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Posted by on Jan 18, 2015 in RenWeb, Software |

Moving to RenWeb

Moving to RenWeb

Selecting a student information system (SIS) is a wildly difficult task for so many reasons.  Administrators, staff, and teachers all have their own opinion about your choice.  Now, students and parents have opinions too.  In 2013 our school chose RenWeb.  Let me share our story.

Our story may not be overly interesting to you, but I’m sure that you have either already experienced some of the issues we had to face, or you soon will.  Since 1998, I have seen our school utilize three different systems and each transition had its complications.  Perhaps our story will prepare you for your own transition, regardless of what SIS you select.  Or, perhaps it will allow you to simply rest assured that it is not just your school that runs into the same type of complications.  Either way, I have chosen to share our story in the hopes that someone will be encouraged or benefit.

I started teaching in 1998 and had no knowledge of a SIS.  During my 6 week public school student teaching stint I saw my cooperating teacher submitting her grades via a Scantron type sheet, so I figured there was some type of reader to collect the grades. Though I witnessed this act, I didn’t really think that much about it.  However, this immediately became my expectation.  Of course, I knew that schools used computers to maintain grades, I had learned that from Matthew Broderick in War Games.  I just had no knowledge of them from an educator’s perspective.

When I took my first teaching position at a private school, I was taken aback when I was asked to write my grades down on a sheet of paper that had no resemblance of a report card.  Additionally startling was the request that I rewrite all of those grades in descending order.  The request was strange enough, but it was the rewriting aspect that caught me off guard.  Was someone going to enter all these grades into a computer by hand?  Was there really no way to get the computer to print a list of grades in descending order?  This can’t be!

It turned out that I was correct on one account, and wrong on the other.  Someone was entering all those grades by hand, and they were indeed using a computer.  That was good, I thought.  However, what about having to rewrite my grades in descending order? After the newness of my teaching career appeared to wear off for me, I inquired with the lady that seemed to be in charged of collecting these grades. “Can’t the system that we use print these grades out in descending order”?  I was answered with an abrupt “No.”.  “Can’t we export them to a spreadsheet, and then sort them”?  Again, “No” was the response.  I had my doubts.

After some digging I learned that we used the MMS system.  Unfortunately, I could not find anything about how it worked on the Internet (remember most people in 1998 didn’t even know what the Internet was, really) and there absolutely no way this rookie was bold enough to ask the grade lady for the manual (these were the days when software manuals easily outsized phone books).  I was left to my hunches to mock me every time I wrote my grades in descending order.  I don’t recall when, but I quickly grew tired and wrote a little program that would do the work for the teachers if they simply entered their grades from their grade sheets or grade books.  I took the liberty of installing the program on the lone computer in the teacher’s lounge and informed the teachers about it.  At one point I mentioned the program to the lady who collected the grades and I’ll never forget her response, “Oh, you don’t need to do that anymore, I figured out how to get the system to do it.”

Of course the system could handle a task like that. I was frustrated.  I wasn’t frustrated so much with the time I had wasted writing a program, after all coding is fun.  I was more frustrated knowing I was working in a place that didn’t have the same “hunches” I had; that technology could make tasks easier.  For years now, I have always taken joy in helping individuals do their jobs easier with the use of technology.

I cannot recall the exact year, but it was well after I was established as the school Technology Coordinator that I decided we were ready for a SIS change.  Of course, I had no say in the matter, after all, I didn’t use it.  However, that was the whole point, no one used it, except one lady.  During this time of fixing and assisting I grew to better understand our practices. It seemed all our student/family data was stored in a WordPerfect data file and was used in merges anytime we wanted to print letters or labels. However, I was astonished to learn that many documents were produced by simply retyping all the data.  For example, the school directory was hand typed, every year. Class lists were hand typed, every year.  Student schedules were hand typed, every year (this last one blew my mind). The same student data must have been re-typed in scores of locations.  I cannot imagine how many changes needed to be made if a parent changed their phone number or address or a student dropped one course in favor of another.  Enough was enough.

Knowing the potential of another SIS, I asked the principal if I had permission to look into a change.  He gave me the nod and I was given the assistance of another lady who was technology savvy.  After talking with her, who is now my Technology Assistant, it became clear that I was not the only one grieved with our process.  She did most of the leg work calling and researching different SIS options, and I would review them with her.  After all, I knew what I was after and I wanted to see if anything out there satisfied my hunches.  After some time we decided School Minder would be a great option for our school.  We presented our choice and all the details to our principal.  It was a glorious day.  Or, so I thought.

