The State of Blackbaud K–12 in 2020 with Travis Warren

January 8, 2020 Travis Warren

A Get Connected podcast banner graphic featuring Travis Warren.

Episode 70 of the Get Connected podcast welcomes Travis Warren, president and GM of Blackbaud K–12 Solutions. Travis discusses key initiatives for Blackbaud K–12 in 2020, including product enhancements for competency-based education and billing management.

Get Connected to this discussion by listening to the podcast above, downloading the episode, or listening on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio, or Spotify.


Travis Warren [Intro]: We're running a marathon, not a sprint, and it's more important that, you know, we get it right.

Daren Worcester: Greetings and welcome back to the Blackbaud K–12 Get Connected podcast. I'm Daren Worcester, and today, I'm joined by Hiram Cuevas, Director of Academic Technology at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia. Hiram, thanks for joining me again.

Hiram Cuevas: Thank you, Daren. Always glad to be here.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Yes, we had fun last time talking to you about the advisory board. And this time we're bringing in Travis Warren. He's going to do a state of the union, if you will, regarding Blackbaud K–12 as we turn the corner on 2019 and head into 2020. So we're looking forward to seeing what he has to say about the company. Hiram, you have a unique perspective on it, you know, being newly elected to the advisory board as the director. What things are you looking forward to talking to Travis about today?

Hiram Cuevas: Well, I know one of the things that continues to impress me is the API and the use of the sky API with the data that schools possess within their systems. I'll be really interested to see what further expansion may be coming down the line with that, that schools can leverage to make metric-based decisions.

Daren Worcester: Yeah, that's obviously been a big deal of what we've been doing. We talked about it in the last podcast quite a bit, and sort of the potential of the API going forward seems enormous. So I'd love to hear what Travis thinks about, you know, what schools are going to be able to do with that. Alright, so we get a feeling this is going to be a long podcast. I think we've got a lot of things to ask Travis and talk to him about so why don't we get right to it and bring him on?

Hiram Cuevas: Okay, that sounds like a plan.

Daren Worcester: Travis, welcome to the podcast.

Travis Warren: Hey, Daren, and Hiram, welcome. Thanks. 

Hiram Cuevas: Hello.

Daren Worcester: Alright, great to have you back. We appreciate you joining us again this time, you know, as we close out 2019 and look into 2020, so happy New Year. Before we start looking ahead to 2020, let's take a look at some of the noteworthy initiatives that we've just achieved in this past year, probably nothing more significant than the stuff we've been doing in Blackbaud Enrollment Management SystemTM in terms of product development—that team throughout this last year and a lot of it this fall closed out over 1700 votes from the community forum. We know you love giving out report card grades. Would you say we made the honor roll there?

Travis Warren: [Laughing] Yeah, I would say, going into the year that was a big focus for us. Obviously, the enrollment/admission office is a supercritical function for a school, and I also think it's an area that just sort of industry-wide, a lot of innovation is occurring. I feel like some of the things happening in higher ed, stemming from sort of the competitive nature of marketing and recruiting students is sort of trickling down into our world. So there's sort of that exciting component. And then I think there's also just making those offices more efficient.

So we look at some of the things like condition logic, or how we collect candidate recommendation forms that have just huge upside in terms of time-savings. So those each had a couple of hundred votes. We always do try to stay close to the idea boards and really harness the power of our user community to kind of steer us in the right direction on that stuff.

But yeah, that was a big focus and a lot of the work done throughout the year and a lot of that is just going live now. So, strongly encourage, if you haven't been paying attention to release notes or staying tuned-in, make sure your admission offices at your respective schools are getting that goodness and taking the time to appreciate those enhancements and how they can take advantage of it.

Daren Worcester: I was impressed with it as I looked through all the votes and the different things that we got closed out that, in my mind, I always thought, you know, it's the things that get the most votes that are what's getting worked on, but there were a lot of items in there that just had one or two, four or five votes that they were able to include in all the different stuff that they've been doing.

