My Review of the Aspen SIS from Follett based Upon a Short Demo

Yesterday, I saw a demo of the Aspen SIS from Follett.  For full disclosure, Dylan Holcomb, the Sales Consultant who came out, was a friend of mine from high school, but honestly I wasn’t expecting it to be an SIS that we would be interested in, especially because the price tag is high for the size of school that Highlands Community Charter currently is.  But, after seeing how Aspen works, and how they addressed my blog article about the 3 features that SIS providers are missing, it is on our school’s radar as a potential. Here is a quick review of what I was impressed with, and what things I still think they could do better.

No Active Behavior-Based Security, but there are Other Good Security Features

As I posted in the past, I am very frustrated that no SIS that I’m aware of has active behavior-based security to prevent database theft.  This still seems ludicrous to me, and I was frustrated that Aspen didn’t have this either, especially with the very big customers they have (British Columbia, Chicago Public Schools, Miami Dade, Boston Public, and others). These are all prime targets for hackers, and the ease in which they can be hacked if there isn’t behavior-based active security is ridiculous. And all their arguments about why they are naturally secure doesn’t hold water, as those are the same arguments that have been made by Target, the Federal Office of Personnel Management, Anthem, Blue Shield, and all the others that have been hacked.   But, by the end of the demo and conversation, I think they started to understand why this was a feature that was worth a lot, and that it would give them a market advantage if they pursued it.

But, on the good side with security, one feature I really liked is that they have the ability to limit capabilities by IP address range.  So a teacher working from home can potentially have less access than when they were at work.  This means that a foreign hacker who has gotten the teachers password somehow, might not be able to steal as much data if the SIS was properly locked down.  And many of the other security policies and methods that they have, seem sound, and probably better than most of their competitors.

Lack of ODBC with their Hosted System, but Many Other Data Integration Methods

Since I’m talking about things I don’t like about Aspen, the only other thing that I have issues with is that if they host the database, they will not provide ODBC access.  The technician on the phone tried to tell me “Most customers find that we have so many features they don’t need this access”.  In which I replied that I hear that from all SIS vendors and they have always been wrong when it comes to our school.  This is because we heavily use Excel as a data analysis tool (and yes, I truly know why Excel sucks at times for this, and this is why I’m trying to move towards other solutions like SageMath more), but for now, it can produce the charts and do the analysis in a way that I don’t have other solutions for.

But, I will give them credit that they appear to have a lot of other data integration tools, and they said they are just about finished with a new API.  So, there is the possibility we could find other automated data integration solutions to Excel that may be able to work without the more direct back-end access (or we could host the product ourselves, but this is something that I generally prefer not to do).

At-Risk Indicators allows for a Form of Predictive Analytics to stop Drop Outs

One of the features that I was most impressed with, was that they have an At-Risk Indicator for students, in which the school can build a model of what might make a student “at-risk” based upon different variables, and then show an indicator about how each student is doing compared to that model.  While this isn’t the Bayesian automatic predictive analytics that I wrote about before, the Aspen reps made a good point that Bayesian analytics are a “black box”, where the school and the stakeholders don’t know why someone is being marked at-risk, while their methodology can make this clear.  Further, I concede that while it might not be adaptive, there is still a good way of making the Aspen system be predictive, by doing good research methods over the data to determine what are the key factors that lead to students dropping out, and then putting these appropriately into the Aspen model.  And with the various data export features that Aspen has, it shouldn’t be too hard for a school or district to do Knowledge Discovery in Databases (now commonly called Data Science) to find these predictors.  Although, probably most schools and districts don’t have the expertise to do this, and so I see this as an opportunity for Follett to possibly offer a service, or for third-party consultants to be able to help.

Scheduling Optimization and Rules

In my previous post, I also talked about resource optimization.  And it seems from the brief demo, that Aspen does a good job with this.  Although, I would need to play with it more to see how it would fit our school’s specific need.

Workflows

The other feature I was extremely impressed with, and for our school might be the real selling point, was that Aspen has workflows which help to automate any manual paper-based task within a school.  Kind of like a “to do list” on “steroids”  (except I don’t condone the use of steroids :-).   As Highlands Community Charter and Technical Schools continues to expand campuses, potentially to broader geographic areas, it is critical that we have a good way to communicate through this broad network, and have our workflow be able to be accessed by all who need it, no matter where they are located.  Workflows can also automate certain forms of communication, and this could be huge for us, who are working with “at-risk adults” (or maybe I should say “passed-risk adults”), in which having communications to help get them into good habits (like showing up to school on time) has value.

Attachment of Documents

Along with workflows, it is so important to be able to have attached paper documents to every student record, both “ad-hoc” where a miscellaneous letter could be attached, and also more structured, where every student has a xyz form on file.  It sounds like Aspen can support both of these scenarios.

Sandboxed Build Feature

One place we use Excel is to help us with planning schedules, where we can “muck around” with ideas before more permanently putting them into the SIS.  And while I don’t think Aspen would be able to totally do this for us, as we use the grid system of Excel often in a visual manner to move around “blocks”, it does have a very cool “build” feature, in which a school can make multiple scenarios of schedules to see how they might work for their students, and then apply the one to the database that they like.  So having this feature, could help us reduce our need for Excel as a tool in the planning stage, or maybe allow us to use a different tool.

Clean Professional Responsive Interface

While I’m using the person who wants to talk “nerd to nerd”, and while I care a great deal about the user interface, I usually leave it up to my users to pass judgement on this.  But, just from a little bit of looking, I really liked the interface of Aspen, as it looks more professional than others I have seen, in which most SIS’s look to me like they are either old technology or they are kids technology (and yes, I understand most education technology is for kids, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t look contemporary, because teachers and parents will mostly be using the SIS).  It also seems to do a good job of using HTML 5 to have a responsive interface that can work well on tablets and smartphones, as well as desktops, and this is rare in many web interfaces.

So Far the Back End Technology Looks Solid

I like that Aspen uses MySQL by default (and it is interesting that they also support MS SQL, which is very rare for any db provider to support two different architectures).  While I haven’t looked at the table structure, it seems that they have a good method of having custom fields and custom tables being able to map to existing fields and tables, which I know some database purists may balk at, but for me, as someone who wants custom functionality in a manner that can be easy to build reports and analyze, this is REALLY nice.  But the “devil is in the details”, and so if we go forward more with considering the product, I will want to see the table structure more.

Sticker Shock for Small Schools

When we were quoted the general costs for the product, the upfront cost would be a little over $100,000.   While this isn’t bad for a large school system, for a small start-up charter like ourselves, it is a deal-breaker.  But, it sounds like Follett might consider “de-bundling” certain up-front costs, so smaller schools (like ours) might be able to be more a la carte in choosing what services we might want to buy (like professional development, etc.).  If they can get their price-point down, and better addressed the other issues that can be a problem, I think they would be a product that more schools should consider.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: SIS Review: Aspen – Great for Large School Systems at Jacob J. Walker's Blog

  2. My son is at a high school that uses Aspen. He wants to write a mobile app to give students access to information such as:

    What day is it in the 7-day schedule?
    Which courses do I have?
    What is the order of courses in my schedule?
    What’s my locker number?

    Do you know if Aspen’s APIs would allow him to write such an app?

    It occurs to me that Aspen might benefit from having an army of junior programmers writing apps to access its school data.

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