Shortly after presenting our choice to switch to School Minder, I was informed by the principal that we would not be switching.  It turned out that learning about the potential change, someone decided to submit their letter of resignation.  As insignificant and silly it was to me, it apparently had the power to derail our moving forward.  I was astonished.

This scene always sticks with me because it reminds me that change is extremely unnerving to many. I’m not a huge proponent of change myself, but many times its necessary.  In the technology world, applications and technologies change so rapidly that it makes it very difficult for some to maintain equilibrium.  As a Technology Coordinator I must remember that.  Many of the changes I introduce at our school are, for me, basic and overdue. However, for most of the teachers and staff they are revolutionary and unwelcome.

I’m not a bull or contentious, but I was not about to accept this settlement.  As politely and respectfully as I could, I appealed the decision. The Committee that oversees our school decided that they would hire a consultant to evaluate the existing SIS and School Minder.  I was a bit discouraged that the committee would not trust the opinion of two technology savvy personnel over that of a secretary.  However, it was at least a chance to move forward.  It did not take long for the consultant to render his verdict, as we knew he would.  Shortly thereafter, we began the transition.

The transition from MMS and School Minder was invisible to most given that they had not used the prior SIS (which remember was only used to store grades).  After about a year, the staff began using the SIS for various purposes and seemed quite pleased with the manner in which data could be maintained.  However, many still did not grasp the power and continued to duplicate their work (or worse). Too, the teachers really were not beneficiaries because they continued to have no access to the software.  In addition, grades were still being submitted in the same manner.

One of the reasons we settled on School Minder was that they stored their data in Microsoft Access tables that we could utilize.  That was important to me because I knew we could easily grab data from them.  I used this feature to begin building an Intranet website for the teachers/staff that I called our “Info Site.”  I created a script that would copy the School Minder databases over to our web server every 15 minutes.  I then created a PHP-based site that would read the databases and display information for the teachers to use.  It was a hit.

The teachers loved the site.  The idea that they could get an up-to-date class list without having to bother a secretary was astonishing.  The staff, having used the School Minder software did not necessarily need the Info Site, but it became clear over time that using the Info Site was easier for the staff than using School Minder.  Unfortunately for me, I found that the newness and appreciation wore off rather quickly.  What began as thanks quickly turned into demands for new features.  Even my principal, who seemed to have an aversion to computers, was demanding new features as if they should have been there the entire time.

School Minder served our school quite well for a while.  As I grew to understand the program, and grow in my influence at the school, I attempted to broach the manner in which we store data, specifically course and roster information.  I could tell I was wading through unfriendly waters, but it is my nature to try and improve the way we used the technology.  Too, limited understanding of best practices were beginning to necessitate tedium on the teachers; something I wanted to avoid.  However, none of this prompted a change in SIS.

Around this time some teachers were beginning to rely on and look for computer solutions for their grade books.  There were a number of us that had perfected our own spreadsheets and were not in need of another solution, but for many a spreadsheet would not suffice.  In addition, I began to hear rumblings about how in some schools parents and students can actually access their grades online.  I admittedly scoffed at the idea, not realizing what a push there would be for this in the future.  I was primarily focused with finding a better way of submitting our grades, for I was growing weary of writing them down at the conclusion of each term.  This prompted a search for a digital grade book.

When searching for additional functionality it is good to check with your SIS first; it may be something they offer.  We wanted a solution that our teachers could use to maintain grades, but in a way that integrated with School Minder.  We were fortunate that School Minder had the ability to export to and import from GradeQuick, a very nice digital grade book.  Most of our teachers took to this immediately; loving the automatic grade calculations.  Some scoffed, and preferred tracking their grades in their paper grade books, using their handheld calculators to calculate averages.  Though my spreadsheet was far more robust that the new grade book, I used it so that I could assist the teachers.  We only insisted that final grades be entered by all teachers so that the grades could be exported to School Minder.

The year with GradeQuick went great, until the first day of summer vacation.  I had only planned on coming in to break down some computer stations but I was met by our guidance counselor who looked sick.  “All of the teacher grades are wrong.”

Well, they were not all wrong, but many of them were a mess.  The guidance counselor and her secretary manually calculated the averages of students to double-check the calculations coming through from the grade books.  To their dismay, and mine, they were off.  So, I settled in to figure out what had gone wrong.  What was initially thought to be a computer error (not by me) turned out to be human error.  It turned out that many of our teachers (sorry to say) didn’t quite grasp how to set up wighting in their grade books.  So, though the raw grades were fine, the calculations based on the raw grades were off.  I figured out how to fix this and after three long days, we were back in business.  However, this episode prompted me to write a few scripts that would verify the integrity of our grades at given intervals.  This seemed to catch the majority of human errors that could occur.

