Monday, 14 November 2011

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.

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