Inside SIMS and its development - an interview with the Team
by, 28th April 2013 at 07:13 PM (11546 Views)
So, back at the end of January, I got the opportunity to sit down with a number of the key people behind SIMS, namely Jon Wood, Graham Cooper, Ben Jones and Phil Neal.
Above - Phil Neal (MD); Graham Cooper (Head of Product Strategy)
This follows my article on SLG; and the hints at what was to become the Spring 2013 SIMS.net release.
It was refreshing to get to speak so candidly with the team behind SIMS - arguably, these guys come in for a fair amount of grief from the community. This particularly applies to Jon - fielding the questions about SIMS updates, patches and issues.
"Challenges of market"
Capita SIMS has the largest share of the market - this is no secret; and this is despite those voices in the community that would have you believe the failings of SIMS. For all the so-called dominance - the team are "not content to rest on their laurels" as Graham put it. The market is changing - academies and free schools have contributed to that change. There is a growing specialism in schools - a better understanding of technology and of choice.
Figures later sent by David Grashoff shows a growth in the number of partners creating add ons and expanding the SIMS ecosystem. The team have recognized that little niches are often best served by these smaller vendors; and it all helps build a better product. Capita have deliberately built a scheme with different levels of charge and involvement to encourage partners. Further information on their Partners can be found here http://www.capita-sims.co.uk/our-partners.
That's not the end of the story - there are other MIS vendors in the market and they are actively developing their products. If Capita merely "kept up" with DfE changes and bug fixes - the likelihood of customer base change would increase.
The key is to recognise that schools have a choice, and also to see that the market is actually growing. You only need to take a look at the vendor lists, year on year, at school technology events such as Bett, explained Phil.
According to Graham "SIMS is not finished, never will be" - which is a very candid statement on the surface; but when you think about it - it makes perfect sense. You have to watch the market, particularly one which is changing. Watch the schools and engage with them, then bring solutions through to meet these ever changing needs - including supporting others to do the same. The power balance is changing, schools have more freedom and more understanding than ever before; they have access to a wealth of information.
Above - SIMS Agora
This is why there has been such a focus on new products such as SIMS Discover and SIMS Agora over the past year. Schools have been saying it’s "Easy to get data into SIMS, but there is a lack of ability to analyse", says Phil. Schools are so data rich, too data rich maybe - it has got to be easy to "ask questions of the data in SIMS". Arguably, the greatest power of the data is to put it in the hands of those in a position to use it best. The idea behind SIMS Discover was to make it easy to spot patterns in data, and be able to act on it.
Above - SIMS Discover
"The challenge was to make teachers want to use it"
The market has been flooded by a new breed of consumer devices - tablets, smartphones et al. All these have slick, easy to use interfaces - people expect this now. This has led to a new discipline - "User Experience Developers", with a sole purpose of stretching what is possible with SIMS and make the software easier to use.
Above - SIMS Spring 2013 Redesigned Homepage
New products aside - Capita have a major technological challenge, one which they are keen for the community to have a greater understanding of.
Windows Server 2003 and XP Systems are coming towards the end of their life from Microsoft - and an expiry warning was given to SIMS customers a year in advance. The cycle of complaint and extensions with Microsoft has only led to many IT users (not limited to SIMS) continuing to run these older Operating Systems. Capita have been listening to feedback to provide continued support on the aging OS - but think about the compromise that has been made here. SIMS now has a massive breadth of possible client and server configurations. This leads to a complex development process, and it is inevitable that some users will be left frustrated by the pace of development. These different configurations are compounded by a history of data. The team would much rather spend time on new features and functions, but have to support the community who are not able or inclined to upgrade.
A common question is the disparity between sections of the system, and some ask could there possibly be a time when the interfaces may match? In this case, we are talking about SIMS.net and the older modules like Exams, Nova and Options.
Graham talked about Exams, and the challenge of "Constantly moving goalposts", and he's right. The exam board and Ofsted/DfE requirements surrounding exams must make for a nightmare. Exams are such a core component that Capita simply cannot afford to get it wrong. In reality, the Exams module is constantly evolving - but there are not the wholesale interface changes, instead more subtle ‘under the hood’ enhancements and statutory requirements. We can also turn to Nova T6, which Phil comments to be "world class". Finally, Options is over ten years old, but it’s a component that has a limited use time window, with one maybe two users per School. Arguably, this is the reason it has not been GUI refreshed.
The crux of the matter is that in reality, they are all changing under the hood, but it is the interface which is left familiar to the niche group of users. Again though, think of the work involved to update these components and test with all the variety of possible configurations.
In some ways, one of SIMS' greatest strengths - its breadth of support and wide customer base; is also its weakness.
Despite all the fears about academies and the future of Local Authorities (as discussed in an earlier post here http://www.edugeek.net/blogs/thescar...y-travers.html), most of the concerns have never been realised. Over 3,000 schools (as of January 2013) currently licence and take support direct from Capita; with countless more across the 150 Local Authorities (LAs) who also also provide and support SIMS. With the actual growth in use, there have had to be increased helpdesk processes and also increased agents in the field. That being said, lots still buy via their LA, according to Jon. "Schools value their LA, as do we - there is a great wealth of knowledge in the local support teams." In fact, it is still the preferred model, rather than direct, explained Graham.
"Everything has to have a line in the sand. Everything has a finite life"
So, what about the future of SIMS? What about the question of platform independence? Well, the answer was quite interesting "We don't have a cloud offering per se, but are developing cloud solutions." I guess this is where products like Agora come in - based as it is on Windows Azure. Capita are, to that point, sticking to their new mantra of the customer base determining the software.
Above - Sims Learning Gateway (SLG) Spring 2013
Attention should also turn to SLG - which only started life as a tool to provide information for parents. This grew to become more than that - arguably catching them out, they admit. Countless schools use it to take registers and reports. Originally designed to be an interface for the teacher and parent at home; but it is increasingly being seen in school. The behaviour component is one classic example - it wasn't expected to be used in the classroom; but is, and the software is being adapted to meet these new needs. More information about the changes in SLG can be found in my earlier article here - http://www.edugeek.net/blogs/thescar...g-gateway.html
So what of the strategy for the SIMS of the future? Well, the team explained it like this. Think of an oak tree. Originally, SIMS was in the school office. You had to go there to get it, and there were only about four or five installs. The tree matures and grows. There was the impact of lesson by lesson registration - which spread SIMS into the classroom. Profiles made it possible to write reports in the product, before SLG puts these digitally into the home. New initiatives are seeing a growing use by pupils to monitor their own progress.
All this is making SIMS and the data it holds, the heart of the school. The breadth of the solution is increasing as new products such as SIMS Discover and SIMS Agora come to the market. We also mustn't forget the partners supported by Capita who pick up the edges - which is the equivalent of "pushing down the roots".
So, to close - we return to the point of new initiatives. Ofsted expect our schools to be data literate. The Ofsted process is changing - tell the story of progress, rather than initial opinion of inspection and exam results. So much of this revolves around the students having an increased understanding of their progress, expectations and standings within the year. The teacher must know about year groups, classes and the individual. There is a focus on the ability to tell stories about progress supported by data. Data must be turned into actionable information, making it relevant, which in turn makes SIMS more than just a data repository.
Thanks must go to the team at Capita SIMS (www.capita-sims.co.uk) for agreeing to give up their time for this discussion; and to Catherine Lane PR (www.catherinelane.com) for arranging the meetings.
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