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What is a Student Management System (SMS)?

January 9, 2020

Running a training organisation is complicated. Students must be found through marketing, then enrolled, billed, trained, and assessed. Trainers need to organise courses, classes, teaching resources, assessments, and maintain up-to-date knowledge to continue as effective trainers. The business must manage all of this and more, while complying with ASQA’s strict regulatory standards. 

It’s a marvel that training organisations were able to survive in the age before software, when management was achieved with paper, slotted into row upon row of filing cabinets haunted by pimply-faced filers. Today, the complexity of training is tamed with a piece of software called a student management system (SMS), which manages almost every aspect of a training business. The software is also known as a student information system, student management software, a school management system, or RTO software, but all solve the same problem: making the niggly day-to-day processes of training simpler, to free up time for critical activities such as growing the business. Because training is so complicated, having an SMS is a legal requirement for RTOs (registered training organisations) in Australia.

Looking for the differences between an SMS, LMS, and TMS? Check it out here.

A student management system’s features must cover a range of critical areas, listed below.

Compliance

Accredited training is heavily regulated in Australia by ASQA, which helps to maintain excellent standards of education, making our country one of the most popular places in the world to study. To remain compliant, RTOs must complete annual AVETMISS reporting, to demonstrate the consistency and accuracy of their data to ASQA.

As one of the most complicated compliance tasks, an SMS should offer an intuitive reporting tool to make the process easier, including the ability to validate errors and troubleshoot them before submitting the data to NCVER. This feature is absolutely essential for RTOs to remain compliant.

In addition to AVETMISS reporting, RTOs must send regular Learner Engagement surveys to their students, to identify areas of improvement for their training. To meet ASQA’s quality indicator requirements, an SMS should include a survey tool that allows you to create and distribute these surveys to your learners, as well as creating goals and tasks from the feedback—concrete actions for the improvement of the training organisation.

Then there’s the possibility of being audited by ASQA, who base their audits on five key areas of a training organisation, demanding that you prove the effectiveness of your business in various ways. To maintain high standards, your SMS should provide powerful reporting, comprehensive surveying features, the ability to create and manage goals/tasks, document storage, audit trails, and a whole lot more.

Another vital compliance tool is one that manages trainer competencies, helping to keep your trainers fully qualified and compliant with ASQA’s standards. It should be easy to see which trainers have completed which competencies, and which competencies are close to expiry, with the system reminding the trainers to complete before the expiry date arrives. Trainers should be able to upload evidence of competency directly to the system, which admins can then review, comment on, and approve.

Australian VET compliance can be a maddening maze for RTOs. If there’s a single area where your SMS should shine, it’s for compliance.

Assessment

online assessment

The majority of non-compliance issues are related to assessment¹, making it another vital area for student management systems to simplify. Every assessment has government-specified criteria to fulfill, with each question addressing a unique training component from training.gov.au. To remain compliant, questions in an assessment must be mapped to one or more of these components, demonstrating the satisfaction of government criteria for each question, and proving that the student understands the subject matter. Before SMSs came along, people completed this task on nightmarish rainbow-coloured spreadsheets, and woke screaming in the middle of the night. Today, SMSs streamline the process by allowing you to easily map questions to training components, visualise mapping relationships, and make quick changes to remain compliant, so that you can get a proper night’s rest without nightmares of spreadsheet armies on horseback, ready to topple your RTO castle.

Before being able to map components, the assessment must be created with an authoring tool, to include the various necessary assessment modes—quizzes, checklists, short or long answers, etc.—with customisable grading methods such as numerical scoring, scales, percentages, and more. Students must be able to complete the assessments online, receiving the results immediately, or once the trainer has marked the assessment, which they should be able to do in bulk.

Assessments are rarely standalone, often combined with other assessments in a training course, which makes the creation of custom assessment plans a necessary feature of an SMS. This includes creating schedules for students, who are automatically notified for key dates such as the release of summary info for the assessment, the start date, due date, and results date. A powerful SMS will automate much of this for you, blessing you with countless hours to focus on critical business priorities.

Courses and enrolment

Course creation is an obvious feature of an SMS—being able to set up courses of varying lengths, from full qualifications to short courses. Each course is broken down into units and assessments, and should fulfill specific units of competency, allow for the recording and tracking of student attendance, unit and course completion, and awarded accreditation in the form of custom-branded certificates. Course admins need an intuitive overview of every single course, and should be able to make changes to courses, or shuffle students around as needed.

Everything is online these days. Your prospective students will want to browse through your courses on your website, delve into the nitty-gritty details of each, and after deciding to commit to a course, go through the end-to-end enrolment process, finishing with an electronic signature. This will include both registration and payment, which may be in the form of an initial credit-card deposit combined with a payment plan. 