We continued on with this system for a few years.  The integrity checks were continuing with ease and the Info Site was so robust very few individuals actually needed to use School Minder’s own application.  However, now we faced the pressure of presenting grades and course materials online.

I had been using Moodle for my own courses for at least five years, but this didn’t seem like the best solution for all teachers.  So, we looked for a solution that would integrate with what we already had in place.  Enter Edline.  Edline (now owned by Blackboard) integrated with both School Minder and GradeQuick. In addition, it offered a web-based version of GradeQuick that the teachers could use from home.  In addition, if offered the teachers the opportunity to post homework, lessons, and grades. This was a great solution for us, but it was not met with excitement.

During the first year the use of Edline for course information and post of grades was optional; even I was a proponent of making it optional.  This was a revolutionary change to most that quite frankly was not really necessary.  Too, it introduced a change in practice that, for may, was pure tedium.  This seemed to go well for the first year.  Many teachers grew excited to learn how to use Edline simply through watching and hearing what other teachers did.  As use of Edline grew, it actually put pressure on those teachers that had opted to not use it for they were now hearing new expectations from students/parents.  As a figurehead for technology, I began to field many of these expectations as well.

We used Edline for about 4 years.  During the end of that time, a new decree came down from the principal that required all teachers to use Edline to post, at minimum, homework and project due dates.  Many had already exceeded this decree, some now tried to meet it, others tried to skirt around the new expectation, and a seldom few were lost causes.  Overall, our use of Edline, GradeQuick, and School Minder was going well.  Sure there were kinks visible to most, but we were dealing with them quite well.  There was one person that was actually growing weary of this entire system, however.  Me.

For most people, the system was new.  For me, it was a patched system that we had been using for 7 years.  I was growing weary of all the menial tasks that had to be performed to keep the system together and used properly.  I had to constantly be sure the staff were entering course data in properly.  I had to constantly oversee the exporting of School Minder data to GradeQuick and Edline.  I had to constantly run integrity checks on our grades.  I had to continuously maintain the Info Site.  And now, I found myself in charge of a new task; training teachers.

I had not really need to train teachers before.  Sure, we would run some seminars every now and again on how to use PowerPoint or Word.  And there were the times I had to assist teachings when we decided to have everyone digitize their Scopes and Sequences in the same format.  However, there was nothing I had to do to train teachers on a continual basis.  With the addition of Edline and GradeQuick I instantly became the help desk.   On a daily basis I was handling a barrage of questions from all sides.  What had began as a part-time Technology Coordinator position was transitioning into a full-time job.  I was having a hard time keeping up with my own classes now. Did I fail to mention that I was a full-time teacher too?

I had a dream. I dreamed of an integrated all-in-one solution that would preclude my constant oversight in far too many aspects of data delivery.  I dreamed of easier access to student data.  I dreamed of a fresh start, so I could lay a foundation of practices and principles that would prevent much of the tedium with which we still dealt.  I dreamed of a change.  This would not be well received.

While dreaming, there were other changes that needed to be made as well.  For years now I had been wrestling with a web/mail server that I had put into place in order to save money on email accounts and web hosting.  It has served us quite well for years, but I was growing weary of dealing with SPAM and blacklist issues.  So, I decided it was time to change here.  I don’t want to go into all the details, but over a year span I rolled out two huge changes to our staff and faculty.  I at first had them all change the email package they were using.  Then 9 months later, when our Google Apps for Education account was approved and setup, I changed them again to Gmail.

These changes were life changing.  Well, not really, but to many they appeared to be.  So, would I then decide a few months later to change something else?  That’s where I was headed.

In May, I decided that we needed to find another SIS that we could eventually transition to, but not the next year.  I figured those of us in the SIS inner circle could use both SISs in tandem for a year, and then roll out the new SIS to the staff and teachers the next year.  We decided to start the hunt for a better SIS.  I again asked our technology savvy lady to assist in looking.

After looking through a few companies, we rested on RenWeb.  RenWeb impressed us with its wealth of resources available via a web browser.  It also impressed us with the volume of reports that could be run to grab data, both for staff and faculty.  We presented our findings and cost to our principal.  He approved, but with one contingency.  We not pay to maintain two SISs concurrently.

