Sourcing an MIS solution for schools: Inside the management information system revolution

What exactly are MIS solutions, and what should schools be looking for when sourcing them? Luke Dormehl takes a deep dive into management information systems

Whether it’s edtech in the classroom or smart security systems for monitoring student and staff wellbeing, there’s virtually no part of the school experience that isn’t benefiting from the tech revolution. However, ask those in the education industry which behind-the-scenes innovation has the biggest impact day-to-day, and you’ll likely hear the term ‘MIS’ mentioned a whole lot.

Short for management information system, MIS solutions serve as the backbone to a particular organisation’s operations. MIS takes data from multiple systems, helps analyse it, and generally serves as a crucial aid in management decision-making. In the process, it can make real-time data available at a moment’s notice, offer a central ‘one pane of glass’ view of everything educators need to know, and streamline school management overall.

But while all are likely to agree that an MIS is a critical ‘must have’, rather than an optional ‘nice to have’, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Schools will have differing requirements depending on their type of establishment or trust, the particular way that they are structured, and the other relied-upon systems they already have in place. While some functionality will be shared by all the education-focused MIS solutions out there, others may vary depending on the target audience – or, in some case, the vendor’s ability to deliver on some cutting-edge technology that’s reshaping the way we think of MIS.

What exactly should an educational institution look for from an MIS in 2022? What isn’t possible without one? And how, several decades after the term ‘management information system’ was introduced, is the technology continuing to evolve? Education Technology decided to take a deep dive into all things MIS.

Basic tools or a deeper dive?

Any piece of technology has certain core functions that are non-negotiable. Different smartphones may have different-sized screens, apps, storage options and cameras, but they all have to be able to make phone calls if they’re to be considered a phone. MIS is the same in this regard.

“There are some essentials that every school will require and core functionality such as pupil [and] staff records, statutory returns, online registration, single central record and school [and] workforce census that should be expected in any MIS,” said James Inman, chief product officer at Juniper Education.

But this is also the point at which features diverge.

“Some MIS systems have modules that cover bits of pupil assessment, bits of finance, bits of personnel management and bits of parental communication,” Inman explained. “You should consider whether you would like a system that ‘does a bit of everything’ or whether you would prefer separate systems that are specifically tailored to support you to carry out each function effectively.”

Deciding the answer to this question is critical when it comes to deciding which MIS solution is right for you. Inman notes that Juniper’s MIS solution, Horizons, provides customers with “a little bit of everything” in the form of a cost-effective solution that’s perfect for schools requiring a simple solution that ticks core boxes – ideal in cases where a variety of systems are already in place and working effectively.

However, for customers seeking in-depth functionality across assessment, personnel management and parental communication, the company additionally offers a portfolio of solutions which can augment the MIS to add greater depth of functionality.

In many cases, integrations and bolt-ons can augment systems to make them a good fit for whichever customer they are intended for – whether this is a smaller primary school or a secondary collective of academies.

The tools are getting smarter

Even a fairly basic MIS should be able to help you keep track of the key areas involved with running a school on a daily basis. That means storing data (regarding pupils, staff, school assets, etc), as well as other areas ranging from behaviour to special educational needs (SEN).

But while some schools will be happy with a relatively bare-bones MIS, it’s the depth of functionality of modern tools in this space which really highlight how this area has advanced in recent years. For instance, some features of MIS solutions are reminiscent of the customer relationship management (CRM) tools frequently used by businesses to optimise customer relations. However, they also go way further, as necessitated by some of the complexity unique to the education space.

“In a CRM system, you might have a business that you’re doing work with, and that might have two or three contacts,” said Simon Freeman, MD for education at IRIS, a top MIS provider.

“It’s quite a linear transaction, whereas if you look at education, you [might have] a student that may or may not have parents that are together; there may be a court order that prevents one parent speaking to the child. You can have all this other information to see. The system needs to cope with the complexity of society that sits around it, rather than just the complexity of how you want to transact business with it, which you would do in a CRM.”

Dealing with this complexity requires a comprehensive tool that can handle all of this information across multiple domains. It’s not just for safeguarding issues, either. “You might have a grandparent that’s paying for school uniform or a trust fund that’s paying for the school fees [in an independent school], while the parent is paying for other things,” Freeman continued.

“When you start mapping a financial complexity against societal complexity, you end up with something that really goes way beyond anything that you would want to code in a generic system. The use-case is so special and so unique to the way that education works.”

