SIMS Annual Conference 2017 – from the top

The event opened with a welcome from a new face – Brenda Morris, who recently joined, and has responsibility for the reorganised Education Software business. As part of this, she was keen to give us a background to herself and where Capita ESS fits inside the bigger Capita Group business. Brenda told us she is a “software person”, with experience of leading businesses from on premises systems to new solutions in the cloud. Her role is dedicated to the transition, and key to that is her experience to be able to deliver Sims 8. We also met at a new venue – Hinkley Island Conference Centre. The hot weather also joined us – as the event fell nicely in the June mini heat wave.

Something Brenda wanted to share with us was the bigger picture – Capita overall is far bigger than you realise. At its heart, there is the outsourcing business with a lot of technology underneath. Beyond that, there are lots of other areas involved in outside what people believe with Capita.

The Capita group, as a whole interacts with over 45m people every year – with processing, managing and storing data. Something that was changing was the bringing in of experience and innovation from other areas of the businesses to impact on the delivery of SIMS, and visa versa.

Capita is actually the 2nd largest software business in the UK. Not surprisingly therefore, “Partners want to work with us” said Brenda. There has been significant work with Microsoft to deliver Sims 8, making sure that best of breed processes were used. This included how to deliver, and take advantage of the Azure platform – something which can be seen across more of the suite of SIMS products for example the Apps and also Agora. This arrangement clearly works well for both parties – it will be a significant cloud which is favourable for Microsoft, and as well as it being the direction that Capita want to take, it means that they have access to high level advice, support, design and consultancy. Because of the data, the platform needs to be the best in class for integrity and data protection.

So, the newly named “ESS” division is focussed on the provision of education software from nursery, through to libraries – and at its heart, it’s about engagement. Support units have a significant role to play in this – and now ESS have a greater understanding since taking over and running a Support Unit themselves, but not as part of ESS. Worcester SSU (SIMs Support Unit) runs as a separate business, and this has been key in seeing the bigger picture. It has highlighted the closeness of the relationship and trust between schools and units. Units will be key in the adoption of SIMs in the Cloud. This also offers opportunities to them as well – in areas such as training needs, pre-requisites and consultancy of infrastructure and also data migration services. Capita ESS will develop and put the cloud into fruition, however the SSU’s will be key in driving and adopting. Releases will increase, bringing new functionality in a more agile manner – and SSU’s will have a role in highlighting these to schools, and helping to on-board them. Marketing will also be important – both from a Capita and SSU basis, and to help with this; a new module format will be introduced providing a structure to reward adoption.

Jumping to a session from Day 2; Winston Poynton (Director of Strategy) gave a great overview of the direction of travel – timescales of SIMS Primary / Secondary, and also what this means for the current SIMS 7. We also got a flavour of where he sees the market heading. Not surprisingly; given recent product announcements – there is an emphasis on engagement, namely parents and students. SIMS Learning Gateway fitted a time, but now people expect to be able to get information instantly via smaller screened devices rather than a computer at home. Developing smartphone apps, and a responsive website portal that responds in the same way as the apps is the new methodology.

Taking cues from 3rd party systems like vivo; influences from other areas of the business (MLS has apps for the library systems) and also products in other sectors such as Minecraft show that “gamification” is a great “attention grabber” for students. It is expected that this kind of methodology will start appearing more and more in the education space. There is also expected to be a continuation of the trend of learning evolution; towards more self paced learning and peer learning. This is ironic really, as it was an original aim of VLEs a number of years ago, which many agree didn’t really succeed. Since then, there has been an explosion in portable technology; many students and indeed parents have smartphones and/or tablets; and are used to the idea of “app stores” – and perhaps in future these could be for resources and content; and not just for consumer apps. Perhaps the gamification method of learning, and engagement in schools will encourage the success of this.

Digitalisation of our world continues to increase; at a rate far beyond what was expected or could have been predicted back in the days of BECTA. We now live in a world of genuine internet fridges, smart watches, driverless cars, cameras and systems capable of tracking attention in people, gesture control and eyewear allowing virtual and augmented reality.

