TES Education Hub: Top down to bottom up – How information systems have evolved in schools, by Gerald Haigh

The following post features on our new educational hub, hosted by TES, packed with tips and resources designed to improve your school processes. Weve pulled together the opinions and expertise of senior leaders on how technology can both inform and transform school processes to facilitate the difficult business of school management.


Top down to bottom up: how information systems have evolved in schools

by Gerald Haigh
At the heart of a school’s administration is what’s usually called “the MIS” (management information system). The first examples appeared in the late 1980s, as a response to the delegation of budgets to schools. They later expanded their remit to include the collection and analysis of pupil performance data, behaviour and attendance figures.

These days, every school has a MIS of some kind – usually SIMS, which is provided by runaway market leader and Microsoft partner Capita Children’s Services. And where a local authority has installed and maintained the same MIS across all its schools, they can be administered and managed collectively.

Clearly the MIS has been a success story – which is particularly impressive, given that not all software innovations survive. But what of later technological developments?

A new platform

The MIS was designed to meet specific demands from local and national government and consequently early versions were used by only a handful of administrators in each school.

However, it wasn’t long before school leaders realised that MIS data could inform their management decisions and strategies – and educational technology businesses began developing new, “must-have” systems aimed at using that data to support teaching and learning.

These learning platforms, virtual learning environments (VLE) and learning management systems (LMS) were all based on providing each student with an online “home” or platform. These were typically divided into subjects or school departments, where teachers could post lesson content, resources and tasks, including homework.

Students could log on to the VLE, read the latest requirements and carry out their tasks at school or home. The senior leadership team could oversee the system school-wide, and in many cases parents could see for themselves what their children were doing in their lessons.

Yet take-up of VLEs was slow to meet early expectations, despite being an excellent idea. Why?

Meeting resistance

For a VLE to be successful, it needs to be used by all staff and students, unlike a school’s MIS. Getting this kind of universal buy-in is a difficult and lengthy process, and schools wanting to introduce VLEs met varying levels of resistance – particularly at primary level. Some felt that a VLE was the solution to a problem that simply didn’t exist for younger pupils.

Secondary schools had more success, but the effort involved cannot be underestimated. Some schools reported that it took them more than three years to get a VLE fully accepted.

Adoption of a VLE relies on teachers being prepared to change their approach, but without determined leadership from the top, there is often little or no progress, leaving many schools with seriously under-used VLEs.

Pick and mix

Faced with the challenge of implementing a proprietary VLE, some teachers and leaders began to ask why they had to buy the whole branded package. Why not simply pick and mix from among the rapidly proliferating educational material on the internet?

In fact, for some years creative and technically skilled school IT leaders have found ways of using Microsoft SharePoint as a bespoke school “portal” which hosts only the functions that the school wants and needs. The arrival of Microsoft Cloud and Office 365 has made this much more achievable.

“I am currently playing with our Office 365 tenancy and SharePoint as the replacement for a VLE type structure,” wrote one teacher on the EduGeek forum back in May 2015. “There is so much online now that pulling in free stuff which is already there seems the way to go, especially with current budget constraints.”

Today, that EduGeek contributor’s task will have been made much easier by the evolution of Office 365, with the introduction of Teacher Dashboard and now Microsoft Classroom.

Leading VLE suppliers have not been left behind. Customised online learning environments such as LP+365 and Civica CloudBase have effectively become ways of making Microsoft Cloud applications more accessible and classroom-friendly. RM Education, meanwhile, is replacing its previous learning platform with RMUnify, which hosts only the applications that a school wants.

It’s still about leadership

No matter how classroom-friendly any learning management system becomes, its effectiveness in supporting learning will always depend on full-hearted and sustained commitment by leadership. Most of this will be directed not at the technology but at helping teachers to adopt a more collaborative, less didactic classroom style.

Any effort expended by the leadership will reap dividends: intelligently used, management and learning systems enable leaders to keep up to date with what is happening at classroom level, able to direct timely intervention and support where it is needed.

The advent of multi-academy trusts (MATs) extends that oversight requirement to cover groups of schools, not all of which will be using the same proprietary system. In response, Microsoft partner businesses are increasingly using technologies to achieve integration across MATs.

The Stone computer group, for example, has just announced Stone Unity, which uses an innovative blend of Microsoft technologies to enable harmonisation of diverse management and learning systems across MATs.

Role reversal

MIS and VLEs, restricted by the technology of the time, began by being “top down” in the sense that schools had to adapt their procedures to the software. Now, the trend is for such systems to be “bottom up” – responsive to the school’s needs and wishes, and free from unnecessary complexities.

Gerald Haigh is an education writer and author of 15 books on educational management issues, and was a teacher for 28 years.

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