Travis Warren: Yeah, there's definitely kind of a long tail effect. I think you're right. I mean, there's the things that score a couple of hundred votes, but the way our process works, our product managers, you know, when they're going to work in a particular area of the product, you know, it's usually triggered by demand, the top vote-getter. But then what they do is they go in, and they kind of round up all the other ideas that are in that area of the program. And it makes sense to knock some of those things off at the same time.

So it's sort of like while they're in there, they can knock off a lot of those small vote-getters as well. So good process, but you're right, that's important. And I think it really speaks to the importance of people using the idea board. Don't think just because you don't have 200 votes, doesn't mean it's not going to get done, you know, make sure you're capturing those ideas in there. And that's really the most efficient way for you to get that feedback to our team.

Hiram Cuevas: So Travis, recently Blackbaud announced that its portfolio of education management solutions is now OneRoster compliant. Given that the company's core value proposition is a single platform school management system, why is it important to gain OneRoster compliance, and perhaps explain to the folks out there what OneRoster actually is?

Travis Warren: Good question, Hiram, thanks. OneRoster, you know, it's interesting. Even though we very much want to be, I think, the single-platform school management system is a good way to put it. We often talk about the total school solution; it doesn't mean we want to be your only vendor. So, especially in the education space, there are so many companies really pushing the envelope and in a couple of different ways: either, very deep into a specific area of study, like you know, math or language; or also publishing companies that are kind of repurposing physics textbooks onto the internet.

So, I mean, those are areas that we really want to be your core data platform. We want to be your constituent database of record, we want to be the marking, grades, and attendance, and kind of the core student management system. But we're certainly not looking to do everything, and I think OneRoster is a very common and a very well accepted way to create interoperability between these various systems.

So, like I said, in some cases, it's two systems that we have absolutely zero overlap with, which is probably the easiest OneRoster scenario to get your head around. In other cases, though, there are systems like Canvas, you know, more full LMS systems that we can leverage OneRoster to take advantage of. Those are a little more complicated, I think from a school perspective, because, you know, the functionality overlaps with some of our learning management functionality.

So it's sort of more incumbent, Hiram, on people like yourself to kind of draw the boundaries within your schools. You know, whether you do it at the division level, and sort of say, alright, you know, in our middle school, we're going to use maybe Blackbaud's learning management. But in our high school, we're going to use Canvas or, you know, maybe it's in a specific class where the humanities classes are using one LMS and maybe the languages are using another.

But I think the key for us is, it's a standard. And it's something that, you know, we can leverage to kind of connect our customers to the bigger ecosystem of ed-tech software available. So it's good progress on that. And it's an important initiative for us.

Hiram Cuevas: And I think it's great that you actually use that term core because I'm going to ask you a question now about the API, because so much of what schools leverage today is housed in Core. And so with that, let's stick to the API theme and recognize that it was recently announced at the endpoints being used in the former "ON" products and now in the Blackbaud Sky API, and 26 new endpoints were added—there doesn't appear to be an end to the K–12 development for the API in sight either. What does this commitment to the API mean for our schools?

Travis Warren: So for people who aren't familiar with API, right, the term means application program interface. And essentially, endpoints are reference to these web services. The endpoints are the actual functions within those web services that developers can call programmatically to make the system do things. Our API is really the backbone of our partner ecosystem.

So, when you look at companies like Magnus or BrightArrow, their ability to programmatically read and write from our platform is essential to the success of the integration they built. So you certainly see that being critical and, you know, I think the need for continued development is, you know, a great example would be BrightArrow where maybe initially, there's an endpoint that just allows them to extract parent phone numbers from the system programmatically.

But as people use their integration and want to go further, they come up with more ideas and more advanced sort of thinking around like what BrightArrow might be able to do. So an example would be, maybe phone calls, BrightArrow's mass call dialer, maybe it makes phone calls when kids are absent from school, right? So the initial use case was more around emergency call dialing in maybe the event of a snowstorm, so the endpoints just deliver all the phone numbers.

But then as we evolve, now, BrightArrow says, "Hey, we need an endpoint that can just give us phone numbers for parents of kids that were marked absent today or in the last period, so you can see how that drives the development of the APIs. We think it's great, you know, we want to continue to commit more and more resources to that. We think it's going to make our platform stickier and more useful to schools. And so it's an awesome thing. And that's very much in line with where we want to go as a company.

