Monday 14 November 2011

Necessity: The mother of Invention

As you've heard, we're  developing a web product from the ground up. However, so many of our MUSAC schools do so much with Classic, particularly ClassRoom Manager, that it will be many more developer days of work before you'll wish to swap out to the fully online world. Timing of the roll out of of fibre another consideration.
In response to a request by his Principal at Mt Aspiring, web interfaces were developed (by Tim Harper) to:
  • Enter teacher absences online (iPad, iPhone, Android, Apple platform/Linux platform ...)
  • Teacher portal for school reports (further functionality available and being considered)
  • Parent portal to see whats going on
  • Student portal to keep informed
These tools are currently active in half a dozen schools - primary and secondary and we've sent a survey to a few schools to gauge the level of interest in MUSAC making these more widely available and supporting them. So far - lots of strong interest!

The idea here is that some schools want the best of both worlds - flexibility and breadth and depth of Classic plus a few basic web tools. When MUSAC's full hosted SaaS web product is deeper in functionality the school can choose to migrate. Those schools who don't use the breadth and depth of Classic will be more inclined to move to the fully web hosted system sooner.

At this stage we're in limited release with the web product, moving to formal release 31 March 2012. The product will continue to evolve and develop over many years. The above portals for Classic can be used until the web hosted product is developed enough for your school.

I expect to have a decision from the MUSAC Board at our next meeting (1/12/2011). I'll keep you posted.

MUSAC's Web based application: The story so far

We've been a little quiet about our web based application. We've had a number of focus groups (and continue to do so) and also a short road trip talking about our concept and vision. However, I thought I'd share the story so far as a prelude to greater depth of information about where we're headed and why.
MUSAC forecasted that the foundations for Classic that are serving us well would  need to change in the future and school expectations would evolve. In 2007, MUSAC completed a development of Symphony Attendance which was the first "Symphony" module. This module was SQL server based, latest in software technologies, windows application based and Ministry approved for Electronic Roll Returns. Sitting alongside this was eTrack, the Early Notification system. The intention was the new Symphony module would sit along side Classic performing synchronisation overnight.

This approach had a number of issues:
  1. The schools we trialled it in really struggled to have anyone that knew enough about SQL server for us to be anything other than very hands on with installation and management. Equals cost and frustration for the school.
  2. The batch synchronisation of live data scared me. Imagine enrolling a student in the morning but couldn't mark them in class until the next day -- unacceptable.
  3. The pain MUSAC often experienced with schools was associated with poor networks and server capacity - this approach wasn't going to address that.
  4. The wave of new SaaS and web based applications begged the question of the long term life expectancy of another in-school based application. I predict Classic has 5-10 years in it - I don't think this application would have been any different.
Furthermore, the expectations of the Ministry around Data Sharing Approvals were not going to be addressed for all MUSAC schools by the strategy we'd adopted. Namely:
  1. Roll Returns
  2. Electronic Roll Returns
  3. SMS-LMS v1 (and now 2, soon to be 3)
  4. Early Notification
  5. Electronic Attendance Registers
The latter part of 2007 focused on addressing, in Classic, Data Sharing requirements, issues customers had shared with me in my first few months at MUSAC. Out of this came MUSAC Essentials and Premier, all of the above Ministry of Education approvals,  and work on single sign-on and a menu driven system for driving Classic (remove the perceptions of independent products) plus the mega installer. The risk profile of the Classic menu driven system became such we had to abandon that. I still hear from time to time that Classic is not integrated. Its not strictly true, but could look that way in terms of navigation.

At the start of 2008 I took a bold step and dumped the "Symphony project". We were going web based, end of story. A number of developers were already reasonably on top of the web concept and we invested in PD. We still had a lot of Classic work on - finishing single logon, unpicking the menu system and completing AB6 so all MUSAC schools had a compliant electronic attendance register.

By the end of 2008 we had a web concept, but our lack of experience in web based development was showing. Similarly, we had turned our development processes on its head trying to get away from the waterfall approaches to that of Agile. We knew this would be a much better approach. We got some external help to review where we were with the product and our processes. The reviews were not great, but the team responded beyond my expectations. We turned around in 3-4 months what the reviewer thought was a train smash.

