Interview | Ramji Venkatachari Communicates with MyStudentCare

Quite simply, Ramji Venkatachari created MyStudentCare to improve communication between schools and parents. In Ramji’s analysis, both as a parent and as a general observer, the types and quantities of communications schools have with parents these days show that the process is mainly in a reactive mode. “By the time parents come to know of something,” says Ramji, “the bus is gone.” Ramji wanted a system that would fully inform parents about their children at school, right then and there. “If a child falls down in the playground and the school nurse puts a Band-Aid on the child, the nurse should be able to send a text message to the parent. If the class teacher announces an upcoming field trip for her students, parents should know about it the day it’s announced — not find out the day of the trip,” he says. He also wanted to tap into society’s growing addiction to cell phones. According to Ramji, the average cell phone user checks their phone for messages – text or email – at least every 17 seconds. “Why send field-trip forms, fund-raising forms, etc. in the kids’ backpacks? If information is sent to the parents’ phones, they are going to see it within 17 seconds; and they will take immediate action because it is something to do with their children.”

Victor: What does the name mean?

Ramji: The name MyStudentCare literally means this system will allow you, as a school administrator, to care for your students better. One example would be direct medical care such as when a school nurse or other first responder needs to provide a treatment for a child at school; the nurse or other first responder can easily pull up the child’s emergency card, which will not only give them the parent’s contact information, it will also give the child’s allergy and other medications that the child is taking. For a parent, the other primary user of the system, this again literally means that he or she can take care of the child’s school-related actions – such as disciplinary issues, school activities and even volunteer work at school – very easily. Parents can be more involved because they get to know more about what is going on at the school; they help their children and, in the process, are more helpful to the school.

Victor: What is it and who created it?

Ramji: MyStudentCare is a software solution. It is available in web and mobile platforms. End users can access it from their computers and their mobile devices – iPads, iPhones, Android tablets and phones. MyStudentCare was initially conceived by me, and later on developed by a team of professionals that I assembled at Insystech.

Victor: What does it do and what are the benefits?

Ramji: MyStudentCare has evolved into a comprehensive solution with several modules. Here are the current set of modules, and what each module does: 

MyStudentCare Core Module. This core module is the foundation and centerpiece of the system. It includes the following functionality: School, staff, administrators, teachers and student and parent are provided basic contact information, gathered from a school’s internal information system; a communications engine that allow the school officials to communicate with parents and students; security that allows various roles of users to see what they need to see and only that – adhering to federal regulations such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. 

Enrollment Management Module. Gathers all enrollment-forms data online; gathers students and parents’ contact information online; maintains contact information and keeps it current throughout the year, not just once a year when the enrollment forms are completed; maintains student emergency card information and keeps the information current; collects enrollment fees online.

Activities Management Module. Automates the business process of creating and managing student activities;increases instruction time for teachers; increases parent volunteering and involvement through appropriate notifications;allows parents to complete the registration process, including payments online and through mobile devices;district administrators can have the complete picture of all activities, including the flow of funds in every school;provides access to the PTA and other organizations;increases fund-raising efforts by increasing participation; lessens panic, such as parents rushing to get their children to school as the bus is ready to leave for a field trip; reduce parents’ anxieties.

We all know that field trips’ return times are very unpredictable; most often when the buses are supposed to return from a field trip to the front of the school at 6 p.m., they get delayed. Parents have to wait in front of the school with no communication.

With MyStudentCare, the teacher on the bus can easily pull the contact information for all the children in that bus and send out an update via text message.

Incidents Management Module. Collects all incidents, including minor referrals for effective school-wide discipline; includes built-in workflow to inform the principal and assistant principal on incidents that have occurred;schools have full control on selecting incidents for analysis;informs parents of selected incidents, before taking disciplinary action;uses mobile devices to gather information on the spot;gathers trends and uses the information to train staff and take corrective actions;standardizes actions to be taken by staff based on common data.

Medical Information Management Module.Schools can gather medical information forms from parents online;school nurses can access medical information of students online;school nurses can inform parents of any medical treatments provided at the school;parents can communicate with school staff regarding allergies and other medical conditions;in the case of emergencies, school staff can provide information to first responders by quickly accessing information online, even from their mobile phones and tablets;can be extended to inform doctors and other caregivers.

Electronic Literature Folder (ELF) Module.Eliminates or reduce weekly folders;

Sends all notifications electronically to parents; tracks receipts and reads statuses of notifications; provides communication channel for parents to communicate with school staff electronically; reduces parent frustration for not receiving paper documents through student’s backpacks; increases instruction time for teachers; saves trees; saves money on paper and labor.

