The market for student information systems is undergoing tremendous change in the wake of several recent ed-tech mergers and acquisitions—and this trend has important implications for school software.
As large ed-tech companies swallow up smaller providers of student information systems, they are able to integrate new features into these programs, resulting in a new breed of school software that meets several needs of educators in a single solution. For instance, student information systems and learning management systems traditionally have been viewed as two separate software programs—but today, they are merging in ways that allow educators to track student achievement and personalize the learning process, all from the same system.
On the other hand, consolidation within the ed-tech industry is leaving educators with fewer choices for their school software providers.
One example of this consolidation is Follett Software Corp.’s acquisition in October of X2 Development Corp., maker of a web-based student information system called Aspen. Even more recently, global education giant Pearson last month bought The Administrative Assistants Ltd. (aal), maker of the eSIS web-based student information system.
“The SIS market has been consolidating for some time,” said Suzanne Holmquest, product marketing manager for X2 Development Corp. “Follett Software is setting the pace in terms of the integration of [student information systems with] its other education platforms and applications. In the end, Follett’s acquisition of Aspen is all about delivering the best solutions for schools. Schools want integration, access to critical data, and the tools to act on decisions they make from [those] data. Educators, meanwhile, desire a platform that drives student achievement, puts the student at the center, causes students to take more responsibility for their learning, and encourages excellent teaching.”
Aspen serves about 90 school districts in the U.S. and abroad and is currently used in seven states: Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
Administrators in Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools use Aspen to make scheduling easier for 116 schools. Another component of Aspen is its Family Portal, and Massachusetts’ Bedford Public Schools use the product to help with emergency notification.
“We chose to open the Aspen Family Portal to utilize contact verification workflows within the system,” said Ken Lord, a network administrator for the district. “Parents loved that they were able to verify, update, and submit their students’ emergency contact information electronically. In addition to the contact information, parents are viewing student schedules, assigned teachers, attendance, and more.”
For administrators and teachers in Maryland’s Wicomico Country School District, the simplification of grade-keeping is what drew them to Aspen.
The district, which serves more than 14,500 students in 26 schools, has students who are enrolled at one school but attend a different school for one or more courses, making grading a hassle.
The old SIS required these teachers to maintain grades on paper and fax them to the student’s primary school for input into the gradebook at the end of the term. Feeder schools couldn’t plan for the upcoming year, because they couldn’t access incoming students’ course requests until the end of the year.
“Now, scheduling and the gradebook go hand-in-hand,” said District Programmer Paul Santoni. “The ability to schedule across school has allowed our teacher to utilize the gradebook functions properly.”
Aspen also offers special education/IEP management, health management, and professional development management as part of its student information system.
Follett Software has been around since 1985 and has grown from a provider of library automation systems to an ed-tech powerhouse that provides a full range of school software. Its offerings now include:
• Destiny Library Manager, which helps students find the resources they need;
• Destiny Textbook Manager, which helps districts keep track of their textbooks, potentially saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost textbook costs;
• Destiny Asset Manager, which helps track the other physical items a district is responsible for;
• TetraData, a data warehousing and analysis tool that transforms a district’s data into usable information, providing educators with information on how best to improve student learning; and
• Cognite, a learning management system that fosters collaboration and more personalized learning.
Follett Software said its acquisition of X2’s Aspen will tie into Cognite, meaning schools will have the option of getting a student information system and a learning management system in one package.
“With the acquisition of the Aspen SIS platform, Follett Software believes it is now ahead of the market because of its integration of key applications,” said Michael Campbell, director of marketing for Follett Software.
Campbell said a high-quality student information system is “flexible enough to meet the administrative needs of schools and districts and at the same time create a bridge to what is required on the academic front in the classroom and at home. In the end, districts want an effective, integrated education platform, not administration and learning systems that do not talk to each other.”
Pearson provides print and digital educational content for students in prekindergarten through college, as well as student information systems, learning management systems, professional development, career certification programs, and testing and assessments products.
