The Transition Begins…

Our four days of meetings with Veracross last week in Boston went very well. We learned a great deal about how to work collaboratively with the firm to increase the likelihood of a successful transition.

The big challenge for us is that we are planning to switch over to approximately 12 modules at once. (LS, MS, HS, Admissions, HR, Admissions, Transcripts, etc.) We also have a relatively limited time frame to do this (eight months).

Other schools have done three year transitions to their system, but in those cases the schools may have had three different student information systems (one per division) that weren’t necessarily talking to either much anyway, so replacing one a year was much easier.

Our other big challenge is to migrate away from FileMaker Pro, which has the ability to be rapidly customized on a daily basis for new fields, new interfaces and new push-button reports. This can be great for a smaller school, but trying to maintain and update all the changes in a larger school is a lot harder. The tough part is now that we can’t bring over every single report and every interface easily into Veracross and still meet our deadlines.

Thus, we left Boston last week with three large objectives. First, we are going to build scripts to export, label and rationalized data from all FileMaker files (and document the column headers with a Data Dictionary) so that Veracross can spend its time customizing the models for us instead of trying to figure out our FileMaker data. (Filemaker files are known for have 2500 columns of which fifty might be important.)

Second, we need to rationalize some of our existing interfaces and cut them down a bit to what is really needed to get started. There are a lot of functions in our current system that aren’t used, so we intend/need to take them away (at least for the start). We can alter the Veracross interfaces over time, but we are not going to be able to move 10 years of FileMaker tweaks into Veracross all at once.

Third, we are going to use the API in Veracross to have a local FileMaker Pro server to crank out basic reports on a nightly basis. For example, the main volume of our reports are basic class lists, but in six different formats. For example, the Grade 2 teacher may want six different reports for their class lists (with pictures, with boxes, for labels, and more). So, our local FileMaker Pro server can crank out a long set of these reports, grade by grade, into pdf files that are downloadable from a single web page in the facutly/staff portal. Thus, we don’t need to build a query interface, and all the files are simply ready for downloading and use.

Of course, we have more planned, but this is our job for the next two months. We will have all data scripted and exported and documented for Veracross by 1 February, as well as greater clarification about the interfaces. The good news is that it appears will will achieve a working Transportation module in year one, but we will need to be very careful about how far we build out other modules.

As for today, Thanksgiving, I just got done sleeping for 15 hours, and in an hour or two we are heading for the boat for the long weekend, even if we just find ourselves looking at other boats and walking the town of Gosport.

Sunny Morning in Boston

So far, so good with our Boston trip.

After arriving on Saturday, we drove straight downtown to see Quincy Market, wander the Newbury Comic store, and then have chowder at the Union Oyster House. A good time was had by all.

Yesterday, Sunday, was an open day, so we drove to Plymouth, saw the rock, and went aboard the Mayflower II. After that, we drive out on Cape Code, visiting Orleans, Hyannis, and then had lunch in Falmouth before driving back to our Hotel near Wakefield.

This morning it is sunny, and we need to do some work. I’m developing a handout and curriculum for an Outlook course I’m teaching next week, and we have student information database materials to prepare. I’ve been working since getting up, so now it’s time to head fo a local diner for a fine American breakfast.

Next Steps with Veracross

It’s been a “compressed” two weeks with student information system stakeholders meetings, a board sub-committee presentation, and emails to all students and faculty and staff about extending their use of the email system. Yesterday I approved the purchase of four iTouches for a cool audio listening programin the Lower School, and we also installed a HP MFP 4543 copier, printer and scanner in the HS math department. Meanwhile, we have an online employment inquiry system in beta testing, a day of Xerox training for our Network Admin, and I’m waiting for a Lenovo S12 Ideapad to show up for testing (the day after I ordered, they released a new version with a 11.6 inch screen).

Next week, however, I’ll be in Boston with our database manager to work for four days with the Veracross engineers to kick off the migration of our FMP 6.5 SIS to Veracross. About 18 months of work has gone into this project, and I’m looking forward to the next steps in the process– the actual handing over of data, forms, reports and decision-makding about the user identity coding and more. This project has the potential to be pretty complex, but also pretty rewarding, so I’m looking forward to i.