Online Fund-Raising (OFR) Module.Increases fund-raising money for schools;

sells products from multiple vendors; seeks donation from parents and alumni; collects payments through credit cards, debit cards and electronic checks; all payments gathered are deposited in the school’s bank account within 24 hours; easily tracks payments received; easily fulfill customers’ orders and places orders with vendors; efficiently conducts campaigns to increase parents’ participation.

Our solutions helps school administrators, parents and teachers. It allows administrators to:

__Communicate with parents and students through text messages, email messages and voice messages;

__Manage student activities online;

__Collect and disseminate disciplinary incidents information where it occurs – through an iPad or tablet;

__Increase accountability of funds gathered from parents by accepting and tracking all payments online;

__Increase administrative process efficiencies and therefore increase time available for instruction in the class room;

__Increase parent’s involvement and gain support from the community.

It allows parents to use their computer or smart phone device to:

__Communicate with school staff;

__Receive notifications from the school;

__Enroll their students electronically;

__Maintain current, correct contact information;

__Register students for school activities;

__View student behavior in the school as reported in incident reporting by school staff.

And it allows teachers to:

__Communicate with parents and students through text messages and email messages;

__Send homework and other documents electronically;

__Set up all student activities and notify parents electronically;

__Have parents volunteer in the classroom;

__Document disciplinary incidents from a mobile device;

__Retrieve student emergency information on their mobile device;

__Spend more time in teaching and less time in other administrative tasks.

Victor: Wow, that’s quite a lot of functionality. How is it unique and are there other solutions out there that are similar?

Ramji: MyStudentCare is architecturally simple, yet, comprehensive. It addresses several day-to-day business process problems that schools encounter and help them make the processes more efficient. Plus, we are poised to add more modules in upcoming versions. We offer an a la carte model, where the schools can purchase any module that would solve their immediate problems, and then they can add other modules to it later if they like. Since all modules are indigenously developed and implemented by Insystech with no third-party company involved, we are able to offer, high-quality product. 

As for the competition, several student information system vendors (SIS Vendors) offer certain components of MyStudentCare as built-in functionality or as add-ons. But, none of them have the breadth and depth of our system.

Some names of competing solutions are:

Edline (now a Blackboard company) focuses on the website aspect of the school, and recently purchased a couple of products that allow for registrations and payment collection.

Mylunchmoney focuses on gathering and tracking funds for cafeteria expenses.

PowerSchool has several features and additions, but since most were made through company acquisitions, they are not tightly integrated.

Victor: When was it developed? Any interesting stories?

Ramji: Major development of MyStudentCare was done in 2010, and additional modules are being developed even now. The Electronic Literature Folder (ELF) module was conceived by looking at my daughter’s school folder. Every week, her school would send communications home through a folder in her backpack. ELF is a replacement of such weekly folders. The name of the module was determined by looking at Santa’s Helpers – Christmas Elves, and, in fact, the icon representing the module is an elf.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Ramji: MyStudentCare originated at Insystech. All of the development work has been done by Insystech. It can be procured by schools directly from Insystech.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Ramji: In general because MyStudentCare is priced per student, per module, it is very cost-effective and affordable for even small schools. Plans can start as low as $5 per student for MyStudentCare’s core system. Additional modules may be added for expanded capabilities.

Additionally, MyStudentCare, is fully deployed, maintained and supported by Insystech in the cloud. This immensely reduces the school’s technology burden. They don’t have to worry about how the system works and will it available the next day. Insystech even provides direct support to Parents through on-line chat.

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

Ramji: A school that had no full-cycle online interaction with parents tried our system to gather race and ethnicity information instead of the conventional paper route, as often practiced. The school administrators were pleasantly surprised to see the level of parent participation in the program. In a matter of four weeks, some of the individual schools in the system showed a timely response rate as high as 70 percent. The paper route normally resulted only in about 20 percent.

In another instance, a school is used the Incidents Management module with mobile devices to capture information as it occurs. Especially in the gym or on the bus away from the classroom, teachers who observe an incident can now make an entry in first person and enable prompt follow through as required.

In yet another instance, summer camp program registration is currently being carried out using this application service. The camp organizers are surprised by the response they are receiving from parents signing up from a larger geographic area than ever observed, and are scaling up for twice the registrants from their conventional enrollment last year.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?

