Linux in the school office

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A big MIS-takeā€¦ MIS stands for Management Information System. A MIS is at the heart of every school office nowadays. In the UK the leading MIS is from Capita-SIMS.net and it has a huge market share. In fact for many it is the de-facto school MIS.

Capita-SIMS.net is, as you would expect from its name, a Microsoft-orientated product. In fact it will only run on MIcrosoft servers and Capita only supply Windows client software moreover their API's are closely guarded (for security purposes you understand) and notoriously hard to prise from their grip.

A school MIS has long been the holy grail for open sourcerers looking to do complete migrations of schools to Free, Open Source software. 'SchoolTools' looked for a while to be a contender but gained little traction here and in any case was very American High School in its focus.

We had all but given up on the FOSS MIS in UK schools and had resigned ourselves to virtualising an MS server instance on what otherwise would have been a pure Linux server stack just to run SIMS.

However, it seems to me now to be a MIS-take! To elaborate on this it is necessary to look at the trends in the market.

Swiss Army Knives

For example, the pure single minded functionality of FOSS Alfresco for document management is rapidly gaining favour over that kind of feature conatined within the MS Sharepoint package.

Ditto specialised virtual learning environment Moodle is steadily drawing away from it more aggregated and slower developing rivals.

We have used the analogy before, the Swiss Army Knife versus the Snap on Tool chest. It is looking like the giant all singing all dancing MIS was a bad choice.

A wrong turning

Products like Capita-SIMS.net and of course MS Sharepoint are aggregated products glued together by .NET technology. They work together because the owning company has access to the individual proprietary APIs and can kludge them together. Equally they work badly with other products for the same but opposite reason.

The thrust was to produce super-products that would do all you need and tie you in for ever. It seemed the perfect strategy and never mind that the customer's perceived that some of the individual packages were, shall we say, less than perfect?

However the signs are that, as usual things move on rapidly. The super packages which were built on the hard work of talented small companies, whose individual products were bought up and bundled, now find it very hard to move swiftly.

A quick look at what is emerging out there in schools and education shows a lot of things which would have found a natural home in the super-MIS are to be found in a new breed of software companies. In a sense it is history repeating itself.

I am thinking of companies who specialise in pupil identification, automated communication with parents, micro-payments, news ways of screening for well-being and engagement: the list goes on.

All of the above are:

a) pretty much absent from the Super-MIS,
(if they do appear in the Super MIS you can bet it will be the 'worst of breed' rather than the best).
b) the new software has useful MIS features themselves.

Conclusion

All of the above leads me to one conclusion the Super-MIS concept has had its day. The future will once again come from small talented companies but this time Open Standards and open APIs will mean that they can grow together. There will be no chance for a hungry carpet-bagger to come along and bundle them up and then add inferior bits ad-hoc.

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