Attention Schools: Beware of Infinite Campus

My school uses a SIS program called Infinite Campus.  The SIS (Student Information System) is the backbone for any school.  It manages everything from grades to lunch money, from registration to lesson plans, and everything in between.  If you use, are employed by, and/or have high regards for the Infinite Campus company, I strongly advise that you not to read this post, as it may smash your high-held opinions about this fraud into little tiny shards.

On their homepage, they state, “With the future in mind, Infinite Campus is focused on the long term to help you transform K12 education. … Infinite Campus delivers out of the box functionality, proven rapid implementations, through training and ongoing support so you can focus on what really matters – improving education for all students.”  That’s a load of crap.  Really.  Lets look a little bit more closely at this statement for a second.

They use the phrase “transform K12 education”.  Quite honestly, there is no way you can transform education if you are forced to sign an NDA and promise to never look at or modify the source code.  Lets say, for instance, that a District wants to transform education by matching teachers to students more closely in the scheduling process.  That would be pretty darn transformational, but schools can’t do it because Infinite Campus doesn’t want to serve it up on a silver platter for them.  Just like with all proprietary software, schools cannot help themselves, they must wait to be served.  Will this feature ever be added?  Maybe, but probably not.  However, this is just one of many features that schools will eventually need to be able to teach more successfully.  This quote also said their piece of proprietary software allows you to “focus on what really matters – improving education for all students.”  What if some school needs to have different grading methods for different parts of a single school, or to vary the number or type of classes based on preselected student groups to fit the “small learning community” style that is starting to become popular in education today?  New research is constantly coming out, and schools will want to start using it faster than some company can read it, let alone interpret it and implement something to promote it into its software.  Most of this research, however, will never be read nor interpreted by the company.  The only thing schools can hope for is that Infinite Campus is reading this research and applying it to their software.

They claim their mission statement is “Transforming K12 Education™”.  I believe I have already explained enough to show why this is the stupidest statement any proprietary software company can make.  How can anyone transform something if they can’t access it?  Could have anyone improved upon the Model-T automobile if Ford had only made a few of them, and then offered rides to people when it was practical for him?  In the same way, can anyone improve software if the malevolent company that “owns” the software forces that person to treat its use as a privilege?

Infinite Campus has three “goals”.

  1. Streamline Educational Processes
  2. Promote Stakeholder Collaboration
  3. Individualize Education

Number one sounds reasonable.  Lets streamline the process of what most schools go through.  An issue in education today is how to meet every student’s individual needs, but software companies serving schools don’t need to even think about the fact that all schools, just like people, are different.

Number two is fine.  The description below this goal is, “Using information technology, this weakness [of having too many people to manage] can be turned into a strength.”  With this goal, Infinite Campus can lock more people into their system more easily.  (They even brag about their 99% lock-in rate in the “History” section of their site.)  Since nobody is allowed to look at their code, nobody knows if they have hidden spyware in their software that sends the data of “more than 4 million students in 42 states” back to the Infinite Campus server, or included a back-door that allows them to access any school’s site anonymously.  There is no way for anybody to tell.

Number three is outrageous.  How can any proprietary software company claim to say their software is individualized?  Can any school ever really individualize any piece of software under an NDA?  NO!  There’s more, though.

The key beliefs of the company are as follows:

  1. Public education exists to serve society, its customer. All aspects of society are being transformed by information technology.
  2. In order to prosper, educators must employ modern information technology to meet the demands of its new customer, the information society.
  3. Information technology should streamline administrative tasks while enabling new and innovative educational processes.

Number one – That has to be one of the easiest ways to serve society: write a piece of proprietary software.  That way, anyone who wants to make improvements to benefit all of society will be unable to do so.  Perfect!

Number two – Yes!  You are correct!  Educators do need modern technology to prosper!  Opinions on the definition of “modern information technology” will vary from person to person, though.

