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Not All MIS Systems are Created Equal

/ Tom Evans

For many years schools have been collecting data – initially for returns to the Department for Education and latterly as a way of keeping track of pupil attendance, pupil performance, pupil behaviour, finance data and an ever-growing set of other activities that generate data.

As schools have looked deeper at their data, the trend has been for MIS suppliers to introduce new functionality into their systems and to provide ways for that data to be analysed to help inform interventions. Systems have also grown to share information with parents and to allow parents to interact in other ways like booking slots for consultation evenings, receiving reports and paying online for dinners and trips.

Therefore, as part of the data trend, I have a deep interest in Management Information Systems in schools and across chains of schools. These systems continue to rapidly develop in response to market needs. The definition of what an MIS can do is expanding as the Cloud MIS providers add new features but also fully integrate previously separate datasets into their systems.

Looking ahead, more is at stake than might at first appear obvious. These rich MIS data sets from a reliable source, have the potential to provide the backbone for Machine Learning, Deep Learning and Artificial Intelligence systems to deliver even greater insights into how our young people are learning. The Public Cloud providers already have the tools to accept these data – it might take another five years for education to tap into these systems in a systematic way, but it will come, and I fully expect the leading Cloud MIS suppliers to be offering these services as part of their solutions in the near future.

 

Small Differences, Big Impact

At one level the differentiation between the main Cloud MIS solutions looks small – Cloud based offerings are delivered in a Software as a Service (SaaS) model and offer high service levels when compared to on premise offerings that are susceptible to many potential disruptions to service access. But at the deeper level there may be significant differences that make the choice of MIS a critical decision on the medium to longer term.

Look Below the Surface

It is important to dig deeper than the User Interface (UI) and even beyond the User Experience (UX) that the interface enables. Whilst both the UI and UX are important, they are only as good as the underlying data structures and the way the MIS is designed. Good database design, and that is all an MIS is, means that data needs to be structured so that it can easily and effectively be retrieved and manipulated in response to user requests. So, however good the UI looks and however slick the UX that is built on the UI is, it is the way the MIS is structured beneath those layers that really sets systems apart. In an ideal world all the layers will be well executed with a well-structured application that is built to scale. This is not always the case however – famously Twitter had to reengineer its underlying systems as they grew – a key component of their solution could only handle up to 300 requests per second – this was scaled to 20,000 requests per second.

The right data structures will enable a chosen MIS to develop quickly, economically add new features and functions and to respond well to your needs. As you start to use the system everyday a well architected solution will ensure fast and intuitive interactions.

Symptoms to look for

Some of the issues that will arise if the fundamental data systems are not well structured will manifest themselves in how easy or difficult it is to retrieve data and to build new and flexible reports around the data you ingest into your MIS. If it becomes difficult to restructure pre-built reports because date ranges can’t be changed for example, or data updates across the system too slowly, then this is potentially a warning that the data structures are not as flexible as they need to be, or the underlying architecture needs some attention.

Capturing and reporting on assessment data can also be a key area to explore. Whilst pre-built reports that use relatively simple data sets and rubrics might be fine, try looking at how you might build some of the more complex assessment rubrics that you intend to use. As you get to use your MIS each day and the data sets build, and as your leaders and teachers look at making more complex assessment models and reports, the issues around data structure could mean that you need to move to external systems if your MIS cannot cope or the analysis is simply not possible that you need to do.

MATs, Chains and LAs

These challenges could also compound if you want to manipulate datasets for large groups of schools. If the data is not well structured then the overall efficiencies of the system will be lost. Talking to some schools and MATS, they are already seeing some of these challenges emerging. At one organisation the incoming Principal was able to bring the experience of working with one MIS to bear to the organisation that was using another MIS. His comments were that the current MIS appeared to be struggling to provide the same functionality and breadth of features the other MIS system had provided. The efficiencies that he had experienced in his previous school were not available using their current MIS.

Lee Robertson, Principal of HPAC said:

When I became Principal at HPAC, I was interested to see how Arbor would fare as a MIS solution within our academy, having had a good experience Bromcom in two of my previous schools. It became apparently quite quickly that, whilst possible to do the day to day processes needed of a MIS, Arbor lacked the broad functionality of Bromcom, particularly around assessments and accessing data to track pupils using our well-established analysis processes. I also find that the end user experience is more robust in Bromcom and find that admin efficiencies can be achieved with minimal fuss. Bromcom have reacted really positively to this change request, working evenings and weekends to get this project off the ground and we can’t wait to get started very soon.

In another example, users described the reporting and assessments features as being ‘Clunky’ with reports and rubrics being difficult to build and not flexible enough to support what was needed.

Dig deep, ask difficult questions

When choosing your MIS, dig deep into the features and functions, ask the hard questions, if in doubt get your data migrated on a test basis and ask for the MIS provider to show you how you can create and work with the reports, assessments and other complex areas that you know you are going to need. Looking at a system and judging by the UI will not tell you about the data structures or about how the system will cope with you ever growing data sets.

If the data structures cannot cope with the reporting needed within the MIS then the system may well not be able to become that critical piece of your infrastructure to power the Machine Learning, Deep Learning and AI possibilities that will emerge. Changing MIS is not the challenge it once was, the market is used to moving large and complex datasets between systems – so if in doubt, look to move, a SaaS based browser driven system has a much less steep learning curve than a desktop application.

Footnote

Microsoft Azure offer suite of ML,DL and AI tools, Google offer a similar set of services as do AWS. These services are already being used by some education providers to deliver exciting new services into education systems.

/ Tom Evans