Freedom from Busywork

A modernized approach to student information and learning management systems.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Andrew Herman of AlmaBased on the belief that schools deserve a modern technology system that provides all their administrative and classroom management needs in one intuitive, flexible platform, Andrew Herman (pictured) founded Alma (formerly known as School Current) in 2012. As CEO, Andrew sets long-term strategy and leads team development and collaboration to plan and meet product development goals. Under his leadership, the company released its prototype in 2012 with school partners across the country, and launched its enterprise-ready platform in early 2014. Before starting Alma, Andrew served in several financial and corporate management positions, including founding a successful analytical instrumentation company and leading numerous acquisitions for Danaher Corporation. As an early employee of Advertising.com,

In five years, I think the landscape of software tools used in schools will look completely different.

he lead the venture investment raise for the company and helped lay the foundation for the company’s long-term success. Andrews’s passion for education began early in his professional career when he taught middle school at Link Community School in Newark, NJ. Andrew earned an MBA from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts from Wesleyan University. In this interview, Andrew outlines some of his basic ideas about efficiency in education and providing educators with a modernized approach to administrative tasks.

Victor: What is Alma and how does it benefit schools?

CREDIT Alma SIS LMSAndrew: Alma is a new approach to school and classroom management that consolidates all of a school’s critical systems and productivity tools into one modern, highly affordable platform.

Teachers and administrators are frustrated with time-consuming and expensive student information systems (SIS) and learning management systems (LMS) that simply don’t meet their needs. In the last decade, technology has made huge advances, but schools are still stuck with a mix of outdated legacy systems and single-function apps that put the onus on educators to piece together a holistic picture of each student, classroom and school.

Alma brings together core SIS and LMS functionality,  and adds to it with progressive classroom and curriculum tools and time-saving features, with the ultimate goal of cutting down on educator busywork and freeing up time to spend with students. And because we’re a mission-driven company, we’re making the system’s core functionality available for free – so all schools, regardless of their size or budget, can have access to the best tools possible.

Victor: What inspired you to build Alma, and why now?

Andrew: I was a teacher early in my career, and though I loved teaching, I found the amount of time I had to spend on busywork outside of the classroom frustrating. Fast forward 15 years, and I’m still hearing this frustration from teachers – in fact, if anything, it’s gotten worse. In the last several years productivity and cloud technologies have had a huge impact on most jobs as well as our personal lives, yet schools continue to suffer with outdated and ineffective software. So, a couple years ago my co-founder and I began talking with teachers and administrators to learn more about their pain points and determine how modern software might help. Since then, we have spoken with hundreds of educators, and those conversations shaped the development of Alma.

Victor: What are the greatest data management challenges affecting schools?

Andrew: With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, we’ve seen a growing interest in standards-based grading (also known as proficiency-based grading). This approach is great in that it lets teachers see how students are progressing on specific goals throughout the learning process. But it also generates volumes of data that can be overwhelming to digest and report. To help with this, we’ve put a lot of energy into streamlining how standards and proficiency data is tracked and reported, so teachers can more quickly cut through the noise and get to useful insights. Additionally, schools are struggling with trying to integrate data from the fragmented applications they have to use. Alma provides SIS, LMS and gradebook data in one system to present a 360º view of student learning and easily gives administrators, educators, students and parents greater visibility into their school then they’ve ever had before.

Victor: What’s your approach to ed tech design and how is it different?

Andrew: Everything we do starts and ends with the user experience. We have a phenomenal development team and they’ve created a system that’s simple, intuitive and time-saving. The design elements and functionality that make great smartphone and tablet apps so easy and enjoyable to use – things like drag-and-drop sorting, automatic search suggestions, and so on – help make Alma a completely different experience than what teachers and administrators are used to. We want Alma to be a joy to use, not a burden.

Victor: Switching to a new SIS or LMS seems like a daunting task for schools. How easy is Alma to set up?

Andrew: Alma is very easy to set up. With our setup wizard, schools can fully configure Alma in under a day – and our goal is to eventually get that down to an hour. We also offer tiered training packages for schools that desire more hands-on support and specialized services to ensure they use Alma to its fullest capabilities.

Victor: Where do you see education in five years, and what trends helped drive these changes?

Andrew: As I mentioned earlier, technology has made huge strides in the last several years, and I think we’re on the verge of those changes coming to schools and classrooms. The cloud makes it possible to deliver so much more at such lower costs, that in five years I think the landscape of software tools used in schools will look completely different. Our whole team is proud of and humbled by the opportunity to be part of that transformation.

Victor: Who are your competitors? What’s different about Alma compared to other systems?

Andrew: We think of our competitors largely in two categories – all-encompassing legacy systems and single-function apps. Legacy systems were generally designed to operate as two totally separate systems, and developed one school at a time then rebuilt for the next school. Most of these larger companies have not exhibited an ability to innovate and adapt to the latest technology trends, outside of acquiring other companies. Most recently, newer applications have been coming on the market that do one or two things really well, but they add to an already long list of tools educators have to use, and it’s up to the teacher or administrator to connect the dots between all the different tools.