Pearson’s student information systems already support about 11 million students, but its acquisition of aal extends its SIS market reach to more than 15 million students. aal also serves an international market: eSIS-JX is the Java version of eSIS and is currently deployed in Abu Dhabi.
Pearson’s current SIS, called PowerSchool, can be purchased as a stand-alone product or can be extended with the Pearson K12 Learning Suite. The K12 Learning Suite allows Pearson customers to grow their SIS to include learning management, assessment, reporting, data analytics, and content management.
“It changed our whole culture,” said Aaron Bryan, ed-tech director for New Jersey’s South Brunswick Township School District, referring to using the many facets of PowerSchool.
In this 9,100-student district with 10 schools, teachers use the SIS to input grades from school or home, and administrators can keep up with evolving state and federal reporting requirements with PowerSchool’s report-building tools.
The SIS also has a parent portal and online community-focused web site for support, services, downloads, and training.
“At Pearson, we are seeing the lines blur between an LMS and an SIS,” said Brent Bingham, vice president of product strategy for Pearson’s School Systems group. “While historically [the SIS] has included items like grades, attendance, [and] schedules, … we are seeing that expand much further to include [Response to Intervention], links to content, online learning, and more.”
Bingham said today’s student information systems must “seamlessly link to all other systems in the school or district to assist the educators and administrators in making informed decisions about each student.”
The line between student information systems and learning management systems will continue to blur in the future, he added. An SIS that will deliver more learning management functionality will become a requirement as educators look to harness the power of all of the systems they have implemented in their district.
“The future is all about the integration of best-of-breed applications that schools need to be successful,” said X2’s Holmquest. “SIS platforms may transform as schools look more and more at the total education picture, as opposed to the individual pieces. [Student information systems] started with a green screen, a database, and a few front-office users. Those days are gone; the future is about the support of all school stakeholders, administrators, support staff, teachers, parents, and students.”
Student information systems have become vital tools for driving student instruction and spurring improvement. Sixty-nine percent of districts use their SIS as their primary No Child Left Behind reporting tool, said Lee Wilson, chief executive of PCI Education and author of a 2009 market report on SIS software.
“[Pearson’s] purchase of aal is a major move in the space, because aal has the most mature integration of SIS and data warehousing capabilities of any SIS in the market that I’m aware of,” said Wilson. “Our study looked at both [market] segments, and while SIS penetration is over 98 percent, data warehousing is in less than 40 percent of the districts in the U.S. This gives Pearson a huge edge over others who have to conduct big systems integration projects to connect their SIS to a data warehouse. This is both an expense and a potential point of breakdown in the system. By having both systems seamlessly integrated, aal has been able to offer robust data management (SIS) and data mining in one package. This is what federal guidelines are leaning toward these days.”
The deal is also significant, said Wilson, because aal has typically been a very technically oriented company—sales and marketing were not a particular strength, and this limited its reach into the market.
“With Pearson’s marketing muscle behind [aal], we are probably going to see significantly more of [the company] in the coming years,” Wilson said. “To get a sense of what this means, 25 percent of IT directors were aware of PowerSchool, but only 5 percent were aware of aal. Even a newcomer like Infinite Campus was over 10 percent awareness. aal’s awareness is, in fact, almost identical to [its] market penetration—6 percent as defined by students served.”
With its acquisition of aal, Pearson now holds 34 percent of the SIS market.
“My guess (and that is all it is) is that Pearson is eyeing statewide implementations with aal,” said Wilson. “It is one of the few systems out there capable of scaling to that level (as has already been done in North Carolina). There have been noises coming out of the states that this is a direction they are going to head in both to save money and to create greater consistency of data to help with better accountability. When every district has [its] own system, it can be a real challenge to integrate the data at the state level with any confidence that you are really seeing apples to apples. Centralizing system administration should, in theory, also reduce costs, but at the expense of local control and customization.
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