In July 2009 we convinced three schools to have a crack at being beta schools for what was a very rudimentary web based student management system. What was important for MUSAC was to get real schools using and commenting on the product and feeding back into our Agile development lifecycle.
Latter in 2009, a non-target segment school convinced us they too should join as a beta school. This was a rather defining moment for us (always in hindsight!). Our plan was to get a product out that covered the bases of a Student Management system, but only just enough functionality. In 2010, this approached was slam dunked by this school. They were very clear that we needed greater depth and that they would rather wait for width but be able to totally rely on the beta product for specific aspects to be taken care of in totality. At this stage we had Electronic Roll Return approval and electronic Attendance Register approval. One of the best pieces of feedback in 2010 was when we received a call asking if the school had done Roll Returns correctly online - because it was so easy and hardly took any time to do.
At this time we had now been through 3 changes in the look and feel - I expect we'll continue to evolve this. The nature of the MUSAC team has also radically changed. More staff having more input into shaping all products. The management structure had also gone through a number of iterations of change and we also tried to ensure key people in the organisation were oriented to provide best value to schools and our agents. Our delivery processes are better and our phone system finally gives the team some real tools to work from. the support team from predominantly reactive to predominantly proactive and this journey has started.

In the background however, was a continual buzz of: "where is it?" "what is it?" "when can we have it?" "give me a date." At the same time, acknowledgement across the sector the predominantly things were pretty good with MUSAC in schools that had invested in PD and in development of the documents and reports that MUSAC agents excel at. Any conversation that starts with "MUSAC Classic can't ..." can usually be turned around to "let me show you how". I digress.
As we've pushed development of our web product forward, we've always had very clearly in mind that Massey University would host this. We knew conceptually that Massey was part of the KAREN network and were leveraging this to establish a campus fail-over system i.e. if Palmerston North was isolated, all other campuses could continue using IT systems without pain. That is our plan.

We've also continued being Agile and deliver an update to customers every month. Changes are then incremental and the schools grow with our additional functionality. We like this as we get fairly quick feedback, although it doesn't suit all - some like big bang delivery. In 2011, the team execution has been great and our delivery trajectory continues to reforecast ahead of plan. The real question is: Is this fast enough for those who want something different? MUSAC and the University is playing the long game. We now have a reasonably sustainable model and confident we can ensure a long term roadmap of continuous development and improvement - possibly something the Ministry was not so sure of around the time of accreditation.
So what can you expect from our web product this year?
  1. A name (!) - internal joke ...
  2. Approved as an Electronic Attendance Register (done)
  3. Electronic roll returns (done)
  4. Enrolments (done)
  5. Recording and rudimentary analysis of Primary assessment tools (done)
  6. NCEA basics (done)
  7. General secondary assessment capability (next year)
  8. The timetable algorithm from TTSM - (but not all the bells and whistles just yet!) (next year)
  9. Essentials for timetable management (on track)
  10. Basics of school/parent reports (done)
  11. Course management (done)
  12. Rudimentary student fees (by March 2012)
  13. Basic Pastoral (watching the behaviour for learning initiative here i.e. PB4L)
What I've learned in recent years is that many schools don't scratch the surface of their student management system - irrespective of what flavour they ended up with. This makes the approach of when to pick up the MUSAC online product or is MUSAC Classic the better choice not so clear cut. What we do have is not only product but professionals across the country that can work with schools on their internal management processes and guide the school to best use their MUSAC software. I also believe that most schools want to see a real live person from time to time. Yes technology can deal with some day to day work - but education after all is a people thing.

I'll post up soon where our focus will be for 2012 and beyond and what we believe will differentiate this product forom others.

Thursday 8 September 2011

SMS-LMS v2.2 Update

Quick update on SMS-LMS v2.2. The addition of a more robust validation tool (Saxon for the technically interested), addressing of several defects and addition of 2.2 changes has been integrated and is now through to testing. The MUSAC Interoperability Control Centre (MICC, not to be confused with the Cricket Council) will also need regression testing as part of our standard process.

Next step is working with Watchdog and Edtech for KnowledgeNET, Moodle and UltraNET provisioning for target release of early October, as previously indicated.

