Student Management Systems – Time for Change?

What do you do when you want a new and better Student Management System; or possibly your current Student Management System (SMS) supplier goes out of business, or ceases to support your system? Here are some thoughts.

At present there seems to be a bit of action amongst the SMS suppliers which, having had a few anxious phone calls and emails, has prompted me to write this post.

Your current system

  • First and foremost, you should secure your data. Your existing SMS supplier will have licensed you to use their software and that licence may be being terminated, but remember the data is yours. Now, here’s the interesting and rather worrying thing. In the rush into the Cloud you may have lost control of your data.
    • If you are running your SMS on your own network your database should be simple to secure – indeed you may have multiple back-ups of that data going back years. There is no real cost to you to securing your data.
    • If your database is in the Cloud but stored by an organisation other than your SMS provider you should be able to retrieve your database yourself or request the supplier to send it to you. There may be a small cost associated with this service.
    • If your database is stored by your SMS supplier you may have a problem, depending on how that supplier manages data. It could be a simple matter for the supplier to pass you a copy of the physical database as a single file or as a structured group of files. In some instances, however your data may be stored in a “multi-tenanted” database. This means your data is stored alongside the data of other organisations using the same SMS. Then there may be a more significant cost to obtain your own data.
  • Another factor to consider is that when you get your database you may need to obtain a software licence to access the data and if that were, say, an Oracle licence this will be expensive. If the required licence is for a Microsoft product you may already have a licence or can acquire one easily.
  • You should check on your right to continue to use your current SMS. Some systems are supplied on the basis that you pay a fee to use the software – possibly on a monthly basis. If you cease to pay that fee your access to the software will be terminated. This mean that, even if you have secured your data, you can’t actually use it to do things like produce a Single Data Return. Other systems are supplied on the basis that you are provided with the software and can continue to use it even after the supplier has gone out of business or ceases to support the software. Clearly if the software is not updated for changing compliance requirements it will quickly become redundant; however, you can still use it to produce historical reports and academic transcripts. This is particularly important if moving to a new SMS involves a poor or limited transfer of data from your existing system.

A replacement SMS

  • If you are in the situation of having to change to another system you may find a checklist useful. Please contact me if would like a checklist, or just to chat about the process of change. In the meantime, here some ideas that may help.
  • Some people who market and sell systems don’t necessarily know very much about either the technology of the system they are selling nor, for that matter, the nuts and bolts of student management. They possibly also have little insight into the compliance requirements of New Zealand government agencies.
  • Make a list of the key features of your current SMS, including compliance functions, and check that they are in any product you are evaluating.
  • When assessing systems, you should ask to talk to the people who will provide support. You should also ask to view a sample of the user documentation. After all a system is only as good as the support that is provided.
  • Check that the underlying software used by the new system is not out of date or possibly even redundant. For example, Adobe will not support Flash beyond 2020.
  • Evaluate if having custom functionality is something that you might require. Some SMS suppliers do not allow custom functionality, or even allow you to access your database preventing you being able to use or develop third-party applications accessing your data. If the SMS supplier provides an API interface to exchange data, you need to evaluate how extensive it is and if it would meet your requirements. In most cases the API interface is limited and at the whim of the SMS supplier to expand.
  • Ask for references, making sure that you get several from providers who recently changed to the SMS you are checking out. You could also ask the supplier to name an organisation which has used their system but decided to move on to another product.
  • Get very clear and detailed information on pricing over say, a five-year horizon. At least one supplier has a built-in annual fee increment based on the consumer price index. Several suppliers have a separate fee for particular options. You may need to have functionality that includes the exchange of data with the Literacy and Numeracy for Adults Assessment Tool or reporting to Public Trust for example, but this could cost extra. You may want good business intelligence functionality, but this could require you to pay a third-party software licence.  
  • Check that you can have access to a test system with a copy of your data at no additional licence cost.
  • Check out in detail how the data from your current SMS gets into the new SMS. Who does the work? You may end up copying a lot of data into a bunch of CSV files. That takes time and can result in transposition errors. How far back in time will your data be transferred? You might have got records going back to the introduction of the SDR in your current system which are still of value – not least because ex-students want to get transcripts.
  • If though, the transfer only goes back one or two years, will there be a cost in maintaining your existing SMS in order to produce those transcripts?
  • Investigate the likely longevity of the supplier you are evaluating. It is not unknown for a supplier to enter the market in New Zealand and then discover that the market is not sufficiently large to earn enough to maintain their SMS’s New Zealand compliance. Annual fees are increased to close the gap or the supplier simply leaves New Zealand.
  • Ask for a copy of the current SMS development road map. This might provide an insight into missing or “thin” functionality.