As SchoolTool's founder, Mark
Shuttleworth, once said, the goal
of the project is "a common information systems platform for school
administration from California to Calcutta." This was an original
and ambitious goal when first announced in 2000. However, it is far less so
in 2009, when content managers like Drupal and Joomla! include most of the
functionality of student
information systems (SIS). Perhaps that is why, although SchoolTool
recently reached version 1.0, the project and online help sites sound
mildly apologetic in places. Where a free software SIS once seemed
visionary, it now seems commonplace, and SchoolTool's first release is more
of a solid basis for future expansion than state-of-the-art.
Part of the reason for the delay in version 1.0's arrival are the many
changes in the project. To start with, the project has undergone several
changes in leadership, the most famous being Shuttleworth's own departure
from hands-on management. Even more importantly, the software has
transitioned from the original Java to Python and Zope, and finally to a
calendar-based system. In the last few years, as well, the project's
software has been extensively tested, particularly in Virginia, culminating
in a six month beta program. In addition, the project's documentation is unusually complete
by free software standards, although it is still being updated to reflect
the new release.
As you might expect in a project sponsored by the Shuttleworth
Foundation, both binary and source code is available on
Launchpad, packaged for recent Ubuntu releases. Once you install, you
can access SchoolTool by opening http://localhost:7080 in your browser,
with the default user name "manager" and the default password "schooltool".
Setup and configuration
SchoolTool is not difficult to use. If you have ever used any form of
online content management, you should be able to orient yourself
quickly. If content management systems are new to you, then the simplicity
of the organization should have you up and running almost as quickly.
All the same, SchoolTool is large, and needs to be set up
methodically. For these reasons, you should set up SchoolTool with the Initial
Setup Process pages of the online help open in another tab — if
only for a checklist. Going through the setup will help you get a sense of
how SchoolTool is organized, although you can always import sample data
right away and skip directly to using SchoolTool as an ordinary user.
To set up SchoolTool, log in as the Manager, and select Manage from the
top menu to open the sub-menu. Configuring SchoolTool is largely a matter
of defining the start and end of the school year, then working
systematically from top to bottom of the school years' sub-menu, starting
with terms — semesters or whatever other divisions the school has
— and working downwards. Creating different groups for the users,
adding the names attached to data in the application, defining the school
timetable for the system, and creating courses and course sections —
all these follow in orderly progression. You have little chance to deviate
from the set order, because most items are only definable after you finish
with those earlier on the list.
Once you have completed these details, the next step is to add groups
if the default ones such as teachers, administrators and students are not
enough, and to add people to these groups, particularly students. These
groups are used mainly for determining what each type of user can do, so
that administrators can assign grades if you choose, and all users can
change their own passwords.
Only those who are actually going to log on to the system need
passwords — which generally excludes students — but you do have
the option of adding contact information and other information about
them. You may also want to add lists of resources, such as projectors, so
that they can be booked for specific classes.
If you prefer, you can use a spreadsheet as a form for entering
information quickly, then convert it to a CSV file to add multiple people
in a single batch. One time-saving suggestion from the online help is to
use the sample data file as a template, erasing the sample data but leaving
the header columns before entering your own data.
After SchoolTool is set up for general use, administrators might also
want to spend some time with the Administrators'
Handbook section of the online help. This section concisely explains
where the database is located on your Ubuntu system, how to backup and
restore the database, and some rudimentary troubleshooting.
Daily use of SchoolTool
Administrators are some of the main users of an SIS, which is why I've
devoted so much space to configuration. But what is SchoolTool like for an
everyday user, such as a teacher? The short answer is: adequate — but
a little sparse in features.
To login to SchoolTool, you need not only to be added to the database,
but to have a password assigned to you by the administrator as well.
The default page is a calendar view of events — generally,
classes — for the current user. Click an event, and you can see the
resources booked for it, such as the room and a projector. In the left pane
is a summary of tomorrow's events, and controls for setting what events
appear on the calendar, and seeing how resources are allocated throughout
the school term. Using the calendar, you can create one-time or recurring
So far, so useful. However, while sections of a class share the same
color code, you cannot choose the colors assigned to a class. Nor can you
use a class's color to signify that another event might be related to
it. For example, you cannot assign a class's color to an interview with a
student from that class. Similarly, the calendar does not allow you to
define or assign types of events, so that you can differentiate between
lectures, seminars, and appointments. You can use the calendar to assign
each event, but have no way of showing at a glance how they are
A similarly adequate, but limited, choice of features appear in
SchoolTool's Journal for attendance and its Gradebook. In the Journal, you
can add brief codes beside each students' name, such as "a" for absent or
"t" for tardiness, but cannot enhance the code with your own abbreviations,
or write notes beside a name, let alone set up an automatic calculation for
a participation grade. Nor can you access your attendance records from the
Gradebook except by flipping back and forth between views.
As for the Gradebook, you can create assignments and grading criteria,
but only in a narrow range of non-customizable categories, and on a scale
of 100. While the scale is mitigated partly by the fact that you can assign
different weights to each assignment for the final grade, you cannot assign
a letter grade, or a score on any different scale. Some, too, might
appreciate a few basic functions for calculating medians, maximum and
minimum scores, and other statistics.
The overall impression SchoolTool leaves is that, while all the basic
features are available, advanced features and customization are lacking in
many places. Admittedly, in many cases, you or the SchoolTool administrator
might be able to find a kludge to let you do what you want. However, if you
want anything out of the ordinary, you may find yourself fighting
SchoolTool and paying it more attention than the tasks for which you are
SchoolTool is not a lesson planning or presentation application, and,
so far, the project has no immediate interest in adding such
functionality. Instead, the
project has been testing a competency tracking system called Can Do in
Arlington, Virginia for the last five years. It is also testing a student
intervention tracking system in Philadelphia. Both these modules are
scheduled for next years' release.
Other features in the next release might include a module for sharing
information between different SchoolTool installations, and another for
sharing information with civic authorities.
Meanwhile, the documentation is blunt about
the current state of the project. "If you currently are using another
mature, full-featured web-based SIS, SchoolTool will probably feel like a
step down for your school. If you are running the school using paper, a
hodgepodge of spreadsheets and Access databases, or a badly implemented
commercial SIS, SchoolTool should be a step up for you."
That is hardly a ringing self-endorsement, but it is a refreshingly
honest one. And now that the basic engine is tested and released, in
addition to its new modules, with luck the project will focus on the
refinements necessary to make it more than a basic tool.
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