Ramji: MyStudentCare is very useful for schools that are interested in enhancing their communication with parents. MyStudentCare would not work well in areas that have little or no Internet connectivity or cell phone connectivity – perhaps some rural, remote areas.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Ramji: I am a true believer in our public schools. I believe we have one of the best school systems in the world, one that provides abundant opportunities for students of all types. Education today has gone beyond the realm of just textbooks and classroom learning to interactive/collaborative learning through use of technology. Virtual learning, online textbooks and numerous opportunities are available for today’s learner. I, as an education technologist, want to harness these resources and continue to improve the education institutions to provide the best quality education for our students. The public school systems are facing several challenges these days, stemming largely from the economy, the increase in diversity of the population, the lack of highly trained teachers and a lack of parental commitment/involvement.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating MyStudentCare?

Ramji: Education was paramount in my family, as I grew up in India. The thought of not attending college was never there. Parents and community/extended family involvement in education was substantial.

My parents had the time to go through my daily work to ask questions and help me through it. That is not necessarily true today. Families have very little time and a lot to do to avoid being run over by the very fast pace of life and its demands. I had the idea for bridging this gap with 21st-century technology through Internet and mobile devices.

During my master’s at Louisiana State University, I worked for a professor as a teaching assistant. This gave me an opportunity to learn a lot about how to work with students, how to grade their assignments and projects etc. It also gave me an opportunity to discuss with the professor about how educators analyze student performance, and some of the strategies that they use to help their students. These served me well on other projects that I have successfully deployed at various clients.

As an IT professional in the education sector, I wanted a lot more information from my children’s school than it could provide. So, I started thinking of how to make this possible to ease the pain for the school and parent.

In addition to my children, several of MyStudentCare’s formative thoughts have come about based on my interaction with other schools over the last 15 years, where I have been involved in the education IT sector.

I have had the opportunity to visit with small, rural schools, where there was very little or no automation and teachers were spending an inordinate amount of time photocopying, pushing paper in envelopes and reminding kids about activities in the class numerous times, etc.

I have also worked with large, sophisticated schools, where technology was prevalent but there was still a lag in communication with parents and the parents were getting frustrated with very little or no access to teachers and information about their students.

Victor: How does MyStudentCare address some of your concerns about education?

Ramji: From my vantage point, it is very important for schools to harness every parent to help their child at home. After all, a student spends more time at home than at the school. Even though some parents may not be able to teach their children at home, with the right tools and appropriate communication, they can help their children in many ways. MyStudentCare is developed to address this aspect of a child’s education by helping school’s achieve this level of communication.

Victor: What’s your outlook on the future of education?

Ramji: The future of U.S. education is very bright. There is general awareness in the society that education is important and the information age has proven to be a boon for education.

I am very encouraged with the overall growth in college enrollment. Even though a certain quantity of growth in college enrollment is because of lack of jobs and the economic downturn, I feel a lot more people are going to college because they want to be able to earn more money and they want to compete anywhere in the world.

This is going to lead to a generation of parents, who are going to want more education, and it is going to become pervasive – the need to get a degree. We just need to figure out how to keep the college tuition affordable; but, I believe, that will also balance out with natural laws of supply and demand.

Victor: Got some interesting stories?

Ramji: After using MyStudentCare’s Incidents module through an iPad, a middle school principal once told me, “This can actually turn out to be a deterrent to my students. Now, when they see me walking in the corridor with my iPad out in front, they would know that I have the power to document an incident right there; and I will do just that when I see them misbehaving.”

My response: “Wow, technology has come a long way indeed. When I went to school, the deterrent was the three-foot-long cane that the principal waved at us, and sometimes used on us, when we were in the corridor after the bell rang!”

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of MyStudentCare?

Ramji: With the use of innovative technology, including fast growing mobile technologies, MyStudentCare provides real-time access to information for educators and parents who need access to information at their fingertips – literally at their fingertips in an iPad, iPhone, Android phone or tablet – so that they can send it out to others as necessary. Plus, schools can join the green movement and save precious dollars at the same time, by significantly reducing paper consumption on notifications, activities and various other aspects of communication with parents and students.

Victor: Any final take away for our readers?

Ramji: The most important value of MyStudentCare is the intangible value of happy parents. I truly believe that appropriate, timely communication is the key to happy parents. And happy parents will translate to happy students and a happy community, and it will mean a flourishing school in the long run.

___

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. To enter the EdTech Digest Awards Recognition Program, write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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