Number three – There is nothing that helps innovation like an NDA does.  NDAs work so well to disallow anyone to even think about making a worthwhile change to their source code that would improve the quality of education for all students in the world.  In many cases, NDAs go as far as prohibiting anyone who has signed them from making contributions to the code that would help other people who have signed them and and thrown away their rights too. I am not aware of how far Infinite Campus’ NDA goes, but I can guarantee you it isn’t very forgiving.  How the heck can any school innovate this way?

I contacted Infinite Campus about this major problem.  I explained to them why they should GPL their code, and explained why.  They didn’t respond to me.  Instead, they contacted someone of “power” from my district and reminded him to abide by the NDA.  What?  Did they really think I would be able to do so without being caught by one of those back-doors that they may have put in there?  I emailed them again, clarifying my first email.  Surprisingly, though, I never received a response to either email.  Could this fairly large company not think of anything to say to my arguments, or did they just think I was some stupid kid who knew nothing about “how business works”?

Do they justify their crimes by saying they are necessary, because nobody would be motivated to write the software in the first place if they “didn’t get paid”?  As if they wouldn’t get paid just because their flagship product is available under the GPL.  They would probably get paid more, considering many schools would probably rather use GPL’ed software than sign away all of their rights.  Their user base would grow to be enormous!  Plus, most schools will end up buying the “premium service” subscription because if something goes wrong, it needs to be taken care of immediately, especially in a large school or school district.  I can’t even begin to explain the havoc that ensues when my district’s network goes down for an hour or two!  In addition, they should hire developers, representatives, and executives that actually care about education in the first place.  It takes true devotion to learning and the well being of the world to be a teacher.  Studies have said that teaching is one of the most time consuming jobs out there, yet a huge number of teachers show such an unbelievably large amount of devotion to their students.  Teachers are, in my opinion, the most important job in the world by far, yet they are given far less attention and appreciation than they deserve.  If the developers and executives in Infinite Campus actually cared about what was best for education as much as teachers, maybe they would actually GPL their code.  I don’t know of any teachers that are in the field of education to serve their own self interest over the interests of society and education as a whole.  You would think that someone who writes software for education would have the same views, but unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case here.  The false belief that proprietary software is the only way to make money overrides the desire to do good in the world.

Do you think it is ironic that the CEO of this education company “vowed to never set foot in another school” after high school, and never went to college as a result?

I don’t.

Also see Software Company Infinite Campus Lies

Published in: on November 23, 2008 at 7:35 pm  Comments (44)  
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10 Reasons why Free Software and GNU/Linux should be used in schools

I’ve got a pet peeve. I love reading “Why GNU/Linux should be used in schools” articles. My pet peeve is the fact that the main focus of most of these articles is cost. The way it is portrayed by the media turns it into a cheap “alternative” that you use if you can’t afford Windows or hate Microsoft. This isn’t what makes GNU/Linux truly great for schools. Using that as my motivational drive, I decided to compile a list of the top 10 reasons that make GNU/Linux and other Free Software essential for schools.

1. No vendor lock-ins – Once you go to a proprietary company, it’s hard to leave. Many people, especially computer-illiterate people, believe that companies all try to make their products the best so that consumers will like them. While this is definitely true for most markets, the software market is completely different. The longer you use a piece of proprietary software and build up your infrastructure around it, the harder it is to leave.

2. Freedom to redistribute – The freedom to redistribute allows schools to bridge the gap between home and school. Since the GPL allows free redistribution, any student or staff member can install it on his/her own computer and have access to the same applications that they have at school. Many freeware programs do not allow you to redistribute them, or limit the environments in which they may be installed.

3. Security – In almost all cases, Free Software based solutions are more secure than proprietary software based ones. Free software leaves software in Beta until it is really ready to be used, whereas some proprietary software companies sell you Beta 1. When you use a rock solid system like Debian Stable, it is rare to find a security hole. When security holes are found, they are patched much sooner because everyone has access to the source code. People don’t have to wait for weeks on end to see if the company decided to fix the bugs they found.

