What K-12 Schools Want From Software

Technology Tips

What K-12 Schools Want From Software

New study from the Clayton Christensen Institute highlights challenges, opportunities in edtech

By Alex Hernandez     Jun 17, 2014

What K-12 Schools Want From Software
“We’ve basically run our public schools off of [Microsoft] Excel for the last 20 years. But all that is changing...”
-- IT Manager--

The strategic use of software by public schools is shifting from a “nice-to-have” to a core driver of student achievement and organizational performance. Schools are deploying software to communicate with families, recruit and onboard teachers, create digital learning environments and much more.

In the new report Schools and Software: What’s Now and What’s Next, Julia Freeland from the Clayton Christensen Institute and I analyze how thirty small- to medium-sized public school systems on the cutting edge of technology integration are using software--and, more importantly, what they want from the edtech industry.

Here are five lessons we learned from these early adopters.

1. School systems “Frankenstein” multiple software products together for students, teachers and administrators

Most K–12 software programs offer limited value to school systems on a stand-alone basis and must be integrated with other software (typically from different vendors) to realize their full potential.

For example, students at Highline Public Schools near Seattle, WA can access multiple online learning programs such as Think Through Math, ST Math and DreamBox Learning, as well as district-created online courses through Instructure’s learning management system Canvas. Highline wants a common place where students can access all their digital learning resources with a single user name and password.

However, most edtech vendors are focused on developing their own proprietary products, not on the overall user experience. This leaves school systems with the challenge of creating compelling and integrated user experiences from a patchwork of programs that don’t talk to one another.

What school systems want:

  • Better tools (Application Programming Interfaces or APIs) from software vendors to make it easier for school systems to create integrated user experiences.
  • Software products that can weave data and content together from multiple sources.
  • Easier ways to create and manage usernames and passwords.

2. School systems are at the mercy of a few software products that “rule them all”

Student information systems (SISs) like Pearson PowerSchool, human resources information systems (HRISs) like Ultipro, and identity management systems like Microsoft Active Directory are “sources of truth” because of the critical data they possess (e.g., student IDs, teacher IDs, network usernames, etc.). As a result, all other software must integrate with these “hub” platforms, either automatically or manually, to access the data they themselves need to function well.

Hubs wield strong influence by acting as “gatekeepers” to data, especially in potentially competitive situations with other vendors.

However, new potential hubs are emerging, such as Illuminate Education (SIS) and Google Apps for Education (Identity Management / Productivity) that may shake up the current market dynamics.

For example, nineteen of the thirty surveyed school systems adopted Google Apps for Education (GAFE) in recent years. GAFE offers a new approach to identity management through Google IDs, cloud-based productivity tools like Google Drive and Google Docs, simple management of Chrome-based devices, and learning management tools like Google Classroom.

What school systems want:

  • Hub platforms that are focused less on compliance and protecting their turf, and more on functionality, software integration and data management.
  • New hubs that build new capabilities like strategic talent management or other game-changing but largely untapped opportunities.

3. Don’t get them started on data!

The most entertaining quotes from our interviewees by far were on the topic of data. There is immense frustration among school systems about their inability to extract useful data from software vendors.

“Give me my $#%* data.”

“It’s our data. Why do we have to negotiate for it?”

“Don’t hold our data hostage!”

Although helping customers with their data may not be the highest priority for software vendors, failure to do so can negatively impact perceptions of product quality.

For example, teachers may not trust high-quality math software if the program does not report student progress in a way that teachers can easily understand what students are learning. In fact, one technology director admitted hacking into his own SIS to extract operational data when the vendor was unresponsive. Many school systems reported strong motivation to switch software vendors to gain better access to data.

What school systems want:

  • Direct access to their data from software vendors.
  • Help managing their data; Education technology companies that help school systems analyze and manage data (like BrightBytes, Clever, Education Elements, LearnSprout, MasteryConnect, and Schoolzilla) are drawing significant interest.
  • Better data warehousing and data mart solutions that provide actionable, real-time data; Charter public school systems like Aspire Public Schools, DSST Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools and the The Noble Network are leading the charge by developing in-house data solutions.
  • Common data standards that are shared among software vendors (e.g., Ed-Fi, SIF).

4. School systems are raising the bar for online learning

Schools are clamoring for online-learning programs that let teachers choose what students work on and automatically adapt to student needs--even though most online-learning programs do only one or the other.

Liz Arney from Aspire notes: “Teachers want it both ways, the ‘black box’ of individualized [student learning] paths and modular content [teachers] can assign at will.” Chris Liang-Vergara, formerly of Firstline Schools, urges schools to consider a student’s experience with software just as strongly as a teacher’s experience.

Schools are also finding that their preferred usage of specific software programs do not always overlap with what vendors recommend. Rocketship Education has identified seven distinct use cases for online learning software and evaluates products based on 1) what works, 2) for which students, and 3) in what circumstances.

What school systems want:

  • Digital learning software that strikes a better balance between adaptive (software automatically adjusts to students) and assignable (teacher chooses content) elements.
  • Software that is more intuitive for both teachers and students.
  • Better product information that shifts from “what software works” to “what works, for which students, in what circumstances.”

5. Schools get more software love than the back office

Few school systems reported satisfaction with their ability to use software to manage important back office functions like finance or human resources. They often choose between a single, “one-stop-shop” solution with poor functionality, or an array of point solutions with better functionality but poor integration.

Education agencies are also more likely to mandate that school systems use certain finance, HRIS and/or SIS software in order to standardize compliance.

What school systems want:

  • Software that maps more closely to school systems’ actual workflow and processes.
  • Better integration between related functions; For example, school systems struggle to integrate recruiting and performance management with their existing human resources software.

While the education technology market booms, school systems are wrestling with issues of software integration, data management and user experience. But these early adopters are demonstrating that software is a core competency of high-performing school systems now and in the future.

Editor’s Note: Alex Hernandez works for the Charter School Growth Fund and co-authored the study Schools and Software: What’s Now and What’s Next. Charter School Growth Fund has a mission-related investment in Dreambox Learning, and is a philanthropic supporter of many of the charter management organizations that participated in the study. The study was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Foundation.

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