Student Information Systems for Online and Blended Programs

In addition to policy work, the Evergreen Education Group consults with schools, districts, and consortia to help them start and grow online programs effectively. From time to time, our blog posts will focus on operational best practices. An area of growing importance for online programs is the selection and implementation of student information systems (SIS) to support online and blended learning initiatives. Many state virtual schools and other online programs have used homegrown systems, or make do with a commercial SIS designed for brick and mortar schools, with little of the unique functionality needed for online programs.

With districts implementing online programs at an accelerated rate, there are some basic features to keep in mind when searching for an SIS that will meet the needs of online and blended learning programs:

  • Designed to serve the needs of full-time and supplemental online learning, and possibly blended learning formats
  • Integrates cleanly with the program's learning management system (LMS) with registration data flowing in and student data flowing out. This integration should support the delivery of student data to a "dashboard" both for teachers and administrators. Explore integration options with other critical administrative software (e.g., customer relationship management and accounting systems).
  • Supports multiple levels of administrator access, so the individual schools can access student data for course approval and other purposes.
  • Allows students access to application, course registration, fee or tuition payment, grades and/or transcripts, and drop requests, including the option for managing rolling enrollments.
  • A Software as a Service (SaaS) model is preferred, to avoid the challenges of a local installation, hardware purchase, ongoing maintenance costs, and retaining technology expertise.
  • The system should allow a significant ability to customize features (e.g., custom roles, templates, personal customization of data).
  • The SIS should meet the security needs of your program (e.g., SSL encryption, auto logout).
  • Provides tracking capabilities for student information (e.g., communications, grades, transcripts, external data like IEP, etc.) and faculty (e.g., tracking performance, certifications, teaching load).
  • Easily creates and runs reports for state reporting requirements.
  • Offers reasonable pricing for either a mature or start-up program and anticipate growth over at least a 24-36 month period.  Pricing should take into consideration the difference between the needs of full-time and supplemental students, and be able to accommodate for blended learning instructional models.
  • Technology designed to scale to grow as the program grows.

Current options for virtual schools are still limited.  Despite claims to the contrary, many commercial SIS products are not designed to meet the specialized needs of an online school, often including unnecessary functionality (e.g., bus scheduling). Although many SISs are theoretically able to interface with an LMS, few have actually been able to make real-time integration a reality, and online programs are often left to find their own integration solutions. One SIS provider actually refers clients to its user community, a Yahoo Group, to ask for help integrating with Moodle.

Watch for an upcoming blog post detailing the implementation and integration of an SIS by two different state virtual schools.