Open source education program, CanDo, handles big data

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In 2005, Arlington Career Center teacher David Welsh had an unmanageable list of 77 Video and Media Technology competencies to evaluate for each student in his classes. A Yorktown High School computer science teacher Jeff Elkner was teaching his students to program in Python and bursting with enthusiasm for engaging students and teachers in open source processes. I had a new job leading the SchoolTool project with a charge from entrepreneur and philanthropist Mark Shuttleworth to create open source administrative software for schools around the world.

I met Jeff at PyCon in Washington DC, and we began collaborating with David and other teachers on CanDo, a competency-tracking system based on SchoolTool.

Today, the Virginia CTE Resource Center supports teachers and administrators in 25 counties using SchoolTool and CanDo for competency-based assessment, with no licensing costs, and at the end of 2012 we released a new version to the global community of SchoolTool users.

CanDo now includes a web-based gradebook for teachers, web and printable reports for students, teachers and administrators, all built on top of SchoolTool's foundation as a student information system. One feature that sets CanDo apart from similar systems is its ability to handle Virginia's vast catalog of CTE competencies, which run into the thousands across dozens of career tracks.

It has quickly become apparent that while the SIS market in the US is quite mature and increasingly centralized at the district or even state level, and competency-based (or skill/standard/outcome-based) grading is becoming a standard feature, there is still a considerable niche for stand-alone tracking systems in innumerable specialized programs in and out of schools. With increasing state and federal pressure to justify all expenses with data, and to evaluate teacher performance in every area, this need is only increasing.

Just through our Virginia contacts, CanDo is being used this year by the Alexandria Seaport Foundation's national Building to Teach program to record student achievement of Common Core Math standards via hands-on boat construction, and by the Virginia Commonwealth University's Autism Center for Excellence who are using SchoolTool to track social skills development in individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

Steven Celmer of the Autism Center for Excellence reports:

Working with a school division focused on a system-wide improvement project for services for students with autism, I can definitely say that SchoolTool has been indispensable. With the help of SchoolTool, CanDo's abilities to track competencies has been extended to tracking social skills for students with autism. The division will now have the ability to track student progress not only at the student-level, but also the classroom and division level!

With an intended focus on 500 students (and growing), this will be a great resource as the division looks to better match their social skills services with the needs of the students. Without a doubt, SchoolTool is certainly helping to analyze student outcomes in ways that haven't been as accessible in the past.

CanDo's first deployment outside the US has just begun, supporting skills training in St. Kitts and Nevis through their People Employment Program.

Since last fall, the unstoppable Jeff Elkner has personally been funding the development of an online quiz component which automatically updates student math competencies based on their answers to teacher-generated quiz questions.

The initial founding for CanDo came from the Arlington Career Center. Most of the early development was done by current high school students or recent alumni, and it wasn't until last year's re-write by the SchoolTool team that this changed. It was easy for Arlington CTE administrators to see CanDo as an extension of Junior Achievement-style school/business collaborations that they had been doing for decades. In fact, SchoolTool and APS won the 2010 Business and Industry Partnership award from the Virginia Department of Education.

The SchoolTool team pitched in to help with training efforts and IT support.  When Arlington's local funds were occasionally tapped out, SchoolTool's philanthropic funding allowed us to step in and put out fires or adjust to changing requirements.

For a project like this, writing the software is the easy part. Actually getting the system deployed in schools, properly configured, training teachers, having administrators follow through and actually use the data you are collecting for them—these things are much harder. At this point, the Virginia CTE Resource Center handles support and training at the school level, and our team does bug-fixes and feature enhancements for Virginia CTE as necessary.

The most important factor in the success of CanDo so far has been consistency in leadership across the main actors in the project: David Welsh and Jeff Elkner at the Arlington Career Center, Glenda Lewis and Lee Capps at Virginia CTE, and a host of supportive administrators at the school, district, and state level.

Mark Shuttleworth stuck with funding despite the fact that everything we've tried has not been as successful as CanDo. The leading cause of other failures has been turnover among staff in institutions we are trying to collaborate with. As Mark phases out his philanthropic support over the next two years, SchoolTool developer Douglas Cerna and I are starting a company, SIELibre, LLC, to provide paid support and ongoing development for SchoolTool and CanDo.

For all the talk these days about the importance of disruption and shaking things up, particularly in school reform, persistence is probably the most important virtue for would-be educational innovators.

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Tom is project manager for SchoolTool, an open source, web based student information system designed for schools around the world, funded by Mark Shuttleworth. He is also the CEO of SIELibre, LLC., which provides commercial hosting and support for SchoolTool.

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