Saturday, March 17, 2007

Choosing a CMS for FCPS

Frederick County Public Schools is looking to revamp it's online image. So based on my experience using a CMS with the TJMS web site (see this blog entry), I was asked to be part of the group who would evaluate the companies who submitted a proposal. This was an excellent opportunity for me to participate in the selection process of a county-wide initiative. It would give me insight into the decision making process that frequently leaves school-based teachers scratching their heads wondering why money was spent on something when it doesn't seem to have value. Even though no open-source companies were considered as finalists, it was a real learning experience.

The first stage of the process was to independently review each of the proposals that were received. Some of the proposals definitely stood out from the competition while others were a sad attempt at gaining business. Through my computer consulting business, I've been on the preparation side of proposals and based on what I saw in the box I brought home, I was about middle of the road in terms of presentation of the proposal. Certainly a more professional look gets you noticed, but in the end the best proposals were given consideration.

We narrowed the choices down to four companies, all with experience serving school systems. The most intriguing company I reviewed was from a company who specialized in data warehousing and internet portals. In their proposal, parents would log in and they would be greeted with a personalized home page with their children's grades and schedules. Homework could also be displayed. This sort of system was closest to what I tried to put together for TJ Middle but much more dynamic. However, this company's software fell way short of the major requirements in the Request for Proposals from FCPS. The biggest deficit was the lack of customization and lack of teacher page capability. So this proposal was eliminated first.

As events turned out, the two remaining companies presented the next day but one was "delayed" at the airport. So we saw only the final proposal which had almost all of the features I would have liked to have seen in a CMS. The one thing that it didn't have was a centralized homework posting module. Instead, parents would have to go to each teacher's home page to view the homework of the student. That wasn't a deal killer by any means. Overall the CMS was very impressive and very customizable with a work flow that allows fine grain tuning of who can access and edit pages.

One of the reasons I wanted to be on this committee was that too often the central office people make technology decisions based on what they know and classroom teachers are not consulted. I was very happy to be given the opportunity to represent classroom teachers and school based staff. It was very apparent based on the questions asked by central office people that it was important for me to be there. The questions they posed centered around implementation and administration of the CMS as a whole. I focused my questions on teacher friendliness, practice applications by schools, and how it can be used as a tool, not just to communicate, but for learning. I was very pleased that all my questions were answered to my satisfaction.

Unfortunately, budgetary needs deemed this CMS to be put on the back burner. I have been told that a small pilot program is starting in the central offices but there is no public face to it as of yet. Hopefully one day the full CMS will be rolled out because I won't be at TJ forever and I'm not sure who will take over the web site duties for after I leave. I hope someone will be able to step up since it is a great tool and it would be one of the legacies I leave behind.

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