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It is important not to confuse Student Information Systems with Content Management Systems or Course Management Systems just because all three are now available in versions that are viewed with a web browser. In the same vein, it is crucial that one not confuse services available on the network (campus file sharing), with the World Wide Web, or with services available over the internet (listservs, VOIP, ftp, AOL),

Daniel Hudkins (Director of Instructional Technology, The Harker School) wrote:

"Student Information Systems (SIS) used to have a much narrower definition than they do today. In the beginning, they were tools for tracking student demographics, grades, and attendance history. Each also served as the primary archival student data resource incorporating GPA calculation, transcript generation, etc. They then grew into the scheduling area. Now some SISs are developing portal like presences with controlled access for students, teachers, parents, etc. including calendar publishing, guest access, bulletins, etc. Some incorporate grade and assignment systems that overlap other areas."

A student information system has two purposes - storage of information and support of user tasks. A typical system then tracks information about students, parents, teachers, courses, classes, schedules and rooms. The tasks related to those are supported by the system, or at least that is the hope or assumption. Tasks include basic demographic reports, class lists, student/teacher/room schedules, transcripts, grade comments reports, GPAs, dorm lists, advisor lists. Additional usual ancillary tasks would be attendance, discipline, health and perhaps testing and college guidance.

What is NOT part of an SIS but nonetheless needed at a school, is a school accounting system, a bookstore package, an admission system, an asset management system, a library circulation system, an alumni development system, a school security system, a purchase order system. While the usefulness of connectivity between these systems is not in dispute, it is important not to consider anything that is on a computer and used at a school as an SIS or part of the SIS. In addition, the publishing of blogs, calendars, assignments, bulletins etc are part of the Course Management System, not the SIS, as noted below.

Some SIS systems use a browser as the most common way to interact with the data, others use a client-server architecture. In either case, it is important to distinguish between a web browser accessible database and a website. See web applications below.

Daniel Hudkins wrote:

"Course Management Systems are designed to serve the needs of students and teachers within a class. These can include assignment management, submission of work, email, forum, wiki, chat, web page generation, quizzing, cooperative learning areas, etc. They grew initially in the higher ed space for distance learning. They have now become a mainstay in higher ed and are expanding into the K-12 area. There have been several major players in this market including Blackboard (not to be confused with BlackBaud). They competed with Web-CT, Etude, and Desire2Learn, but in October Blackboard (#1 share) bought Web-CT (#2 share) putting them in a dominant position. Their principal competition is now coming from Moodle and other open source and customized solutions."

Dan Hudkins adds, "The course management system catagory is now further confused by systems presented as "Learning Management Systems," and "Instruction Management Systems." The distinctions among these three are becoming sufficiently nuanced (and in many cases vendor specific) as to defeat my ability to come up with discrete definitions. However, a change to Learning Management Systems (LMS) would avoid confusion with Content Management Systems."

Daniel Hudkins wrote:

"Content Management Systems (easily confused with Course Management Systems) are designed to simplify the process of multi-user - multi-publisher web sites. In the independent school world this means calendar management and publication, show case, parent communication, admissions content, etc. that we are providing with www.harker.org. The major players here include Whipple Hill and others. Of course they are also trying to become portals in the larger sense by adding email, and assignment systems."

A Content Management System is a system that creates web pages dynamically based on rules. This contrasts with static web sites where each page is an HTML document and the pages contain links for navigation and to images.

A CMS provides two levels of advantage - team creation and filtered viewing. The CMS can allow for multiple users to edit different content objects and then assemble those objects in multiple ways, reusing content in a more efficient way. Depending on the sophistication of the CMS, there may be workflow procedures also, where edits can go through a review group of one or more approvers before content goes live. In addition, the content items or pages or sections may have expiry dates. Teams from Admission, Athletics, Development etc can edit their own materials but a central Communications Director can approve everything. Certain items will "appear" on a certain date and disappear on another with no manual intervention on that date.

A CMS will have an accounts system with logins so that viewers can be presented with a different experience based on the login. This generally can be grouped - into parents, students, alums, guests etc.

It is important not to confuse a CMS system with additional database or network access available by login. Those functions are not part of the CMS.


Web Applications These are applications that use the internet as a medium for communication. Often the data and database is stored on a remote server. In commercial applications, often multiple school data is stored together, though each school only has access to manipulate their own data. Examples of these include online applications, online payments, online course registration, online reenrollment, online event registration, online email broadcast. These are often obtained as subscription services.

While entrance to these web applications may exist as a button in a standard school website, these web applications are NOT part of the CMS. They are also NOT part of the school SIS normally. While a user may think that there is no distinction between the website page showing soccer pictures and the page taking online payment, there is a huge distinction behind the scenes.

Synching data between a web application and the SIS may be as challenging as synching data between the SIS and the other school data systems. One suggested solution is to use a web application as the school SIS. There are a variety of problems with this approach, the most common being the limited task functionality of a web application. SIS providers often also offer web application modules that include synching to the database.


Kevin J. McAllister, President/CEO inRESONANCE

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