4. No pressure to upgrade – “Done!” exclaimed Joe, the school’s network administrator. He grabbed his Norton Ghost CD, slammed it in the garbage, and strutted down the hallway back to his office. It was a wonderful thing, to see all of these computers running Megasoft Doors XT. It had taken years to get XT onto all of these computers. As he approached his office, he noticed a shadowy figure standing in the doorway. “Are you Mr. Joe Peterson?” asked the equivocal man. “Why yes, I most certainly am. How may I help you?” Joe asked, as he stepped into the door. The man followed him into the office, and closed the door behind himself. After about an hour, both men emerged from the office. Joe had a new responsibility now: install Megasoft Doors Perspective on every computer in the school. In most schools, situations are closer to Joe’s extreme than the average person would expect. Big Brother Salespeople are lurking around every corner.

5. Computers last longer – I have a machine from ’96 running the most recent version of Debian smoothly. Older computers can run stripped-down distros, like DSL or Arch, that will work great on nearly any computer. I wonder how a certain other operating system from a monopolistic company would work if it had only 32 mb of RAM to work with? (Probably the same way it would work on a brand new Alienware machine: not at all! :D) Even through many schools wouldn’t want to use computers this old, it provides another excellent opportunity: distributing them to poverty-stricken children. This isn’t possible with today’s proprietary operating systems because of licensing problems. Even if it were possible, it would still be far from practical to give students a computer that doesn’t even have the RAM to open a web browser.

6. Ability to modify – The truly amazing part about Free Software is that you can adapt it to fit your needs. All software has limitations. Proprietary software power users know the limitations of their software. Free software power users know how to fix the limitations of their software. This flexibility is especially important in the educational environment, where programs must be molded to suit students, staff members, and administrators.

7. Students get exposure to free software – Nobody knows what the future will hold. It could be an online desktop. It could be cell phones completely replacing laptops. Nobody knows. The more exposure students have, the better. It also helps students develop more tolerance. People today think of GNU/Linux as the ‘generic brand’ product. Every GNU/Linux user has, at some time, had someone “inform” them in this jeering, derisive voice, “You get what you pay for.” Well, I hate to break it to you, but nothing in life is free. People don’t understand this. Therefore, when they hear about GNU/Linux, they don’t take it seriously. For the same reason people buy outrageously priced Abercrombie clothing, Coach purses, and BMW cars, they continue to buy “designer” software.

8. Choice – When students get older, they shouldn’t ever be forced to use any specific piece of computer software. Every piece of software has its advantages and disadvantages (though some more than others), so everyone deserves an educated choice. When you don’t have a choice, things don’t tend to go very well. That’s why monopolies are illegal. Lets take my cousin for example. She called me a little while ago wondering how to use Photoshop, which she had just purchased. I told her I never used it, because I used GIMP instead. When she asked about GIMP, I explained it to her. You can imagine the disappointment she must have felt, especially since she bought it to do a few simple image edits that even a novice Imagemagick user could do via the terminal. So why did she immediately go to Photoshop? It is because she had a class at school about how to edit images with it. Knowledge is power.

9. Open file formats – If everybody and everything in the world would work together and seamlessly exchange information, we would be in Utopia. Unfortunately, that will never happen. Some jerk (or group of jerks, formally called a “Corporation”) will end up ruining it for everybody. Imagine a new company just started up, called Ship-N-Store. Ship-N-Store offers a completely free service. What they do is hold all of your most important stuff for you. You simply package up all of your most prized possessions and ship them off to this company. Then, to get your information back, you simply write a letter to this company, and they will hopefully send your stuff back. You are probably asking yourself why anyone would use such a stupid service, even if it is free of cost? People would do it for the same reason that they would use a closed file format: to put themselves at the mercy of a large group of people who want nothing but money. Using a closed off file format offers no advantages whatsoever, beyond compatibility with certain proprietary products. In the future, there is no guarantee that any piece of free or proprietary software will be able to open the files that you save.