With Alma, we’ve created a modern alternative that brings together student information and learning management tools in a single system that’s enjoyable to use, and significantly less expensive than what schools have been stuck with in the past.

Victor: Now that you’ve launched Alma, what’s next? 

Andrew: We’re thrilled by the positive response Alma has received from schools so far – not only in the U.S., but around the world! That said, our focus this year is on charter and private K-12 schools, and we’re limiting the number of signups to 500 schools in 2014 to make sure we can deliver not only a great product but also great customer service and support. We anticipate that we’ll start talking with school districts later this year, for rollout in the 2015/16 school year.

Victor: Many parents, schools and lawmakers are concerned about student privacy. How does Alma address that?

Andrew: We are fanatical about privacy and security. Being entrusted to manage student data is a tremendous responsibility, and we treat it as such. Our development team includes security experts who’ve previously worked in banking and ecommerce – industries that tend to have the most intense security protections because they’re attacked the most. We’ve applied best practices from those industries in Alma, including SSL encryption, double firewalls, and extra layers of encryption for particularly sensitive data. We also encourage schools using Alma to be proactive in communicating with parents about how the school uses, manages and protects student data.

Victor: What advice would you offer to schools trying to balance their budget with meeting students and parents expectations of what school should be like in our modern age?

Andrew: Schools, parents and students deserve to have access to modern software that helps support learning, and there’s absolutely no reason they can’t have it, at an affordable cost, in this day and age. If a school feels overwhelmed by the prospect of rolling out something new – or if they’re locked into an expensive contract with someone else – I would encourage them to try just one or two of Alma’s features (e.g. attendance or gradebooks) and see how easy the transition can be when you have the right tools.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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A Critical Facet

E-rate funding for web hosting connects parents to district and student success.

GUEST COLUMN | by Edward S. Marflak 

CREDIT schoolwiresThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently working to develop new regulations to modernize the E-rate funding program for K-12 districts. One of the Commission’s goals is to ensure that schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st century broadband to support digital learning. While there are critical and much needed updates to the E-rate program, there is a growing concern in the K-12 community that the FCC may consider eliminating the status of Web hosting as a Priority One Service within the E-rate program. In other words, new regulations intended to expand broadband and digital learning may also stop the funding that powers school and district websites all across the country.

In a recent national survey, 100 percent of K-12 district administrators responded that Web hosting should remain funded as a Priority One Service within the E-rate program. More than 400 educational leaders from school districts of all sizes and types responded to the survey in 2013 and 2010.

While broadband provides the raw connectivity required to support new digital learning strategies, school websites serve as the primary access points for digital learning resources and parental engagement. Thus, today’s secure Web hosting infrastructure works hand in hand with broadband to advance digital learning goals and foster the important school-home connection. As hundreds of educational leaders have already noted, it simply doesn’t make sense to pull the plug on school website funding when the broader national policy objective is to accelerate broadband adoption, digital learning and parental engagement. To those of us who work in and support the K-12 market, the disconnect is obvious.

Continued E-rate funding for Web hosting – and the seamless learning and community engagement it supports – is essential. Research clearly states that parent engagement is a direct precursor and a critical support resource to student achievement. For example, the University of New Hampshire found that “parental effort is consistently associated with higher levels of achievement, and the magnitude of the effect of parental effort is substantial”.

In order to keep today’s digital parents engaged, districts need to keep communications virtual and mobile. The new digital parent is fluent with technology tools personally, and has high expectations for the use of digital tools and resources within their child’s learning environments. Websites provide the central hub for ongoing digital communications and applications that support parent engagement and student success. Schools rely on their websites every day to easily and cost-effectively communicate with parents through notifications of important school events, to conduct polls and surveys to seek input on school policies and programs, and to keep parents apprised of their children’s classroom activities and progress.

Websites also are central to communications between teacher and student, and the district and community. The indispensable role of district websites was echoed throughout the responses of districts in the national survey:

  •  98 percent state that district, school, and classroom websites perform critical educational functions.
  •  95 percent state that websites provide a cost effective mechanism for sharing relevant and timely information.
  •  85 percent state that websites strengthen parent engagement.
  •  75 percent state that websites increase out-of-school learning time.
  •  61 percent state that websites level the playing field across rural and urban schools by providing easy access to 21st century tools and digital learning resources.

Almost all (98 percent) of the respondents stated that their Web presence, enabled by Web hosting, is more important than in 2003 when Web hosting was first added to the E-rate program Eligible Services List as a Priority One service. 

Web hosting increases return on broadband investment

Discontinuing E-rate support for Web hosting would create a costly gap in the school-home connection. In its research, UNH found that “schools would need to increase per pupil spending by more than $1,000 in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement.”