I think the other scenario, we continue to see are schools that are, you know, not relying on partners to access the APIs, but schools that are actually building their own solutions using the APIs, you know, whether it's something they're doing with a digital sign or a report or a dashboard, that they're building, maybe using something like Power BI, where, you know, they're accessing the APIs.

So it's very modern. All modern platforms have APIs, you know, I think we have to play catch up a little bit, because, you know, our system wasn't built on top of APIs, per se. So we're having to retrofit some of it and go back and add those endpoints, but it's definitely a key initiative for us. And, you know, we want to have as many different endpoints available to help solve a lot of those use cases.

Hiram Cuevas: Great, thank you, Travis.

Daren Worcester: Travis, we've hit some of the high points on product development in 2019, but as we look around the business, some other cool and interesting things are going on as well. In Professional Services, they recently implemented retainer services this year to continually help schools with things like their SIS setup and ongoing website maintenance. In checking-in with them, I was impressed to learn they already have over 175 schools using these services, which kind of blew me away in how quickly that's caught on. How's it going from your perspective?

Travis Warren: There was definitely a larger demand for retainer services that I think we anticipated. We started selling them maybe a year and a half ago. And for those who aren't aware, managed services are sold in a sort of retainer fashion, and essentially, in a lot of cases, it's staff augmentation.

So we're able to help run a certain part of the system for you for a fee and it's a different model than the sort of project-based Professional Services where you're buying 100 hours, and we're draining the hundred hours, and then the project's done. This is more, we're providing ten hours a month or 20 hours a month, and we have a list of things we do for the school.

You know, in theory, that takes somebody who had more work than they could get to and frees them up to work on maybe higher-value tasks within the school, or, you know, in some cases, if there's attrition and turnover at the school it, you know, allows the school to be more efficient in terms of how they backfill and from that perspective, so, yeah, I think we saw the demand. We had people asking about it. I think, Daren, I share your surprise at how many people signed up for them. And it's an exciting, growing part of what we're doing. But yeah, that was definitely one of the big stories in 2019 for us.

Daren Worcester: Yeah, it's excellent how that's taken off. The other thing I wanted to touch on was how the Customer Success team has recently been revamped, now under the leadership of longtime Blackbaud K–12er Abby Chau. In addition to the renewed commitment to customer success that we've seen here, what's really interesting to me is that the K–12 success team has been grouped together with Blackbaud's Faith team, and this isn't the only place that we're seeing K–12 and Faith crossing paths. What does this mean, in particular, for our parochial schools?

Travis Warren: Yeah, I mean, it's an interesting fact that two-thirds of the private schools in the United States are faith schools. So, whether it's Catholic or Baptist schools or Jewish schools, there's lots of obviously different faiths, but that it is such a significant percentage. I mean, I think the alignment we've set up is a good one. I think there are some efficiencies and some economies of scale that occur. Blackbaud recently has made some announcements in the faith space as well with our new church management system and some of the work we're doing with some diocese around consolidated reporting, and so there's some interesting momentum.

Hiram Cuevas: So Travis, if we turn our focus to 2020, the much anticipated general release of competency-based education is slated for this spring. I know our folks here at St. Christopher's are very, very excited about that. So in addition to leading Blackbaud K–12, you have a unique perspective as also being a parent and trustee at Proctor Academy. What's your take on competency-based education?

Travis Warren: You know, it is interesting, I think we're all dealing with it on lots of different levels. I actually have a freshman at Proctor. I also have an eighth-grader in a public middle school in New Hampshire. And they actually have been rolling this out in the local school that my kids attended in New Hampshire for a few years now.

And I've seen friends of mine, parents, local kind of Facebook groups, pushing back and heard the debates back and forth. So, to me, I think the fundamental issue is just really stems from people's concern around—it's matriculation and the best universities in the country. And the concern, how is this going to impact the college admission process?

Otherwise, it strikes me that, you know, it's pretty logical and pretty hard to argue with the core principles of it. And ultimately, beyond test-taking and the sort of traditional GPA class ranking view, you know, it's hard to argue that sort of mastering subjects and what CB offers isn't a nobler pursuit, but the politics of it are real, and I think it'll be interesting.

