At the end of the first day, and over lunch – I got the chance to speak at length to Ben Jones – Product Manager for Agora, Sims Learning Gateway (SLG) and InTouch. You read that right – Ben has a challenge on his hands! Originally working on the SLG programme, Ben took over InTouch earlier in the year/end of last year – and most recently Agora. Duncan Hield now heads up the App development project – which at present, is just the Teacher App. Some of you may have seen this at the BETT Show at Excel London in January. I will come on to the App situation in the next article – to give it full justice!
To start with, with Ben now at the overall helm – we opened with a review of SLG and the strategy for it moving forwards. As I’ve covered in my recent articles on SLG – there is much development on the product, and these take multiple stands. Some of these are ongoing, such as fulfilling change requests; others are more generic ongoing aims, such as continuing to enhance and improve the user interface. There are many areas where there is crossover from the InTouch and Agora development into SLG – look at the improving SLG interface for one! Two way communications as well…
As has been widely reported, InTouch has had its development and change request processes halted. No new features are being developed – which is to ensure that the core product itself fits the basic customer need. As a result, the unreliable and difficult to install/maintain VPN component is being removed. There are performance and stability enhancements coming too. One thing that has always surprised me, is how “silently” popular InTouch has been. Oddly, its not the product you hear much about – but the figures speak for themselves. InTouch is being used by roughly a 1/3 of secondary schools – and processed over 14 million emails last year. That is quite staggering, particularly when you consider the competition in this arena – from Companies such as GroupCall, Teachers2Parents, ParentMail et al. One thing that is certainly changing is use of the product. Email use is on the increase, and it is expected that the original SMS text usage will soon start to decrease. When you think about it, this isnt a surprise really, with the growth of smartphones. Now, the 140 character limit of a text message versus a rich text email seems like a “no-brainer” in terms of how to best reach out to parents. As an aside while talking about InTouch, it is worth remembering that any emails or texts inbound are attached to the pupil records – unique in the market.
When it comes to Agora – the traditional development cycles don’t apply. That is the benefit of the cloud based nature of the offering. The biggest changes will have to be its greater integration with the rest of the suite – for example FMS; and one would expect, at a later date – SIMS.net. How long before, for example, the same dashboard widgets as have appeared for Homework, Data Collection Sheets etc come in for Agora. Or…will Agora itself become the dashboard? The big things on the horizon for Agora are those Catering links – for Cunninghams, Nationwide and others. DinnerMoney integration
is also coming is, as you would expect, part of the product (Correction from Ben – apologies) . As a core product though, it is largely complete – and the nature of its offering makes it best placed to arguably adapt to the changing market better than any other of the SIMS product range
Change on the horizon – “meet the customer need, not design the product we think they need”
The sheer number of completed change requests shows the desire to satisfy customer need. For speed, I’ve added them as bulleted sections below – I’m sure there will be many of you out there who recognise these changes and will be pleased to see them in the product.
- Improved filters in SLG
- Student dashboard: option to hide either behaviour or achievement from the consolidated graph
- Behaviour and Achievement types available for selection match types that are flagged as ‘include in register’ within setup in SIMS
- Where a student has been assigned a role in a behaviour incident, new fields are added for ‘role’ and ‘recorded by’.
- Automatically calculate on Marksheet save
- Pupil Premium, First Language and Age in Years/Months available as column options
- Further improvements using SLG on iPad Mini
- Student Dashboard – Ability to hide year group comparison in Student Attendance Graph
- Homework – Add the ability to filter students by Year Group, Reg Group, House and Tier have been added when selecting students to assign to a Homework task.
Increase number of aspects in Assessment Graphs
- Remove handed in date
- Add individual extensions to homework tasks
- Improvements to mobile views
The consumerisation of the product – to make it more appealing to the customer, parents, has yielded good results in the form of the Student dashboard view. Of course, you can still scroll down for original data driven grids. Those new graphical views always appear at the top. Development on the new elements continues, and coming soon are pop outs on charts, as well as flight plans of progress. Comparisons and intelligent amazon like “you might like” views are also planned.
