A modernized approach to student information and learning management systems.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Based on the belief that schools deserve a modern technology system that provides all their administrative and classroom management needs in one intuitive, flexible platform, Andrew Herman (pictured) founded Alma (formerly known as School Current) in 2012. As CEO, Andrew sets long-term strategy and leads team development and collaboration to plan and meet product development goals. Under his leadership, the company released its prototype in 2012 with school partners across the country, and launched its enterprise-ready platform in early 2014. Before starting Alma, Andrew served in several financial and corporate management positions, including founding a successful analytical instrumentation company and leading numerous acquisitions for Danaher Corporation. As an early employee of Advertising.com,
In five years, I think the landscape of software tools used in schools will look completely different.
he lead the venture investment raise for the company and helped lay the foundation for the company’s long-term success. Andrews’s passion for education began early in his professional career when he taught middle school at Link Community School in Newark, NJ. Andrew earned an MBA from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts from Wesleyan University. In this interview, Andrew outlines some of his basic ideas about efficiency in education and providing educators with a modernized approach to administrative tasks.
Victor: What is Alma and how does it benefit schools?
Teachers and administrators are frustrated with time-consuming and expensive student information systems (SIS) and learning management systems (LMS) that simply don’t meet their needs. In the last decade, technology has made huge advances, but schools are still stuck with a mix of outdated legacy systems and single-function apps that put the onus on educators to piece together a holistic picture of each student, classroom and school.
Alma brings together core SIS and LMS functionality, and adds to it with progressive classroom and curriculum tools and time-saving features, with the ultimate goal of cutting down on educator busywork and freeing up time to spend with students. And because we’re a mission-driven company, we’re making the system’s core functionality available for free – so all schools, regardless of their size or budget, can have access to the best tools possible.
Victor: What inspired you to build Alma, and why now?
Andrew: I was a teacher early in my career, and though I loved teaching, I found the amount of time I had to spend on busywork outside of the classroom frustrating. Fast forward 15 years, and I’m still hearing this frustration from teachers – in fact, if anything, it’s gotten worse. In the last several years productivity and cloud technologies have had a huge impact on most jobs as well as our personal lives, yet schools continue to suffer with outdated and ineffective software. So, a couple years ago my co-founder and I began talking with teachers and administrators to learn more about their pain points and determine how modern software might help. Since then, we have spoken with hundreds of educators, and those conversations shaped the development of Alma.
Victor: What are the greatest data management challenges affecting schools?
Andrew: With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, we’ve seen a growing interest in standards-based grading (also known as proficiency-based grading). This approach is great in that it lets teachers see how students are progressing on specific goals throughout the learning process. But it also generates volumes of data that can be overwhelming to digest and report. To help with this, we’ve put a lot of energy into streamlining how standards and proficiency data is tracked and reported, so teachers can more quickly cut through the noise and get to useful insights. Additionally, schools are struggling with trying to integrate data from the fragmented applications they have to use. Alma provides SIS, LMS and gradebook data in one system to present a 360º view of student learning and easily gives administrators, educators, students and parents greater visibility into their school then they’ve ever had before.
Victor: What’s your approach to ed tech design and how is it different?
Andrew: Everything we do starts and ends with the user experience. We have a phenomenal development team and they’ve created a system that’s simple, intuitive and time-saving. The design elements and functionality that make great smartphone and tablet apps so easy and enjoyable to use – things like drag-and-drop sorting, automatic search suggestions, and so on – help make Alma a completely different experience than what teachers and administrators are used to. We want Alma to be a joy to use, not a burden.
Victor: Switching to a new SIS or LMS seems like a daunting task for schools. How easy is Alma to set up?
Andrew: Alma is very easy to set up. With our setup wizard, schools can fully configure Alma in under a day – and our goal is to eventually get that down to an hour. We also offer tiered training packages for schools that desire more hands-on support and specialized services to ensure they use Alma to its fullest capabilities.
Victor: Where do you see education in five years, and what trends helped drive these changes?
Andrew: As I mentioned earlier, technology has made huge strides in the last several years, and I think we’re on the verge of those changes coming to schools and classrooms. The cloud makes it possible to deliver so much more at such lower costs, that in five years I think the landscape of software tools used in schools will look completely different. Our whole team is proud of and humbled by the opportunity to be part of that transformation.
Victor: Who are your competitors? What’s different about Alma compared to other systems?
Andrew: We think of our competitors largely in two categories – all-encompassing legacy systems and single-function apps. Legacy systems were generally designed to operate as two totally separate systems, and developed one school at a time then rebuilt for the next school. Most of these larger companies have not exhibited an ability to innovate and adapt to the latest technology trends, outside of acquiring other companies. Most recently, newer applications have been coming on the market that do one or two things really well, but they add to an already long list of tools educators have to use, and it’s up to the teacher or administrator to connect the dots between all the different tools.
With Alma, we’ve created a modern alternative that brings together student information and learning management tools in a single system that’s enjoyable to use, and significantly less expensive than what schools have been stuck with in the past.
Victor: Now that you’ve launched Alma, what’s next?
Andrew: We’re thrilled by the positive response Alma has received from schools so far – not only in the U.S., but around the world! That said, our focus this year is on charter and private K-12 schools, and we’re limiting the number of signups to 500 schools in 2014 to make sure we can deliver not only a great product but also great customer service and support. We anticipate that we’ll start talking with school districts later this year, for rollout in the 2015/16 school year.
Victor: Many parents, schools and lawmakers are concerned about student privacy. How does Alma address that?
Andrew: We are fanatical about privacy and security. Being entrusted to manage student data is a tremendous responsibility, and we treat it as such. Our development team includes security experts who’ve previously worked in banking and ecommerce – industries that tend to have the most intense security protections because they’re attacked the most. We’ve applied best practices from those industries in Alma, including SSL encryption, double firewalls, and extra layers of encryption for particularly sensitive data. We also encourage schools using Alma to be proactive in communicating with parents about how the school uses, manages and protects student data.
Victor: What advice would you offer to schools trying to balance their budget with meeting students and parents expectations of what school should be like in our modern age?
Andrew: Schools, parents and students deserve to have access to modern software that helps support learning, and there’s absolutely no reason they can’t have it, at an affordable cost, in this day and age. If a school feels overwhelmed by the prospect of rolling out something new – or if they’re locked into an expensive contract with someone else – I would encourage them to try just one or two of Alma’s features (e.g. attendance or gradebooks) and see how easy the transition can be when you have the right tools.
Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]