In order to switch, we were going to have to switch in 3 months.  Setup a new SIS in 3 months.  Learn the SIS ourselves in 3 months. Train all the staff to use it in 3 months.  Wow, what a task. Then there were the teachers.  How long did I have to train the teachers?  Well, there were not around all summer, so at best I might have their attention for 2 weeks.  At worst, 1 day.  I would have to get creative.

Quickly I was becoming a thorn in the side of many. It was not my intent, but it was a natural outworking of the changes I was introducing. The same person that submitted their letter of resignation at hearing our change to School Minder had decided to resign again at this change.  Their fears, for the most part were alleviated, for I was planning on taking on much of their responsibility as I wanted to be sure we laid the foundation properly.  It was only after we set things up the way we wanted and established procedures that we would turn things back to specific departments to maintain.

As August approached I decided the best thing I could do was prepare video tutorials for the teachers.  RenWeb had a volume of training available, but I wanted the teachers to learn very specific tasks, and I was capable of relating them to what they had done in the past.  I recorded about a dozen video tutorials for the teachers and released them over the summer.  I wanted to give some the chance to start learning quickly.  There were grumblings, but many of them trusted me, so they prepared to learn RenWeb.  As I anticipated, many of them thought it was quite easy and quickly took to the new platform.

We are now in our second year using RenWeb.  I have since come up with a list of wishes, but for the most part they are livable.  I have reduced the time I normally spent on grade integrity checks, importing/exporting, and maintaining a separate information site and have been able to concentrate on customizing reports through RenWeb and assisting departments/teachers use RenWeb effectively. This year I have also released most of the daily tasks to other departments, so that has allowed me to breathe a little easier as well.  Oh, yes, and teach my classes at the same time!

I’m quite pleased with RenWeb.  Here are my favorite features.

  • Grades, lesson plans, uploads, report card data, resources, emailing, student information are all in the same place for the faculty, and it is accessible via a web browser.
  • RenWeb has a Customization Kit (RCK) that can be “rented” for the year that allows you to create customized reports.  I have used this and my programming skills to develop some nice reports and customized report cards. Note, the RCK isn’t for everyone; it requires knowledge of HTML and some simple programming concepts (e.g. loops).
  • RenWeb has a volume of reports from which to choose (I dropped the Info Site and forced our staff/faculty to use these) as well as the ability to customize a dump of data (their “Create-a-Report” feature) to a spreadsheet.
  • Integration.  Rather than working with one package for grades, another for posting assignments, another for managing student data, and yet another for alerting parents of emergencies or school closings, everything is in one place.
  • No Contract.  Billing is monthly so when you’ve decided you done, just let them know.  When we were done with School Minder and Edline, we thought we had let them know we were done, but apparently there were three different entities that were all billing us yearly at different times of the year. Canceling them all, we found out, was more difficult than it seemed.

I’m pleased, but there is room for improvement.

  • Better browser support.  Right now, parents can use whatever browser they wish.  However, faculty must use a supported browser (at the time of this writing it was Firefox and Internet Explorer in compatibility mode).
  • Utilization of Silverlight.  At the time of this writing, RenWeb currently offers a ‘Portal’ which is essentially an online version of their desktop software.  This is great, but it requires Silverlight.  In my opinion, to use Silverlight is not terrible, but to require it is poor.  To improve, RenWeb will need to build their portal so that any browser can be used without a plugin.
  • Holes in Customization Kit.  I’m an experienced website programmer, so I find it frustrating if there is a piece of data I know is out there that cannot be accessed.  I’ve come across at least a dozen situations where I’m trying to create a customized report and I cannot access the type of data I know is present in some of the standard reports.  Don’t get me wrong though, the RCK is great for most.
  • Mobile Apps.  RenWeb has attempted provide decent mobile apps.  Currently there are three separate apps; one for staff, parents, and alerts.  The staff app is good for taking attendance, referencing student/family information, and entering grades.  However, there are a number of features that are “under development” making the staff app a bit unreliable.  The parent/student (home) app isn’t free; a big mistake in my book.  This is especially true when RenWeb doesn’t deliver their normal parent/student view in a mobile browser.  The alert app works, but is ridiculously tedious. I recall I was out on a long over due date with my wife when we got the call for a delayed opening.  I tried using the app to send out a message, but it took nearly 15 minutes and I couldn’t figure out how to get it to send it to staff; my wife was less than thrilled.

We’ll see what the future brings.