With battle cries of “Digital on day one!,” districts launch into back-to-school planning around this time each year. But the pathway to a successful start to the new school year is littered with technical landmines. And they aren’t new problems—they happen every single year.
Thankfully, a new conversation focused on reimagining back-to-school is emerging. And if education technology touches your work, you’ll want to lean in, listen and take part.
In the spirit of change and growth (and smashing the endless frustrations that make us want to pull our hair out every July, August and September), a group of school technology leaders and edtech vendors came together at ClassLink’s inaugural Back To School Summit in May. The goal was to start a conversation around improving the back-to-school process—from a technology perspective. We talked openly (and pretty passionately) about nailing down that elusive perfect moment for a Student Information System (SIS) rollover, infuriating rostering snags, problematic technology PD and so much more.
Did we solve all the problems? Nope. But we took a crucial first step forward, naming common issues, considering how to tackle them and planning ways to continue the conversation.
Now, it’s time to expand the conversation. We’ll start by sharing the top takeaways from Classlink’s Back to School Summit. Then, we invite you to chime in.
Be part of the change. Add your voice to this conversation using the #rethinkbacktoschool hashtag. Don’t forget to tag @ClassLink so we can see all your great ideas and help keep the conversation going.
The 5 Biggest Back-to-School Blockers
1. Timing Your SIS Rollover
This is a big one. And some of the other issues listed here are tangled up in the SIS rollover, especially communication.
You need to roll your SIS data into the upcoming year, but that means all data from the previous school year must be updated and verified in the SIS first. And the rollover takes time—depending on the SIS your district uses and the efficiency of your processes, this may slow down the process or leave your SIS inaccessible until the rollover is complete. That’s an issue if your rollover happens during summer school or your window of time is limited.
IT staff also need all the new data entered into the SIS for the next school year in time to process key functions like rostering students into the correct grade levels, classes, apps, and even to plan bus routes and food services.
Adding to the complexity, some state-level reporting is tedious, and there are legal reporting requirements for state funding. Often, this slows down the process because of the checks and balances needed to make sure the SIS data is 100 percent accurate.
- Chris Odom, Instructional Technology Specialist at Rock Hill Schools, SC, says his district opted to roster summer school students outside their SIS for the last four years. They use spreadsheets instead. At the end of summer school, any changes are imported into last year’s SIS data capture and then applied to the next school year when assigning grade levels. “It’s not as elegant a process as I’d like, but it’s something we’ll continue to work on,” explains Odom.
- Constant centralized communication is another step that eases the pain of the rollover issue. Odom says, starting in May, a group that includes the district administrators, school admin, district SIS coordinators and IT staff meets weekly to discuss every step of the back-to-school and summer school process to ensure everyone is on the same path.
2. Rostering a Million Different Ways
Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but plenty of BTS Summit attendees grumbled about how frustrating it is that some vendors still don’t support an open rostering standard. Finding staff to accommodate manual rostering isn’t just tricky; it’s also less accurate and more time-consuming than using an automated rostering solution that follows a standard.
- Many technology leaders have started demanding that all new apps accept OneRoster files. These same leaders say they also have regular conversations with existing vendors about if and when they plan to accept OneRoster files.
- Odom says his district uses ClassLink’s Roster Server tool (which is IMS Global certified) to roster the majority of its nearly 50 apps and programs. “I could not do it without ClassLink. I would never have gotten to the scale I’ve got with Python scripts. I could have done 10 to 15 apps, but not 40.”
3. Training Troubles
Teacher training has vast implications for successful technology use in the new school year. It’s crucial that teachers are ready and confident in their skills when they walk into their classrooms. Getting there is complicated.
Hold teacher training too early, and teachers are stuck using fake data—not ideal. If there’s too much time between training and using the tech in class, you risk teachers losing some of what they’ve learned.
Then, you need to choose the best type of training. Is it online, in-person, on-demand? One attendee said teachers in her district asked for online training, but a little digging revealed they actually meant on-demand training they can fit into their days.
- Grace Magley, Director of Digital Learning for Natick Public Schools, MA, learned that teachers in her district like video training, so she’s creating technology training videos for teachers over the summer. Others loved this idea, highlighting that it creates accessible on-demand training that teachers could even use for troubleshooting, reducing calls to tech teams.
4. Communication Concerns
Communication issues range from teams working in silos (on both the vendor and school side) to helping teachers be more self-sufficient when addressing hiccups.
Major stumbling blocks happen when the curriculum and IT teams don’t communicate or work together for efficiencies and understanding. And everyone—from teachers to curriculum leaders—needs clear direction on whom to contact when they have access issues.
- IT teams and curriculum teams should meet with vendors together, rather than separately, so everyone is on the same page from day one.
- Schools can outline a clear workflow that includes whom to call for specific technology issues—when teachers should contact curriculum leaders versus IT or the vendor—and then share it publicly and often!
- Both schools and vendors say it’s also critical to have an updated points-of-contact list to know who the appropriate contacts are and who can address issues quickly. Vendors need school contact lists and vice-versa.
- Schools can also create a file or section on their website, where teachers, students, parents and staff can check outage issues for vendors. Rock Hill uses this super simple status page. Others use UptimeRobot.
5. An Outdated Approach
A recurring comment throughout the Summit was to do whatever you can to start the back-to-school process earlier. Some even said the “back-to-school process” is a bit of a misnomer since districts need to look at these issues throughout the year to avoid a bottleneck situation in summer and early fall.
- Look at every part of your back-to-school process and, where possible, do things earlier. For example, consider bumping up internal planning sessions and meeting with vendors.
- If you’re a vendor, arrange to meet with districts earlier.
And this is just the beginning of the conversation. Let’s get as many heads as possible thinking about these concerns. That will lead to better, faster, more innovative solutions.