Predictive analytics enters the MIS

An MIS doesn’t simply store information, though. Modern solutions, aided by breakthroughs in fields like machine learning and smart data analysis tools, can also help make sense of it.

“The MIS can be a great source of insightful and useful data to support teaching and learning and to help identify potential issues and barriers to pupil progress,” Inman explained. “Being able to easily triangulate and manipulate data from all areas of the system can help staff look for patterns – to see things they otherwise might not have – and to stop children from ‘falling through the gaps’.”

One example of this might be proactively assisting with reporting when it comes to a student whose attendance drops below 90%. Inman noted that solutions such as Horizons MIS will automatically alert the relevant staff – from teachers to SENCO to the head – so that they can investigate further.

It can also assist with digging deeper into these issues, for instance looking for patterns that might be relevant – like certain days, times or lessons which are skipped. It may help uncover that there are regular instances of negative behaviours on days preceding an absence or that the lessons skipped are ones frequently covered by a supply teacher.

On a broader level, MIS solutions can additionally help track areas like financial spend on certain subjects and whether they translate into hard results. “[You might say], ‘OK, so I’ve got 10, 20, 30 schools in my multi-academy trust, can I see what I’m spending on English at each individual school?’” Freeman said.

“What are the grades and [are they] improving? And why does one school spend £490 per pupil versus another school that spends £300, and why is the cheaper one getting better results? It’s that type of analytics that people are now starting to really explore.”

“Having such data at your fingertips can be invaluable,” Inman noted. “Through analytics and dashboards, the school MIS can not only help leaders ask the right questions – it can provide the answers.”

You can expect these solutions to get smarter in the months and years to come as well. In doing so, they will help answer some of the questions educators have which might otherwise be next to impossible to answer without smart tools.

“We’ve been doing quite a lot of proof-of-concepts at the moment with AI and machine learning on matching data,” Freeman explained. “[We’re] starting to see some correlations between [areas like] attendance and behaviour and the number of the levels of engagement parents have through their text messaging and email systems.

“Is there a trend there that allows you to then work out whether different types of engagements with different types of parents are much more effective, rather than broadcast messages that go out to every parent in the school the same, of which some people will react well to and some people won’t?”

Only the right MIS will help you know for sure.

Choosing the right solution

As noted earlier, every school needs an MIS. Choosing the right one is done on a case-by-case basis. With multiple vendors in the space and no shortage of options when it comes to customisation, the process may seem daunting. However, there are pointers that can help schools select the right option for them.

For starters, make sure that you are as specific as possible about the problem you wish to solve. Some of these are likely to be generalisable to any learning institute, while others may be more specific to you. Since MIS tools are all about visibility, make this process of selection part of the transparency process by involving as many stakeholders and potential users as possible. Gone are the days when the MIS was purely the province of the head and a dedicated administration team. The modern MIS is, instead, far more likely to be utilised by a large number of staff in a school.

To determine what’s needed will therefore benefit from assembling a broad team representing all departments within a school to ensure that all voices and requirements are heard. This can aid with setting goals regarding what you hope to achieve, better understanding use-cases and usage requirements, comprehending the necessary software integrations and overall finding a system that fits within the learning ethos of the school in question.

Consider also the level of technical support and guidance you have in the school to properly ensure the success – and maximum benefit gleaned – from whatever systems you choose. Are you hosting this on your own servers or relying on cloud-based offerings? What level of outside support are you likely to need?

On top of this, look at the different pricing options to find the best set of features for whatever budget you have available. While it’s important to look at value for money instead of simply basic cost, schools will nonetheless have a budget they’re working to. As part of a POC (proof of concept) assessment, look at areas like initial license (the initial purchase cost), annual maintenance fees, support and consultancy costs – and don’t forget about the all-important transfer costs of switching from one supplier to another.

Don’t feel afraid to bring in MIS vendors at this part of the conversation, either. While vendors are, ultimately, looking to make a sale, they’re also looking to ensure the right product fit for customers – especially in an age of SaaS (software-as-a-service), in which software solutions are paid for via subscription, like Netflix or Spotify, rather than as a one-off purchase. That means that there is more onus than ever on them spending time with prospective customers to find the right tools for the job. They will be able to help advise on what tools are available – and how they can help.

The MIS has never been a more vital part of the school tech environment. If you’ve not revisited these solutions in several years, now is a great time to look at what the MIS solutions of the 2020s have to offer. As far as functionality and potential benefits goes, this a golden age for educational software in general. And management information systems are certainly no exception to the rule.

You might also like: The whole-school approach to safeguarding

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