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Q&A: Analytics Platform Addresses Unique Needs of K-12

An analytics platform that helps customers unlock analytical data addresses the unique needs of school districts.

In the world of business intelligence and analytics, school districts can operate under special constraints. With shrinking budgets and increasing amounts of data to work with, solutions for schools need to be cost-conscious, easy enough for both beleaguered teachers and administrators to quickly learn, and demonstrate good value to encourage the school board and other leaders to incur the upfront cost.

Skyward, Inc. knows these constraints well. The company specializes in K–12 software solutions that are used by school districts to manage and store administrative data. Data collected by its software can help with student management, human resources, financial management, food service, and special education.

Skyward needed a more robust data analytics tool -- one that could be used to increase student productivity and improve school financials. The company eventually turned to OpenEdge Analytics360 from Progress Software, an analytics platform designed to help customers unlock the value of operational data. The platform, which was released earlier this year, was used by Skyward -- rebranded as myDistrict360. The product includes an ad hoc report builder, and allows teachers and administrators to access data remotely and securely on their tablets from any location.

BI This Week asked Ray Ackerlund, VP of marketing and product management for Skyward, about his company's implementation and the resulting impact on the school districts Skyward works with.

TDWI: What does Skyward do?

Ray Ackerlund: Skyward provides administrative software to K-12 school districts that helps them improve student outcomes, reduce costs, and achieve strategical goals. We support more than 1,900 school districts worldwide that serve over five million students.

How and why did Skyward select OpenEdge Analytics360 as the data analytics tool for its client schools?

We had worked with Progress Software on previous projects so we had a high degree of confidence in the company's ability to deliver a sustainable product. We also appreciated their expertise in business intelligence since we needed a solution we could deliver quickly to the market.

How long did it take to turn OpenEdge Analytics360 into myDistrict360?

Initial deployment in a customer environment took about six months; that was about three months ahead of the initial timeline.

What was involved in the process?

Initially, BravePoint [now Progress; BravePoint was acquired by Progress in 2014] sent consultants on site to meet with key stakeholders and customers to identify minimum requirements. Using this research, they outlined the product goals and road map. Upon agreement, we moved forward with the development phase.

Did consultants from Progress help or was this strictly done in-house by your team?

Initial design and development was completed by the Progress/BravePoint team based on the research and agreed-upon product road map.

Who are the users at your client school districts? What kind of training do they need?

Our myDistrict360 product is used by every level of personnel within a school district. That ranges from teachers evaluating student performance to administrators using longitudinal data to predict budgets and enrollments.

What kinds of tasks do teachers perform with myDistrict360?

Teachers use the solution to evaluate students across a broad spectrum of data points to identify trends. Additionally, they can create cohort groups to help identify a response to intervention needs of students that require additional instructional services.

What kinds of tasks do administrators use it for?

Administrators need an approach that enables them to see the big picture and then drill down for details when necessary. By having pre-defined key performance indicators (KPIs) based on market research, administrators can immediately begin getting answers to their most pressing questions -- those that revolve around student performance, budget activity, and projected outcomes.

How much setup of reports is required before use?

We have numerous KPIs that we have pre-built based on both user feedback and industry expertise. Additionally, we have multiple analysis tools for district-specific analysis; that kind of analysis is managed through a simple user interface. As some users gain more experience with the system, districts will be able to immediately use the solution with the pre-built KPIs and then later customize analysis reports themselves.

Is there a data cleansing step for districts in order to get ready to use the product? What does that consist of?

The data that builds the data warehouse is processed through an extract, transform, and load (ETL) process that correlates all tables with appropriate linking functions. Because the data is taken directly from the transactional database, any data cleansing has already been completed.

What were Skyward clients using for analytics before this? What were they using for business intelligence in general?

Many were conducting these processes manually or else using third-party products. The problem was that those required an enormous amount of technical skill and time. Our focus was to eliminate that burden.

Can you cite ways in which school financials can be improved with myDistrict360?

School districts are constantly faced with a declining budget. That continual challenge requires them to be very methodical in determining what projects will make the greatest impact on their students. By having access to data in a manner that provides guidance, they can make better decisions. Those decisions will capitalize on the limited dollars they have for instructional improvements.

Has student productivity and achievement gone up?

Improved student productivity and greater student achievement is the ultimate goal for all school districts. By being able to identify student strengths and weaknesses, along with identifying which teaching approaches are having the greatest success, we can help districts make the greatest impact in improving student performance. Analyzing data to identify those factors is vital for today's educational leaders.

Are there unique challenges in working in the K-12 area on BI and analytics?

Data analytics in K-12 can be much more subjective at times. Providing a more flexible tool that allows data to be analyzed from different perspectives builds greater confidence in the results among our users. That, in turn, ensures a more effective decision process.

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