LMS interoperability has been a long road for all vendors. As I mentioned, we waited until some of the dust settled before diving in, hence why it appears we're "slow". Our downfall was primarily that we did not have very good validation at the SMS end, else we would be in a better position now.

As I mentioned previously, we're looking to to take a more leading role. We believe we have wider support for an incremental change to the interoperability schema than more wholesale at this time. Of course, we also need to be looking ahead and establishing requirements for the future now so we can be ready.

Friday 5 August 2011

Modern Learning Environments

With my many hats of MUSAC MD, Dad and BoT representative, I'm lucky to be exposed to similar issues and concepts in all the roles. One of those is that of Modern Learning Environments. Our school is looking to upgrade some classrooms to that more better suited to more modern pedagogy, I see my kids learning in ways that contrasts significantly with my primary school days and have recently heard the Ministry policy and seen an implementation of this first hand in regards to Modern Learning Environments.

With my MUSAC MD hat on I attended the SEO conference in Rotorua last week and sat in on the Ministry talk about Modern Learning Environments in relation to property. Yesterday I was in Auckland as part of a reference group which was hosted by Stonefields Primary School. We were given a tour and I assume saw the Ministry property policy (amongst others) in action.

I asked the teacher showing us around whether the new environment changed the way she taught or made it easier. Her response was both. She indicated that the new environment better supported the way she had taught in previous schools but was also contributing to changing the way she taught because the three teachers in her hub were able to observe each others practice and help each other improve.

Being some one who goes off on tangents and this is my blog ... I linked two other things I'm associated with/doing:
  1. Reading Sir Ken Robinson's book on creativity "Out of Our Minds" in which he speaks of the stifling of creativity and Education being stuck in an industrial revolution paradigm. Stonefields Primary might sit on top of an old quarry, but they (like many other schools in NZ) seem not to quite fit the out of date model Sir Ken (with respect) refers. OK - I'm only up to chapter 6!
  2. The great structure and scaffold around profession development of teachers and linkages with Initial Teacher Education (ITE) at College Street Normal school here in Palmerston North. Mr Kennedy has developed with his team a positive and proactive structure that leverages internal  expertise and teacher observation (peer and self review) to grow individual capabilities. Not sure if a case study has been written up, but had great feedback from ITE students on practicum in the school. Maybe at next years Inspired Impact conference?
My point. These modern learning environments seem to be a step in the right direction if the comments from the Stonefields teacher yesterday, the types of scaffold around professional development with peer review/observation that make a difference for students, over laid with the issues Sir Ken so eloquently portrays, are anything to go by.

Almost sounds like an endorsement of Ministry policy :)

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Massey University Bolster's MUSAC's Board

I heard an incredibly strange comment the other day about what Massey was doing with MUSAC. The comment was the exact opposite to the reality.

Anyway, Massey University is committed to MUSAC and has been working to ensure MUSAC's long term success. One of the initiatives has been to bolster the MUSAC Advisory Board. The Board now consists of:
  • Mark Cleaver (Chair). Mark is Massey University's Director of research management services and has accountabilities around commercialisation activities. Mark also has a strong background in educational governance having served on Boards for schools, kindergarten associations and sports bodies.
  • Professor James Chapman. Pro-vice Chancellor of the College of Education and an international reputation in literacy research. Professor Chapman has also done the hard yards in the classroom.
  • Terry Allen. Is a director at Massey University's business incubator the e-centre and extensive experience in strategic planning and IT
  • Grant Travis. Grant is an accountant by trade with particular strengths in strategic thinking bringing a steady, pragmatic and forward focus perspective to Board meetings and discussions. Grant is an independent director on other commercial Boards and a successful businessman in his own right.
  • Yours truly

Monday 4 July 2011

MUSAC Commits to SMS-LMSv2.2

Following the beta release of our SMS-LMS v2 implementation (incorporated into MICC) has been the requirement to address a number of issues:
  • Data validation
  • Performance
  • Batch uploads
  • Scheduling
Underlying those issues (which are MUSAC ones) has been a couple of more fundamental ones associated with the schema which doesn't allow for 2 degrees cellphone numbers, for example. These are addressed in v2.2 of the SMS-LMS interoperability schema. MUSAC has committed to making the necessary software changes to comply with version 2.2. We're going to kick the additional development work off shortly, but to provide better assurance the teams from KnowledgeNET and UltraNET will work closely with us to enable a stronger end-to-end test bed. We expect to do the integration testing within a month.

