SIS Review: Aspen – Great for Large School Systems

My first review of various SISes is that of Aspen by Follett.  When Highlands Community Charter School recently was looking to switch to a new SIS, Aspen was in our top 3 choices, and only barely lost out to PowerSchool.  During our review process, I had the chance to look at a sandbox system (demo) of their product for about a week, and we asked a lot of questions to their sales rep, Dylan Holcomb.   As a matter of disclosure, I should note that Dylan was a friend from high school, but I think this review is fairly objective, as there are clearly things I don’t like about the product, along with many things I really like.  I have written about Aspen previously also.

User Interface

Of the SISes being reviewed, I rank Aspen #2 in its user interface.  I really like that it is overall clean, and for larger systems of schools, they have a great method of being able to have a hierarchy that you can easily switch between.  They also are web based and have a “responsive” web design, so it can work well on tablets and smartphones as well as desktops.

Features

I would rank Aspen #1 in built-in features.  They basically have everything that most modern SISes have, and they have one feature that I don’t think any other SIS has: Workflows.   Basically, workflows are a way of having the SIS support the processes of the school, and can do all types of things, such as helping staff to know what decision to make (like if a student has xyz situation, it can say “do this”), and it can help provide “ticklers”, so for instance if a student file isn’t complete, it can remind the registrar or someone else to finish making the file complete.  The thing I most regret about not having our school choose Aspen, is the lack of this feature.

Customer Service & Technical Support

It is hard for me to completely judge how the customer service of Aspen would be.  But, I can say that their sales rep, Dylan Holcomb, was very responsive and very knowledgeable (more so than the other sales reps I have dealt with).  And, while again, for disclosure, I should state that Dylan is a high school friend, I am not saying these things just because of that.  I can also state positively that when Dylan didn’t have an answer for us during the sales process, he quickly got answers from his tech support, and when I talked with his tech support person, he was very knowledgeable.

Although, since we didn’t go with Aspen as our SIS, I really don’t know how good the support would have been after we became customers.  For instance, when I first worked with School Pathways (as I’ll discuss), they had great knowledge and support up front, but later we didn’t receive the best support.  But, on the other hand, when I first worked with PowerSchool’s sales rep, she didn’t know that much about the technology, and we were ultimately placed in the hands of someone who has truly been helpful.  So there isn’t always a correlation between up front sales and future support.

Database Structure, Programming, and Underlying Technology

While I have not used Aspen, beyond what we had in a “sandbox”, so I can’t comment too greatly about the database structure; it seemed overall to be good when I looked at the tables.  I really liked that their hosted version runs on PostgreSQL, which is a very robust open source database.   They also used Java Servlets for most of what they do, which is a good technology (unlike applets, servlets don’t require Java to be installed on the end-user’s machine).  With their servlets, it was possible to edit nearly all of their screens, and make many types of custom reports, and custom importing.

Integration, Customization, and Reporting

While the overall data architecture of Aspen is good, it falls short in how it can integrate.  To be fair, there are a good number of partners that have worked with Aspen to make products that integrate very tightly.  BUT, it doesn’t have an API, nor does it have ODBC capabilities (if you don’t host it yourself).  You can write SQL queries directly inside of Aspen, which partly makes up for this, but it is still the biggest short-coming of the product in my opinion; and was one of the reasons our school didn’t ultimately choose Aspen, as we have too much customization we need to have done as being an adult-serving charter school.  On the positive side regarding customization, it does have a fairly good method of adding custom fields, and even adding custom tables.

Security & Reliability

Aspen scores equally well, if not a little bit better than all the other products regarding security and reliability.  In my search for news articles about school hackings, not one of them involved Aspen (and it is used by many large school systems).  It also only had a little negative press about other types of problems with school systems, and when I asked Follett about it, they were quite honest and thoughtful in their response, giving me confidence in their company. With that being said, I am disappointed in all the SIS products that none of them have active security.

Conclusion

Aspen is great for mid-size and large school systems.  There pricing is such that they are out of reach for start-up schools.  (And they often won’t even work with a school if it isn’t large enough).   But for a mid-size or large system, I think Aspen can be a great choice, especially because a school system that fully utilizes the workflow portion of their product can become much more efficient and effective, thus saving money and providing better service.  The biggest drawback to Aspen, is their lack of integration ability with other software.  Without having an API and not having ODBC with their cloud-based product, it is not as easy to integrate other databases, such as identity/directory services, learning management systems, assessment databases, etc. unless that product has already have worked with Aspen.

 

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