You certainly see the schools rolling out sort of hybrid models where they're able to kind of do it both ways. Obviously, that puts a real tax on teachers and administrators. It, however, does kind of leave the parents and the community at least with a better transition and a little less disruptive than just sort of pulling the rug out.

So I don't know, Hiram, it'll be interesting to see where it all goes. I mean, I think from a software standpoint, we certainly want to support the various models and are looking to make sure our gradebooks and report cards don't get left behind. But it's definitely going to be an interesting few years, as you know, more and more schools adopt this. I'm curious, Hiram, at your school—where are you guys on the journey here?

Hiram Cuevas: We're about to employ the competency-based on our ninth grade. And so the timing of this new deployment couldn't be any better for us as a school and we've been having some really good conversations about it. It's going to be a soft rollout starting with the ninth grade. I know one thing, and you had mentioned this earlier, is how does this impact the college process? And I know one of the things I would love to talk to you at some point are—college admissions officers to see what their take is on the competency-based models that are out there right now. And how does that enhance or hold back perhaps an application that that comes in front of them?

Travis Warren: It strikes me, you know, not something I've gone particularly deep on. But the few times I have heard people at the next level talk about it. What I've heard them stress is how many models there already are, and that they're already dealing with this to some degree with just different ways GPAs are calculated or the various things that go into making their decisions.

It's not as cut and dry as maybe we think it is, even today. But I certainly think the model at a small private college with a couple of thousand students is one thing, you know, you certainly scroll up to a big, massive university with thousands of incoming students and just a limited amount of resources in terms of value to reviews. It's interesting, it'll be certainly a challenge for them to figure out what to make of it.

Hiram Cuevas: But an exciting challenge nevertheless. 

Travis Warren: Yeah, exactly.

Daren Worcester: So competency-based education is one of our major releases coming this year in 2020. The other one that people are probably listening to this and waiting for us to ask you about is the next generation development of Blackbaud Tuition ManagementTM. At the User Conference this past summer, you described this as the K–12 vision getting clearer. Can you reiterate what you meant by that for people who didn't see the presentation?

Travis Warren: So, I know one of the things we talked about, and that sort of core role that we want to play as the sort of platform for K–12 schools, is around one constituent record and ultimately centralized reporting, centralized API's, single point of authentication, unified user experience, so not lost on our audience is the fact that, you know, over the last 10 years Blackbaud has gone from Education Edge to acquiring WhippleHill, to acquiring Smart.

So we have work to do in terms of rationalizing those acquisitions and driving the innovation and the platform from really three platforms to one. And the next release of tuition management, which we're referring to as billing management going forward, consolidates the technology, really from three platforms down to two, and puts the whole billing management system on top of the K–12 constituent record.

So that's going to be a big step for us in that journey. I think as far as user experience, it'll leave parents paying bills and interacting with the system in exactly the same way they do to get assignments and report cards and check on sports schedules today. So I think it's going to be, you know, welcome from that regard.

The initial version of billing management, which we'll start to see, you know, we've got an EAP program that we're running right now. And we'll start to see schools, certainly running it in 2020, is very focused on kind of a limited set of functionality. We want to make sure we get the nuts and bolts and get the basic features set running well and stable. So that's really where the EAP focus is.

I think as we get into 2021, 2022, you start to look at some of the features that the Smart Tuition customers certainly have come to appreciate, like parent call centers, and lockboxes, and follow-up service to help drive collections for bills and tuition. Those features are going to be layered on top in the future.

The initial goal with the EAP is really focused on the types of features you would have found in our Student Billing 7 product and, you know, replacing those with a modern, cloud-based experience and, you know, I think we're making good progress on that, you know, that's going to be a big part of the story going forward for us.

Hiram Cuevas: Well, Travis, that's all great news regarding the BB-TM solution. So what would be some of the added administrative benefits by combining billing and tuition management from an education management portfolio? So essentially, somebody from my seat and also perhaps working with the business office?