Thanks also to Paul from the Ministry for providing enabling assistance.

Some schools are probably asking why it has "taken so long". The short answer was that MUSAC deliberately did not take a leading edge position with version SMS-LMS v2 interoperability. MUSAC did so with KnowledgeNET with version 1 of the schema and rewrote a lot of software many times. While the Ministry provided some assistance we absorbed a lot of cost to, in hindsight, essentially develop a proof of concept.

This iteration we waited until the dust had settled a bit, but even then an update of schema v2 was released about a month after we'd pushed it out to all MUSAC schools. The feedback I've been getting is that you would prefer us to take a more leading role. So we shall.

Monday 30 May 2011

Area Schools Conference

I was fortunate enough to be at the Area Schools Conference last week held at the James Cook in Wellington - MUSAC being a key sponsor. We offered two free workshops this year: one hosted by Cheryl from Solutions and Services on the topic of MUSAC Accounts (Financial Manager) and the second hosted by Mal (again Solutions and Services) with the focus on student achievement and in particular data management, analysis and reporting to parents.

It is great sometimes to just sit back and enjoy the ride - Cheryl making things easier for administration staff with tips and tricks around the use of the package, backed by sound accounting practice.  And then listen to Mal as he simplified ClassRoom Manager, but again spoke in relation to real information that teachers and managers want to know about students and their progress and achievement. We're in a very fortunate niche situation in that we are the only vendor formally recognised as catering for junior, middle and senior school needs - particularly around achievement. What I'm also saying here is that it wasn't the software features or just the people, it was the two working in combination to provide people in schools with ways to make their jobs easier.

As we do, we also joined in some of the social side of the conference and got to meet an array of great people doing a tough job in often remote areas, on a small scale with all the high expectations of community and Ministry. I take my hat off to them.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Recruitment drive

Some of you may have seen MUSAC has been undertaking a major recruitment drive in the recent months. At the end of this drive our staff numbers will be around 30 - a major contrast from the early days of Rory and Doug in one of the Massey University windowless offices in the early 90's.

We're conscious that we've not got our new web application to the level you want it so we've put a bit more weight behind that project. We're also working harder on better support and so in order to free people up to make improvements we've added more resource in support also. All this as well as keeping up with all the demands of the Ministry and NZQA around NCEA, National Standards and interoperability.

If you've missed our advertisements we're looking for developers and business analysts on a fixed term and permanent basis. Development is Agile, so experience there is a must. Find us on Seek or

First step complete

It is no secret that MUSAC is developing an online educational management system. There is mixed understanding when this was initiatied and when it will be "finished". What is clear is that last year we completed a first step, albeit a baby step - we've got a number of schools using the functions we've built. It is not a finished all singing and all dancing student management system - there is a lot of work to do yet. But we have achieved a major milestone. It is in the cloud and it is live.

Those who have been in and around MUSAC for some time have probably heard of the historic false starts, the great promise of what will come - much of which did not. This product has achieved what the previous ones didn't - it is real and being used. It has a way to go to be what we envision it to be - affordbale for all schools, easy to use and strongly supported - but it is a real step in a direction that will underpin the very future of education in many, many New Zealand schools.

I'll be updating you with more about our progress, vision and points of difference as the year unfolds.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

2011 off to a great start

Cannot believe it is almost the end of January 2011. Where did that summer holiday go?

The majority of the team here at MUSAC is back on board and we're kicking the year off with significant involvement in the Inspired Impact conference here in Palmerston North. Ross Kennedy has done a fantastic job pulling together a great bunch of keynote speakers, workshops and networking opportunities to get inspired and align ones thinking for another year ahead. Massey University is gold and named sponsor of the conference, reinforcing the significance of education (implicitly and explicitly), creativity and innovation across the University and the alignment with core themes of the conference.

We're excited about being involved and can't wait to hear Sir Ken Robinson speak tomorrow morning.