At a cost of pennies per student per week, Web hosting is one of the most cost-effective and highest-impact services funded by E-rate; and it provides a greater return on broadband investment. Nationwide, more than 5,000 school districts filed for E-rate support for Web hosting for the 2014-2015 funding year. Given the decline in school funding over the last decade, the continuation of this funding is more important than ever.

In a February 21, 2014 letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, more than 600 school administrators and educators urged the FCC to continue E-rate funding for Web hosting citing that:

“The elimination of E-rate funding support for Web hosting would cause serious hardship for many school districts that would be forced to cut already tight budgets. These cuts could result in staffing reductions and/or the scaling back of key web and digital learning initiatives.”

My company strongly supports the FCC’s efforts to modernize and reform the E-rate program. However, the national survey of school administrators and educators from across the country shows their concern that the Commission recognizes the mission-critical role of Web hosting and its support of digital learning and accelerating broadband adoption. The elimination of this funding would threaten and undermine the ability of schools to achieve parental engagement and digital learning goals. Without this funding source, schools would need to reduce online communication or make staffing cutbacks that could hinder progress in digital learning.

Now that the Commission has heard from hundreds of school leaders and educators across the country about the importance of Web hosting, we are hopeful that this critical facet of the program will continue to receive full support as the E-rate program evolves.

Edward S. Marflak is Chairman and Founder of Schoolwires. Write to: emarflak@schoolwires.com

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Cool Tool | Gradeable

CREDIT GradeableThese days, teachers are being asked to do so much more — use “good data” to create lessons, grade tests within 24 hours, and of course, there’s teaching as well. Grading wasn’t easy in the first place, but now it should be faster and provide better results. Technology is here to help. Gradeable is an online grading tool for teachers designed to make grading fast, smart and easy. Unlike other tools, Gradeable is built to support the types of tests teachers already use — both multiple choice and open response paper-based assessments. Using an Internet-connected computer and an iPhone or printer/scanner, Gradeable technology empowers teachers to raise student achievement by (1) providing faster and better feedback to students, (2) identifying trends in student learning, and (3) digitizing student work into an online portfolio. It integrates with existing gradebooks like Aspen X2, Kickboard, and PowerTeacher. Teachers can use it from the convenience of their classroom as it is available on an iPhone app and freestanding Gradeable Inbox. Gradeable levels the playing field in classroom analytics across school districts. The platform offers fast, personalized feedback, and individualized reports on student progress. Schools using paper-based assessments can gain access to the same macro-level analytics as schools using iPads and computers for student assessments. Teachers can register for a 30-day free trial followed by $7/month/teacher payment. The app itself is free and available for registered users.

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Cool Tool | ST Math for Middle and High School

CREDIT ST MathST Math, which has repeatedly proven effective for improving math proficiency in elementary schools, is now offering its revolutionary game-based software with expanded curricula for middle and high schools. ST Math: Grade 6 contains on-grade-level curriculum that complements the core curricula and moves all students toward a deep conceptual understanding of math topics. ST Math: Middle School Supplement prepares students for success in Algebra 1 through remediation and by building students’ conceptual understanding of select on-grade level math concepts from 6th, 7th and 8th grade math. The software connects interactive visual models to abstract concepts and language components for each math topic. The built-in diagnostic tool personalizes each student’s learning, providing intervention content as needed. Individualized reports provide teachers with diagnostic results and real-time content mastery for each student.  ST Math: High School Intervention is designed as an intervention for high school students performing below grade level to prepare them for success in Algebra 1. The intervention identifies students’ math readiness through a built-in diagnostic, prescribing a learning path for each student that connects interactive visual models to abstract concepts and language components for each math topic. Individualized reports provide teachers with diagnostic results and real-time content mastery for each student. Check it out.

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Trends | Swimming in a Digital Ocean

CREDIT Open Ideas researchTechnology is ubiquitous and pervasive in our society, each day capturing numerous aspects of our lives, creating oceans of data ready to be recalled, analyzed, and used. In a new report, Impacts of the Digital Ocean on Education, Kristen DiCerbo and John Behrens of Pearson’s Research and Innovation Network argue that in education, harnessing the power contained in the digital data oceans offers huge potential benefits for students, educators and education stakeholders. One recent study investigating factors that influenced students’ achievement found the most important variable was when teachers use information about their students’ learning. The Impacts of the Digital Ocean on Education report sets out the ways in which the variety and abundance of data captured when students carry out their school work could provide teachers with the key to help students learn. The new report highlights the many possibilities and challenges that technology presents in capturing relevant data and turning it into meaningful information that teachers can use to assist their students. As DiCerbo and Behrens themselves state, “the data itself is only a starting point that is necessary, but not sufficient to transform education.” They stipulate that there is a long process that the data needs to go through for it to be applied successfully including its analysis, interpretation, communication, and use in decision-making. Download the full report here.

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