This could all be done by paper (you’d be surprised how many training organisations still do), but it would be a waste of valuable resources. Instead, an SMS should handle every aspect of enrolment, including marketing the courses on your company’s website, and building a custom enrolment form that collects the exact info you need. As students enrol, their information is collected by the system, where a workflow jolts into action and notifies the sales and finance teams, before sending the student their upcoming training schedule. With an SMS, the enrolment process should require little manual work from staff.

Calendar & scheduling

With so many courses, qualifications, units, students, trainers, and rooms to manage, an exceptional scheduling tool is essential for a student management system. 

As courses are created, the system should automatically create events for every course component, and send invites to students. Events must include vital info such as dates and times, locations, assets (e.g. a television), guests, and descriptions. The system should also be smart enough to highlight scheduling conflicts (a date, trainer, room, or anything else), offering alternative solutions to fix. In theory, you should be able to organise all of your courses using the calendar feature, with each course sitting snugly within its date range, without any conflicts. In addition to handling students and courses, the calendar system is great for organising internal company meetings.

Events should be viewable in a traditional calendar design, with day, week, and month views, and options to filter the information as needed. You should be able to see all scheduled courses and appointments at a glance.

Finance

accounting

Taking and chasing payments is another time-consuming exercise for RTOs, with deposits, payment plans, custom funding arrangements, and international students complicating the process. 

The financial features of an SMS should include the generation of branded invoices, credit notes, and refunds, with options to send them to single students, or to entire classes. One-off payments can be taken during enrolment, or as single transactions when needed. For longer, more expensive courses, payment plans are essential, including the ability to customise billing dates and amounts, and automatically taking regular payments throughout the year. To handle complex funding arrangements, the system should include a feature that lets you create financial models, with options to set concessions and variations based on rules.

To stay on top of your finances, pre-configured reports such as Aged Receivables and reconciliations are a must, and a financial overview should allow you to view the status of each client, delving into unique invoices, and seeing what’s owed.

Automation

Many of an organisation’s processes are repeated, and where there’s repetition, there’s a chance to automate. This was a prime reason for the invention of computers: to achieve a goal by following a set of pre-programmed actions. An SMS should allow you to create automated workflows that handle the repetitive, labour-intensive tasks that devour your time like insatiable monsters. This might be sending course information to students after they’ve enrolled (via email or text message), attendance warnings if they’re missing classes (including to parents), or quality improvement surveys when they’ve completed training. It could be sending invoices automatically, saving reports, or exporting data to your accounting system. If the workflow automation tool is worth its salt, allowing for the creation of customisable rules, conditions, and results, you should be able to automate every repetitive task and save thousands of hours. Common tasks for training organisations should be set up for you, which you can quickly activate to start saving time.

CRM

A student management system must have a basic CRM to capture contacts such as students, trainers, and clients, with vital business info recorded against each, such as addresses, enrolments, notes, communication, and invoices. Given that there’s already comprehensive CRMs (Hubspot, Salesforce, etc.) on the market, the SMS should integrate with one of those popular systems, pulling valuable customer data across and merging with its own records.

Resource management

Training organisations have a lot of documentation to manage, from the multitude of training-related materials for courses, to student identification, company policies, Training and Assessment Strategies, and anything else that needs to be documented and version-controlled. Having a place to store all of this information is essential, including the ability to categorise, track changes, set review dates, and more.

Work-based learning

work-based learning

Work-based learning (WBL) is an effective way for students to gain on-the-job knowledge, by applying what they’ve learned in the classroom in a real-world business. WBL comes in the form of placements, apprenticeships, traineeships, internships, and professional development, all of which require careful logistical planning to be successful.

A student completing a WBL program needs quick mobile access to their course details, progress, attendance, and the location of where they’ll be working. They need to be able to communicate with trainers, employers, and course administrators to resolve any issues. Trainers will need the same access and more, in addition to being able to capture the work of the student, while they’re at it. Antiquated organisations would use paper for this, which then needs to be manually inputted into the SMS, wasting precious time. But a modern SMS should include a feature to capture the student’s work while they’re doing it, in the form of photos, videos, and notes, all taken from a mobile phone app, and saved to the system as proof of the student’s competency. 

Integrations

Naturally, a student management system can’t do everything. There’ll always be other software companies who are experts in their fields, with the resources to constantly improve their apps. For this reason, it’s important for an SMS to integrate with popular apps that can handle critical business operations, such as accounting (Xero, MYOB, Quickbooks), payments (eWay, Ezypay, Stripe), LMSs (Canvas Moodle), and CRMs (Hubspot, Salesforce). Integrating with these quality apps allows a training organisation to continue benefiting from them, by pulling valuable data into their SMS.

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With so many moving parts for a training organisation, and such a heavy compliance burden, it’s clear why SMSs are a legal requirement. They help to simplify every complex aspect of training, resulting in a better quality of education for students, and a better-qualified Australian workforce.

Choosing a student management system is one of the most important decisions for a training organisation to make, and must be supported by extensive research and consideration to arrive at the right choice.

References

  1. Maciek Fibrich, 2018, The Compliance Risk Putting your RTO in Jeopardy

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