Tie And Jeans

For want of a nail

My last three schools have used big managed “edu website” vendors to manage many of the school’s core data services. From the ground level, they often seem like a huge hassle; another example of the huge inflated workload that comes when admin promises “work load reducing” technology.

I’ve always been suspicious of those vendors, because their core business is selling ever-expanding bundles of software.  Renewing your license from year to year is nice, but wouldn’t you really like to add our new iPhoto integration module? Customized parent mailings? Gradebook and Report Cards? For any recurring sower license, their greatest asset is your data that’s  already tied up in their custom system.  When I came in two years ago, my current school had already bought one of these uber-packages , so I’ve spent time trying to recognize the strengths that come with that integration, since it was already in place. Like many systems, the value is far more apparent if you work with the collected data than if you’re the one collecting it.

I recognize that from a teacher’s perspective, there’s little to commend about these, and a lot to gripe about.  A classroom perspective makes it easy to discount the vertical integration (assignment -> gradebook -> report card -> transcripts, or enrollment -> grade rosters -> class rosters -> assignments), when what you see everyday is a page with 14 required blanks or radio buttons to post a single assignment.

There’s a ton of features that would help alleviate the burden this puts on teachers. How about the ability to set a personal (or class based) default assignment, where 11 of those required fields have your standard defaults pre-set? What about the ability to take the type of planning document teachers normally create and then automate the creation of the atomized assignment data? Just as many assignment systems allow users to subscribe to a calendar feed, why not allow the assignment system itself to subscribe to a calendar feed, auto-creating entries from the calendar events ?

It reminds me of the Unix way, and what I thought was the lesson we were supposed to take from the structured data movement. The stuff you care about is basically simple text – plans, assignments, links to resources. A “soft” backend that could share this text data between different services (including more open systems like GoogleApps and the vendors more integrated tools) would be ideal.  Write your weekly assignment list as a plain-text doc, put it into the Google Apps system, and have it parsed into discrete assignments for the school website and calendar items students’ GoogleCalendar subscriptions.

This requires a very different model for school IT or EdTech then what I’ve seen, or what I I hear about from other schools. Building an new CMS is a huge task, but developing a custom plug-in shouldn’t be beyond the reach of any school.

I’m dedicated to bringing that “little bit of coding” to my students, but I’m also realizing the need to bring it to my school community as a whole. Without the basic understanding of how the tools we rely on function, it’s difficult to imagine how things could be different, much less lay out plans to change them.

Until then, we’ll continue to identify these problems and have vendors come in to pitch their false panaceas, rather than strengthening our schools and building open-solutions to our own unique problems.

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