The No-Step Solution

After a year of heads-down tactical work, I've finally got some time to think strategy again. This is the fun part of the job, the part that makes the rest of it worthwhile. Sometimes I have the privilege of sitting back, thinking about the future, and calling that "work."

Today I'm thinking about attendance. Boring? Not really. It's not sexy, but it matters. Knowing whether our children showed up or not matters, both from a safety standpoint and an educational one. 90% of life really is showing up, and to change behavior we first need to measure it (two quotes in one sentence. A new record).

The question is not whether we can use technology to take attendance. Obviously, we can use technology for that, and nearly anything else. The question is whether we can use technology to actually improve people's lives - improve outcomes, reduce workload, or both. A digital version of a paper attendance sheet doesn't really help. It's a marginal improvement day-to-day with more setup and room for frustration and error. Maybe, net-net, a 5% improvement over paper. I'm not interested in that, and I'm sure teachers and principals aren't either. The real question is, can we take attendance without anyone doing anything? That's interesting. That would improve people's lives.

Let's unpack what an attendance system is actually supposed to do. It's answers this question: Who showed up for class today? Were they on-time, late or absent? That's it. Nothing in there about technology, or process, or people. If we can answer that question, we've got it.

Now let's look at what a database like, say, Thumbprint's, gives us for free. Through the Reporting tool we know which students are in a class (Who). Whenever a student does anything in the app we have a time stamp (When). If showing up means looking at a specific course or lesson, we know that too (What). We also, sneaky sneaky, know the IP block assigned to the school, so we can tell if the student was in class or working from home (Where). We had all that yesterday, before we even started designing an attendance system.

So rather than build a big, complicated tool designed to mimic an inefficient paper system, or an inefficient digital system, we look at what we have, then look at the real problem, and build what's missing. What's missing? Not much. We already have all the data we need to answer the question. What we need is a widget where the school can set their attendance policy, and a report where they can see the attendance for the class and date range they specify. Our reports tool already knows how to specify class and date range, so really we just need to settle on the layout of the report.

Now, building those two things so that they're both flexible and easy to use isn't trivial, but think of where that leaves the user. No steps. Just go about your day, get on with your work, and when you need an attendance report, just pull it up. That, I believe, is enough value for a school to consider changing the way it does things.

So that's attendance. What's next, teachers out there? What's a big nasty time sink we should be looking at eliminating? Ideas in the comments.