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Online Database Management – Making Good on a Promise

By Steffen Parker on March 14, 2017 hst Print

One of the promises made when personal computers were first available to the public was that they would make paper obsolete. That promise, however, initially had the opposite effect with the ability to print, revise, copy and paste – increasing the amount of paper being inked.

Thankfully that trend is reversing itself and that initial promise of a paperless society, while not on the horizon, is now possible for many organizations. A key component of accomplishing that is moving the overflowing file cabinet to the Internet.

The range of options for managing data online continues to expand as does technology itself, and that expansion provides users with more and more options and more and more choices. Finding a single data management system that meets all of your needs is possible, but it becomes increasingly more difficult as the use of data as part of the educational decision-making process increases.

Most schools have one version or the other of a Student Information System (SIS) but may be using that system only for contact information, attendance or basic scheduling. Expanding your online data use thus may not require additional software to begin to include grades, assessments, discipline or activity records.

In addition to the data aspect of using the Internet for student and school records, many organizations are using a variety of sites for document storage, capturing existing documents containing data in either static or dynamic forms, allowing access and/or collaboration that using paper does not easily allow. Because of the nature of the information contained within, the security of these documents is usually the first consideration when deciding on a platform to use for this purpose.

The first step for many schools in moving some or all of their data online is to consider why they want to make that change. Are you looking to better organize your information so that it is consistent from building to building, use to use? Do you need one location for this data so that any updates that are made only need to be made once? Is there a need to share this data across schools, disciplines or buildings? Is there a need for collaboration among the authors as the document is developed?

Once you have determined your initial needs, the first place to consider as a location for your online data is your current SIS. Most, if not all, of the current programs being used by schools have capabilities in storing standards-based rubrics and evaluations, report cards, schedules, discipline and health records. Before you invest in a parallel database provider, make sure that the one you have now, already populated with your students’ names, state IDs and other information points, is not able to provide you with the features to meet your additional needs.

If your SIS cannot provide the services required, the search becomes more complicated and more expensive. When considering a parallel database provider, include in your inquiry:

  • Import capabilities: Can the program receive shared data from your SIS in a common format (CSV being the most likely)? Is there a way to have that import done automatically overnight? Can you import data in a common format from other sources using a key field?
  • Export/Report capabilities: What data can be exported from the program? In what format? Are reports possible? Can you create/modify/edit report formats? Are all fields exportable?
  • Sign-On/Users: Is Same Sign-On possible with your current SIS or Active Directory?
  • Flexibility: Can you modify fields, screens, forms, data types and reports so that they will serve the intended purposes?
  • Security/Access: Is the server secure? Are the login credentials adequate? Canyou add/edit/delete users as needed? Can the data be accessed remotely away from your school network?
  • Costs: What is the annual cost associated with using this program for your data? Are there limits related to those costs that you might reach in the near future? Would using this program require hardware or software updates on the school side to be functional?

For schools that have personnel with the technological skills to create their own online data management, such a system could be designed in-house that would meet most or all of the identified data needs. And while FileMaker Pro, Access and SQL – to name a few – are platforms that support such an effort, there are some issues to be considered first – cost of the platform, personnel cost of the time required to create
and maintain the online data, ease of modification and longevity of the personnel required for continued use. The last is the most challenging as a skilled computer person who works for your school may be able to create your online data management system, but may not be your “computer tech” next year. Make sure that any system that is created in-house has complete documentation on its programming, use and administrator access, and that more than one staff member has the skill to use that information for all perceived purposes.

Having student data online is now much more secure than in the past and is done, at one level or another, by just about every school in the country. Having that data remain current, be accessible to the appropriate users and provide what those users need in terms of information and analysis requires a thoughtful approach. Determining what to store, what to share and how it’s maintained is a more important discussionthan which program, platform or company to use.