Advances in technology; and also increases in the amount of data collected though digitised services means that though school life, each pupil now builds up a wealth about their progress and history. This is far greater than the default CTF shared from Primary to Secondary – and questions could start to be asked about how useful some of this could be during that transition. Information sharing could be a growth area, in much the same way as the increase in Social network integration. This could finally lead to another much lauded concept from the past – the Digital folder.

When talking about advances, we cant leave out Artificial Intelligence, or AI. This is already powering many things we see every day…those who bought/viewed this also viewed this… Etc. It is the power being offering true personalisation and could unlock things such as adaptive learning – systems that propose areas for you to “skill up on” based on their testing your knowledge.

After a bit of blue sky thinking – back to where we are now. The key take away message – SIMS 8 is coming, but Sims 7 investment continues. There is no end of life planned. The same is true for FMS. There will be a next generation solution, but investment in the current platform continues. In all cases, this will include statutory changes, fixes, and general progression/feature enhancement. However, there are no plans to do any major development on 7, and new functionality on next generation wont necessarily be back ported.

For the newer “online platform” products such as Activities, ID, SchoolView, Apps – consistency of experience will be the focus of efforts over the coming months. Look and feel will be unified; and the ability for communications is also planned to be added.

Intouch, Agora, and the Teacher App have already received significant investment. Dinner money being added to Agora; and the plan is to continue to add more partners. Intouch issues being resolved with new platform. Teacher App will be getting enhancements to support Early years, which is currently missing. Sadly, this year will also bring the end of life of the Android version – for two reasons. First, it is not up to parity in features with the Windows/iOS versions; a challenge from the separate development of each version. Second – it has had low take-up; whilst the other two continue to grow.

SIMS Primary is obviously the big news here – and its intended general availability through 2018. This doesn’t mean that Secondary has been forgotten. In fact, the opposite. The new Options module uses what would become Sims 8 Secondary – but will work with both SIMS7 and SIMS8 – the pilot of which went well. A new finance system is also in development. A SIMS 8 Secondary pilot is currently expected early 2019 / late 2018; with the new SIMS Exams also piloted mid year. The challenge of Exams is that it is a once a year feast for a real test.

Speaking of 2018, development of the Parent and Student apps will continue – with a review of feedback received and feature request. As highlighted – the MLS student app has been very successful – so there will be learning from this, and its adoption strategies. Potential for the integration of the two also hasn’t been ruled out. Looking further ahead, payment and communications across the whole suite of apps; including SIMS 8 and other online modules before we reach the full SIMS 8 is also being looked into. This would hopefully take the form of closer integration, pay from the app rather than log out and into another system – although there is a weariness of App creep by trying to include too much in each of the apps.

With the change in management, there are also other changes which moving forwards, will have an impact on the delivery of SIMS, the support and interaction – with customers, partners and support units. At the end of the year, there is going to be a re-evaluation and refresh of the way ESS work with partners. This will include changes to pricing, and looking at other ways of lowering barriers to entry. Some will be surprised to hear that contrary to what many believe about Capita – there is planned to be an increase access to APIs; allowing this even down to a school/groups of schools. Many have been able to use command line reporting for many years, but with the move to SIMS 8 – this exercise is to try and better on-board partners and the valuable contribution they make to the ecosystem. SIMS 8 being an online model, will always be api model only. By attempting to increase the engagement with “partners” no matter the size, the view is that it will bring the ecosystem to a more secure position.

The big take-away I got from this is that the view from Capita ESS (supporting an evolution in management I have observed and commented on in previous years), is that SIMS is going to be a “build together” rather than a “see it buy it” development. The message to support units was “bring your pilot schools”. They need migrations to not only test the on-boarding process, but also continue to refine the process and also the live system. SIMS 8 is able to be developed in a much more agile method, with updates and features regularly rolling out. More on the on boarding and migration will follow in later posts – as will a walkthrough of some of what is coming. There are two exciting years ahead.

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