Velocity in education is critical – not just moving at speed, but speed in the right direction.
It’s music to the ears of Semaphore Consulting, the parent company of educational software brands XUNO, Accelerus and GradeXpert. Led by CEO Dr Kiki Tanousis and managing director David Jones, the XUNO school management and information system, Accelerus Reporting and GradeXpert Analytics all run on Microsoft Azure and offer support for teaching and learning, school processes and community engagement.
The products have been deployed widely—both on-premise and as Software as a Service cloud based solutions—and are used by schools across Australia including Sydney Grammar, the Queensland Academy of Science, Mathematics, and Technology, Victoria’s Methodist Ladies College, Blackburn High School and Oakleigh Grammar, to name a few.
According to Tanousis; “We’re a cutting-edge educational software company that specialises in fast innovation and highly responsive adaptation to changing circumstances and customer feedback.”
That includes helping schools to respond to the pandemic. To support schools that needed to offer remote learning opportunities to children during lockdowns, the company worked with many clients to help them rapidly transition from on-premise deployments of its software to a fully hosted deployment in Microsoft Azure.
Semaphore has run Accelerus Reporting on Azure since 2011, and when it bought XUNO in 2017 both products were integrated. XUNO was transitioned off AWS and into Azure which it believed was the better cloud platform for schools.
Transitioning schools from on-premise deployments to Azure has allowed anytime anywhere access, and also ensured that schools were able to scale during busy periods of the school year. It’s also allowed schools to use XUNO as the foundation for the shift to remote learning.
“We’ve got a really powerful messaging system built into XUNO school management system, but it was not intended to be for home-schooling,” says Tanousis. “We’d never imagined a year like 2020, no one could have. But because the inbuilt messaging was so versatile, as soon as everyone went remote, a few schools started thinking, ‘Oh, this is really useful. We can use it to conduct our classes, interact with the students and with the parents and everything’. By the time further lockdowns arrived, schools had started talking to each other.”
Demand surged, but the Azure foundations ensured XUNO didn’t miss a beat. According to Jones: “Demand varied from day to day, but it was somewhere between three and 10 times what our normal traffic was.
Azure allowed the company to serve the needs of clients and continue its fast-paced innovation which Tanousis says has weekly cadence.
“We will outpace allcomers when it comes to new ideas. We’ve taken patents out on our contactless technology and our contactless kiosks. We had that built within about two months of COVID coming out. That’s how fast we go.”
“And if we can’t do it ourselves, we’ve got an ultra-fast integration philosophy. So if there’s a great system out there that’s already invented the wheel, we will integrate with it and make it available to our network.”
Recently Semaphore did just that with the acquisition of GradeXpert—a leading analytics company. “We had GradeXpert Maps integrated and in the cloud in less than two months. We didn’t have to worry about switching to Azure, GradeXpert was already on it too,” says Jones.
During COVID the company was also able to leverage Tanousis’ expertise in another field – he is a former Post Doctoral research fellow in molecular immunology. Well before school closures had even arrived, the team had implemented its own emergency measures and provided advance warning and guidance to schools, to help them plan for a new way of working through the pandemic. “At first people didn’t want to believe it. But the effects on all our lives have been quite profound.”
Tanousis says that with the impacts of COVID, many schools have now rethought their approach to IT, as many were compelled to use new technology, and overcome any inertia they may have experienced with digital transformation.
“Having crossed the Rubicon, schools that were previously hesitant to go into the cloud have begun to realise that the performance was actually often better than on-premise environments. And we’ve encouraged schools to use a lot more cloud software. There are of course, certain situations in remote regions where the cloud is not so useful, so that’s why we retain the ability to go hybrid or even “old school” if necessary.”
It’s that versatility combined with agility that allows the company and the schools it supports to continue to thrive.