10. Ethical – Free Software encourages sharing with those around you. One person can use their time to create something that affects thousands of people in a positive way. Richard Stallman learned this back in ’85, and it motivated him enough to start the GNU project. Free Software is the heart of projects like OLPC and The Helios Project (formally Komputers4Kids). It is based on the same philosophy that made Wikipedia the seventh most popular site in the world. (Wikipedia used to be, in part, a GNU project.) The only way great things can be accomplished is if everybody works together. Linus Torvalds figured this out in ’91. Linus’ Law, coined by Eric Raymond, states that “With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” This couldn’t be more true. Would you rather have one professional detective look for your lost wallet, or have everyone in your city keep an eye out for it?

There are so many benefits other than cost to using GNU/Linux in schools. In this article, I have only scratched the surface. I strongly encourage you to join the fight against proprietary software in schools. Together, we can make IT work!

Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 9:18 pm  Comments (22)  
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If only schools could change

Right now, many schools’ technology systems are corrupt, but not necessarily for the right reason.  It seems like schools are completely locked in to Microsoft, not only as a platform, but also as a curriculum.  A great example of this is the description for the “Using Tech – Accelerated” class in my school.  The prerequisite for going into the advanced “Using Tech” class is “experience using most Microsoft products”.  This just shows that schools today aspire to teach kids how to use Microsoft, not how to use computers.  The excuse is that “Microsoft is what is used in the business world”.  Make of this statement what you wish, but I don’t believe for a second that that is the only reason.  I am making these generalizations based on my school district and other school districts I have seen.  I speak with my district’s technology coordinators regularly, so I understand the attempt to make the perfect technology system, but it isn’t really happening.  The reason is society in general.  My school is already completely based on Microsoft.  The experience of other school districts, and common sense, tells us that staff members will not allow something like this.  In other districts, attempts to make even the tiniest changes repeatedly fail due to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude.  I overhead a conversation a little while ago.  For the most part, this is how it went:

Teacher: “It’s almost time to go, so save your work and email it home if you aren’t done.”
Student: “Can I use Google Documents?”
Teacher: “Why?”
Student: “It is a lot easier than emailing it home.  I learned about it in ‘Using Tech’ class.”
Teacher: “Well, you could, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Student: “Why not?”
Teacher: “Because there is no need to use it.  Emailing it works just fine.  Plus it doesn’t sound very reliable, and if something goes wrong, no one will know how to help you.  Just email it home.”
Student: “Okay”
A great technology wasted because the teacher doesn’t know how to use it.  The student knew perfectly well how to use it, but the teacher was clueless.  This is a perfect example of how schools want to change, but can’t.  This situation is kind of like a school district switching to GNU/Linux.  In the teacher’s eyes, Google Documents did the same thing that emailing it home did.  Teachers (and even most people in general) don’t want to learn a new technology if it doesn’t offer immediate significant advantages.  They are willing to put in the time to learn other technologies, like LCD projectors in the classroom, because it is obvious that there will be instant bennefit.  To them, GNU/Linux is just another headache. In addition, there is no cost effective way to switch immediately, especially in larger school districts.  GNU/Linux turns out to be far more expensive than Windows, after staff training and migration costs.  Now, my district is trying to adopt Moodle.  This is a giant leap in the right direction, but in a marathon, a giant leap means nothing.  It takes a sustained effort of steps to win a marathon.  A sustained effort is the only way for any school district to switch.  The problem is that there are too many other resistant people and other issues (http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2002/05/13/schools-microsoft.htm) for something like that to happen.  The only way to push this forward is for community support.  If there are more people pushing for FOSS adoption than against it, we can make something happen.  I STRONGLY encourage you to write a letter to your district’s schoolboard, superintendent, principal(s), administrator(s), technology coordinator(s), or anyone else that may or may not listen.  A battle of this magnitude must be done Bazaar style: with numerous people doing their part.

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 1:32 pm  Comments (4)  
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