By guest blogger Michelle R. Davis
School systems want more cooperation from vendors developing educational software tools, better integration capabilities among those tools, and an increased ability to extract data from software educators use, according to a new report released yesterday from the Clayton Christensen Institute.
The report, which focused on the needs of small- to medium-sized school systems, surveyed education leaders about their use of academic, business, and operations software along with their integration of software and data, and IT management and hardware.
Because larger school districts often drive the conversation about educational software, it was important to focus attention on the medium and small districts that about half the students in the country attend, said report co-author Julia Freeland, a research fellow at the Christensen Institute, a think tank which studies issues that include blended learning.
"Sales teams are automatically incentivized to go after the biggest customers, but this leads to some misalignment between supply and demand," Freeland said.
Education leaders agreed.
"Vendors aren't going to make any money on the smaller clients so it's hard to get them to listen to our needs," said Bill Kurtz, the chief executive officer of DSST Public Schools, based in Denver, Colo., in the report.
One of the most significant issues educators raised concerned the integration of various types of software. Educators want online learning tools, for example, that can work together seamlessly, but vendors are more interested in development proprietary products, the report said. The same goes for learning management systems and business and operations software that doesn't connect easily. The result is that districts have developed costly and time-wasting work-arounds to get software systems to cooperate, resulting in "the huge headache of software integration," Freeland said.
Companies paying attention to that and focusing on ways to integrate systems and software, and manage data—such as Clever, Schoolzilla, BrightBytes and Education Elements—are gaining traction in the marketplace, said Alex Hernandez, a partner at the Charter School Growth Fund, based in Broomfield, Colo., and a co-author of the report.
"School systems are using a whole suite of products, not just one. Certain products are only useful to the extent and they integrate and talk to other software," Hernandez said. "Very few people are thinking about the big picture."
The report recommends that districts demand cooperation from vendors at the outset, and that districts further explore the idea of new versions of hubs that create "a highly centralized architecture around which nearly all other programs must be integrated." But the report warns that with these hubs can also lock school system into one or a limited number of vendors as a result.
With all of the data being collected by software, education leaders are reporting that extracting that data for use is particularly challenging. Cary Matsuoka, the superintendent of the Milpitas, Calif. school district, said he has toned down his comments about the promise of data-driven instruction because "our experience is that it's nearly impossible to get the data out of our software platforms."
Hernandez said he was surprised by how difficult school leaders said it often was for educators to get timely, accurate student data from software programs. This situation then created a level of distrust between educators and vendors. "We heard examples about high quality software products, but teachers couldn't tell whether kids were doing well or not," Hernandez said.
When it comes to information technology management and hardware issues, Freeland said she sees more districts putting an emphasis on IT leaders with hybrid backgrounds in both education and information technology. Technology departments are also becoming much less siloed within school systems, a trend which she predicts will continue.
Many districts are also shifting to cloud-based operations, which can make workflow more efficient, but also raise privacy and central control issues. And districts pursuing blended learning are looking for affordable, manageable devices. Many are moving toward Chromebooks, for example, as opposed to laptops in order to make their purchasing dollars go further, Freeland said. So-called "bring your own device," or BYOD, programs also gaining traction, the report said.
Hernandez said he hopes the report will help vendors focus on the needs of smaller school systems, which may often be significantly different than the nation's largest districts. "There are a different set of needs that doesn't always get talked about," he said.
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