Accessibility is a key consideration now. SLG stems from the traditional “PC experience” days – now “mobile views” are all the rage, with the display of the page and elements being appropriate to the device it is being viewed on. Tablets, and mobile phones are increasingly being used to access web-based content; SLG needed to accommodate this change in user behaviour. New mobile views have been added into the interface, supported are the details screens, timetables, attendance, behaviour etc – and as goes for the whole SLG experience, features are controlled (on or off) by the School Administrator. Integration with telephone and mail apps for contact outbound from app are also supported.
The “mobile” experience is also fully touch supported – which has also been extended to the register taking and mark sheets for teacher use of SLG in School.
While we are still on the subject of experience – homework has been redesigned. This isn’t just limited to SLG. Homework is fully integrated into the main SIMS application too. Better than that, it is included in the SLG and Hosted SLG product – at no cost. As with most of the SLG system – it is enabled though PowerShell scripts. For more information – go to http://campaigns.capita-sims.co.uk/information-existing-sims-learning-gateway-customers. I have covered the redesign of the homework element before – but to summarise its “best bits”…
- Record the date that homework was handed in
- Link to Assessment, mapping to aspects in Mark sheets
- Record mark and add comments
- Colour coding on all interfaces – mobile, SLG and SIMS.net
From the Student Register you can…
- Show what homework is due
- Add handed in dates
- Link class to previously created homework
And work on homework is not yet done. Added in the recent Summer release, was the ability to add an “extended due date”, in case of the work being extended beyond due date. It is now also possible to remove the hand in date being shown to parents. Any hyperlinks in homework also now work. Word wrapping on the mobile view has been improved, with the addition of a view more link.
Added last year was the Data Collection Sheet, to start the process of two way communications via SLG. This has been enhanced to include new functions for census and also Parental Consent – for things such as photos, activities etc.
As always, these features are entirely configurable by the School. The concerns have always been around security to access – but surely this is safer and more reliable than the traditional “satchel post” explained Ben.
The Data Collection Sheet respects the rules within SIMS – which have been tightened surrounding not only parental responsibility as well as the address of the individual parent. Any changes are always “saved as a review” to be actioned later.
Added in Summer, was a “widget” to the SIMS Homepage for School Administrators, which is “click to launch” for data collection sheets. This has been improved to be one click not two (and menu). One of the challenges with Parental Engagement has always been accounting.
This is now “solved”, with statistics available for number of parents reading reports, and the ability run report on who hasn’t. This can also be filtered on Academic Year for comparisons.
Lastly on the agenda in terms of SLG related updates, is one for the Administrators – the technical ones that is.
The Active Directory Provisioning Service (ADPS) has had some more refinements made – particularly surrounding consolidation of users. It can now auto consolidate. In addition to this, its error handling has been significantly improved so that when processing it will no longer simply stop when it reaches an error state. It will now “mark” the error and email it (if configured), but crucially, any remaining tasks will still run.
And that for now covers where the SLG part is going. The influence of a combined approach to Parental Engagement, by looking at the systems as a suite has obvious benefits. There is greater cohesion for one.
Coming next, an update on the App project – an area we have received a lot of questions on. These, you will be pleased to hear, we did get the opportunity to ask Ben and Duncan – so stay tuned!
Information about the products discussed here is available from the following links:
InTouch – http://www.capita-sims.co.uk/our-products/sims-intouch-secondary-schools-and-academies
Agora – http://www.capita-sims.co.uk/our-products/sims-agora-secondary-schools-and-academies
SIMS Learning Gateway – http://www.capita-sims.co.uk/our-products/sims-learning-gateway-secondary-schools-and-academies
Updated 08/08/14: Correction to DinnerMoney/Agora integration, which is already present.