The Balance

Before doing this “educational technology” thing, I made a small living as a writer. I wrote for ERiC, the Educational Resources Information Center, way back in the 1980s. I wrote articles and research reports, at the same time I wrote short stories and plays.

As I writer, I found myself balancing two things: writing skills and communication/emotional intelligence. The most important thing I learned as a writer was to do multiple drafts, and to never attach myself to a first draft as being “some brilliant hunk of gold that just fell from the heavens.” Secondly, I learned to never blame the reader. If I wrote something that was confusing, unclear or off-putting, it was my fault, not the audience’s. It was full responsibility time.

Given that it was difficult to live on $500 a month, I went to grad school and found myself teaching college courses (in writing, composition, etc.) afterward for about ten years. As a teacher, I found myself balancing two things: teaching skills and communication/emotional intelligence. Teaching students meant shaping a spiraling set of learning experiences (drafts, one could call them) that could challenge students to realize their strengths and abilities while also improving their skills. Again, however, if the students were confused or lost doing an assignment or understanding my comments on their papers, it was my fault entirely.

Back in the late eighties, as the first PCs began to roll into colleges and universities, and students started using them for writing, I found the computers to be a natural fit for the development of skills and the doing of multiple drafts. Yes, there were frustrations and reliability issues and limits, but at that time the computers were definitely a way to improve and take one’s skills in a forward, positive direction. Using computers for writing is still their prime academic use today.

What has changed in the last ten years, however, is that computers are now in the other side of the equation as well– the communications/emotional intelligence side of writing and education. A colleague of mine spent an evening at a panel discussion with UK journalists, who were very open about how they are really struggling to decide how reshape their roles in light of Web 2.0 technologies. What was once more of a solitary (and some could say egotistical) profession as a writer (broadcasting one to many) is now becoming more of an expert in broader group discussion of many to many. What was once very little feedback from readers (occasional letters of praise or scorn) is now a fire hose of responses and desired interaction or input from individuals with direct knowledge or experience.

In essence, technology changed and moved forward their skill sets, but now technology is amplifying the ability of their audience to react, respond and ask questions in the communication/emotional intelligence realm.

As my own children do their homework at night, often until 8 or 8:30 p.m., they will email their teachers if they have questions or need help with something. We don’t expect a response that night, but typically there is a response in a day or two. Alternatively, they Skype or email their friends in the class (and receive an immediate response). In essence, all homework can now be collaborative, in real time.

Over the years, as I have worked with faculty who don’t like technology, I have tried to understand their concerns from their perspective. In essence, it appears the primary concern is “it is changing the way I teach in ways I don’t like.” Or “kids can’t control themselves with technology, so I don’t allow it in the classroom.” Or “it breaks all the time so I don’t use it.” Or “I didn’t need that when I was in school.”

As computers and the production/communication tools become as commonplace in the home at night as having dinner or talking about the day, it’s hard to imagine how this genie is going to return to its bottle. There are changes needed in both one’s teaching skills and communications/emotional intelligence as technology increases interactivity and expected connections. We can’t be there 24×7 for all of our students, but we have to come to accept that we are entering a much more interconnected realm of thought and expression. Again, it’s a question of balance and respect, and acknowledgment that we are responsible for how we write, teach and relate to others.

The audience has changed. Interesting events are underway.

Opening Like a Flower

Another Zimbra Collaboration Suite Update:

Today I sent out about 2,000 emails on the the system:

To Fac/Staff OS X users, three handouts about setting up iPhones (mail, calendars, contacts), installing Zimbra Desktop for OS X, and setting up iCal and OS X Mail. The Pros and Cons of each system were also reviewed, with comments about who might use which.

To Fac/Staff Windows users, two handouts (iPhones and Zimbra Desktop for Windows) and a full review of Microsoft Outlook on Zimbra. Again, the pros and cons of each were reviewed, and we now have users choosing each option.

To all MS and HS Students, two handouts (iPhones and Moving Mail from FirstClass to Zimbra) and 12 FAQ answers about Zimbra.

All in all, Zimbra as a standards-based email and calendaring system is opening like a flower, with many petals of access and utilization. It is far more open than our previous system, and it appears to server OS X users with more choices and a better web interface than Microsoft Exchange.

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