Travis Warren: Yeah, I think it gets pretty compelling. I mean, you've got at one end of the spectrum, the ability to put a hold on an account and restrict access for people who aren't paying, or at a minimum, share with them that they have an open balance when they log into the portal, so that's super valuable.

And the other end, assigning charges, billing to groups—you want to hit a class with a field trip charge or charge a team for a uniform fee. Obviously, having the roster data and having it all fully baked together like that makes stuff like that super easy. So, you know, we're seeing tremendous opportunity there. I think also, with our Financial Edge NXT® solution, full integration, back to FE NXT is obviously another big plus.

Daren Worcester: Travis, during the conference, you also talked about how this development was kind of getting back to our core focus of minding the parent experience. How do you see parents benefiting from this new development

Travis Warren: Today, you know, we're able to offer single sign-on and the parent can get over into the Smart interface to pay their bills. So, you know, they don't have to have another password. But this is going to pull that forward and pull that into the same experience that they have for every other aspect of our platform.

So, you know, I just think it's going to reduce the different number of systems they're accessing and also, you know, like I was describing, either alerting them to an open balance or providing one-click into balance details all right from within one interface is going to certainly be a good thing for parents.

Hiram Cuevas: And Travis, of course, the big question that everybody has on their mind that everyone loves a roadmap, but I think everybody really likes a timeline. At the UC, there wasn't a defined timeline. Instead, you talked about it being a multi-year process that will play out over three phases. So now, six months later, is development where you thought it would be at this time, and what can schools expect to see in 2020?

Travis Warren: One of the things that's interesting about enrollment contracts and tuition and billing is there's a real reluctance, no surprise to you, Hiram, to change these things mid-year. So, you know, that creates these sorts of windows of opportunity for us and we're moving into a window right now.

And that's the purpose behind the EAP. We'll have a relatively small number of schools running it. There'll be another big window next year at this time where we'll bring more schools on to it. There is, you know, a few outliers, a few schools that are willing to launch stuff like this offseason if you will.

You know, I think that is one of the primary reasons why this takes years, not months to roll out systems like this. We've got other parts of our system that have sort of similar adoption patterns. So we've made a lot of progress and it gets better every day.

I think, you know, in my perfect world, we probably would have 100 schools running it this year, not a dozen, if I'm being completely honest. But we're running a marathon, not a sprint, and it's more important that, you know, we get it right. We're dealing with financial information, and, you know, paying, and aspects that, you know, it's imperative that there's no room for error there. So it's really important that we go slow and get it 100 percent, and it's a big important part of the system going forward, so we're not looking to cut any corners.

I think the other thing we're very aware of is, you know, there are lots of schools running Smart Tuition. We're not looking to push people to kind of create a run on this. If it's working, and you look at certainly some of the features like the lockbox and the parent call center that won't be available in the short run in Billing Management, we want to continue to make enhancements to the Smart platform, and certainly continue to support that and recognize that at some point in the very distant future, this will do everything that does and there won't be a need for both platforms.

But I'm certain five years from now, there'll be people running Smart Tuition. I don't see that as a short-term objective. I think the best case is we keep making Billing Management better and better and better. And people self-select when they think that the billing management platform is a better option for their school, then they migrate.

You know, and this is really no different than what we did with EE or what we've done with RE and other migrations at Blackbaud, which is to focus on getting the next version right, and, you know, let people decide for themselves when they think it's the right time to move.

Daren Worcester: Excellent, thank you. 

Hiram Cuevas: Alright, Travis, here's an 80s movie quote for you. I'm going to give you the genre. 

Travis Warren: Alright. [Laughing]

Hiram Cuevas: Just to help you out here a little bit. See how well your knowledge of 80s trivia is? I'm sure John Linton will want to chime in at some point. So the genre is science fiction. 

Travis Warren: Okay. 

Hiram Cuevas: And here's the quote: "It was a bad call Ripley, a bad call."

Travis Warren: Ripley's. Alright, so based on Ripley, and based on science, I'm going to go with Weird Science. Is that right or wrong? 

Hiram Cuevas: Ooh, no. 

