schools using our system to give them the assurance they need as they venture into the cloud with us for their administration.
Ensuring the administration system actually helps
Running a school is a big task. There are an enormous number of things that happen on any one day, let alone during a school term or year, and staff (particularly administration staff) are often very busy. One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced is ensuring that Educonnex is a system that helps its users to access what they need in a useful and efficient manner and doesn’t get in the way when trying to get things done. There is often a fine line between providing too much information or not enough information, and this is something that we are constantly looking at it when developing any part of Educonnex.
Responding to feedback from users using the system and mixing that with the experiences of our staff here at CountryNet Software (both those who have been heavily involved in schools and those who haven’t) ensures that we produce a system that not only meets our users’ needs but also pushes the boundaries of what can be done in a school administration system.
Pushing the boundaries
Speaking of pushing the boundaries of what a school administration system can do, or should do, is also one of the challenges we’ve faced, but this is also one of the most exciting and fulfilling parts of the process. We’ve been given the freedom to rethink certain core areas of school administration, such as finance and tracking student attendance, and we have lots of ideas for helping schools make their administration easier, provide better information and generally aid the wider school community. Sometimes the challenge is to rein in and refine these ideas into something amazing for schools to use. We haven’t always gotten this right, but it’s something we will be focusing on as we continue development of Educonnex.
On a practical level, there are a number of challenges when taking a school administration system to the cloud.
Some schools are fortunate enough to have some of the best internet infrastructure in the country but some, particular in regional or remote areas aren’t so fortunate, and ensuring that these schools can still access Educonnex effectively to run their school is one of our ongoing challenges. We continue to invest in improving our system to use less data, load faster and generally run more efficiently.
Ensuring a consistent experience across different browsers and platforms can also be a challenge, particularly given the large range of devices that people use to access the internet. Fortunately there are tools available to us that help us to provide this consistent experience, and I’m planning to write some more technical articles on these things in the future.
Taking a school administration system to the cloud in Educonnex has brought its fair share of challenges, but has also given us the opportunity to make a system that improves the administration and general running of a school. We are looking forward to continuing to further develop Educonnex to its fullest potential.