The journey begins

I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to have worked with schools in various roles for over a decade. Quite literally dozens of schools across Australia, including Catholic, independent and public schools across all year levels and sizes.

There has been a resounding commonality between all of them: managing data sucks.

Now don’t get me wrong: I believe in the power of data. When structured correctly and presented with logic and meaning, data is an invaluable tool not only in running a school efficiently but also in improving outcomes for people. But…

You’ve got to get data right.

Having experience with numerous management information systems (MIS) available has given me invaluable insight into how schools utilise their chosen MIS. Many from local vendors, built here in Australia, and others from international vendors. None of them — at least none that I’ve seen — make managing data in schools easy.

From my experience, and the experience of my colleagues, these management information systems might have a good interface, but their data import/export or integration capabilities are less than ideal. Or they might have a terrible interface and a moderately good data model but have draconian licensing preventing you from interacting with your data.

So, in 2013, my business partner Josh and I set out to find a group of like-minded geeks that would help us shake up the way schools interacted with their data, and Intellischool was born.

A long and winding road ahead.
A long and winding road ahead. Photo by Hugo Kruip on Unsplash.

Finding the right team

Another thing I had learned while consulting to schools was that many of the management information systems in use were old. Like, really old. They had been developed over decades and were being held ransom to their own outdated core infrastructure.

In this day and age, rapid and agile development are critical to the success of apps. Josh and I knew that we would need to gather a team that were able to draw on their own experience and make valuable contributions to this little project.

Between the two of us, we had some key skills — Josh brings a wealth of data architecture experience, and I had considerable software development and UI experience. We spoke with friends and trawled our LinkedIn networks to connect with people that could help us with data integration, data science, statistical modeling, business intelligence, and user experience design.

To our surprise, we were able to bring together a small team of colleagues and friends (old and new) with the right mix of skills to get our idea off the ground.

Understanding what needed to change

While the team was chomping-at-the-bit to get started on something, we all knew that we needed to set ourselves a clear scope. Understanding what our target market was missing was obviously the best place to start.

As a developer, it’s always easy to say “I could do that better” when working with a piece of software written by somebody else. It is not, however, enough to simply proclaim that “our product is better than yours” to encourage user uptake.

To really understand what needed to change, we needed to talk to educators, administrators, students, and parents/caregivers.

So we did.

From our research, we were able to identify some common themes:

  • Teachers and students, in general, quite liked the interfaces that they were working with — typically a Learning Management System. They could typically do almost everything they needed to from a single interface.
  • Non-teaching staff — more often than not — didn’t like the interfaces of the software they were using, but did like the way their data was managed within their particular MIS. Also: “give us electronic forms that work.“
  • Parents and caregivers were a mixed bag. To summarise, they typically liked their school portal if it was run from an LMS, but didn’t like it if it was from an MIS.
  • IT staff and business managers had one common gripe across every person we spoke to: that it is too difficult to integrate many of their systems.
  • Principals and heads of school wanted to be able to drive improvement from the data that they have but didn’t have the means to do so.

Developing a core feature set

Armed with our research themes, we came up with a core feature set that aimed to address the gripes from education communities.

Before we even thought about a user interface, we knew we had to get the underlying data technology right. For our product to be different, it must:

  • Work in harmony with existing systems, such as a Learning Management System;
  • Not force educators into rapid change, and integrate with existing Student Information Systems / Management Information Systems for gradual migration if our product was intended to be used as the primary MIS;
  • Be able to be used as a data hub or data warehouse for integration purposes;
  • Provide an analytical overlay on data for rapid query results, enabling the quick extraction of data insights and the generation of useful visualisations.

Once we had a data platform in concept, we could throw over to our UI and UX design gurus to start developing concepts.

What next?

With our ideas scrawled across the biggest whiteboard we could find in cuneiform-like notation (we geeks type, after all, fine motor skills aren’t our forte), we had something!

And so, our journey began.

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