Travis Warren: No, alright, strikeout. I thought Ripley was the brother's name in Weird Science. Did I get that wrong? 

Hiram Cuevas: That's incorrect. 

Travis Warren: Alright. Ripley . . . Aliens? 

Hiram Cuevas: Aliens, there you go! 

Travis Warren: Yeah. 

Hiram Cuevas: Well done, well done. 

Travis Warren: You can edit my wrong answer out, does that work?

Hiram Cuevas: [Laughing]

Daren Worcester: So Travis, do you have a favorite 80s movie?

Travis Warren: For me, I think it's The Breakfast Club. Every time I watch that I can't pass it on TV. I get sucked in every time.

Hiram Cuevas: It's a great flick.

Daren Worcester: That's a solid choice.

Travis Warren: Yeah, but it's tough too when you think about some of the Star Wars movies, you almost have to go by genre. But, how about you on the 80s, Hiram?

Hiram Cuevas: Well, I've already given it away, Aliens is for me for sci-fi. 

Travis Warren: Yeah. 

Hiram Cuevas: For a comedy, it's Caddyshack.

Travis Warren: That's good. Good choice. Daren?

Daren Worcester: I'm a Top Gun guy, so I'm a little nervous and excited about the new release. But when it comes to the comedy, I can't pick between, you know, The Great Outdoors and Ghostbusters, and there's just so many there. 

Travis, thank you very much for joining us on the podcast. We appreciate it and have a happy New Year.

Travis Warren: Thank you, guys. Take care, Hiram, have a good trip. 

Hiram Cuevas: Bye now. 

Daren Worcester: Alright, Hiram, so that was a great conversation with Travis. We covered the gamut of everything we wanted to talk about from looking at the new enrollment management features that have recently come out to looking ahead at the CBE feature that's coming out as well as obviously all the work that is being done around tuition and billing. What for you, being on the school side of the fence, was the big takeaway from the conversation.

Hiram Cuevas: Well, there were so many teasers. I mean, it's really exciting. Anytime you have a conversation with Travis, he shares with you, you know, what is about to come down the pipe. And for us, the timing couldn't be better for the CBE component for K–12.

The other thing, Daren, that I'm also excited about is the information Travis shared on BBTM. The tuition management component I think has so many wonderful possibilities. And they are rolling it out slowly. They are rolling it out in a way that I think is intentional and thoughtful. That is only going to make it a much better solution for schools in the future.

Daren Worcester: Yeah, and I liked Travis's analogy comparing it to what we've done with Education Edge because there is a lot of comparisons there where you had an existing product. And now we're kind of recreating the functionality of it on a different platform to get sort of everything condensed into one location, which will make it simpler for everybody.

And the idea being that, you know, we're going to continually work on this, and schools aren't going to be forced off the old platform anytime in the foreseeable future. So they get to kind of sit back and watch what's being done and identify when the right time to switch for them will be.

Hiram Cuevas: Indeed, it's a very comprehensive thought process that he shared with us today.

Daren Worcester: It is. So, Hiram, before we close out, I think I gotta ask you a movie quote here. 

Hiram Cuevas: Uh-oh.

Daren Worcester: You know, you got me last time. I'll give you a hint. The genre is going to be comedy, which I know might not be your wheelhouse, so forgive me for that. So here's the quote: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." 

Hiram Cuevas: Ferris Bueller.

Daren Worcester: You nailed it! [Laughing]

Hiram Cuevas: Johnny Wallace would be proud. [Laughing] That's great. That was fun.

Daren Worcester: Awesome. Well, thank you, Hiram, for joining us again on the podcast. Really appreciate it. Always great having you on. And we look forward to talking again in the New Year.

Hiram Cuevas: All right. Thank you so much, Daren. Enjoy.

About the Author

Travis Warren

Travis Warren is the President and GM of Blackbaud’s K–12 Group, where he leads the team moving the combined suite of products built to connect the whole school forward with the same vision. Travis frequently speaks about technology and communications and runs hands-on workshops to help schools engage the newest mediums in their communications strategy. Travis lives in Amherst, NH, with his wife and four children. Away from work, he enjoys coaching football, digital photography, and serving as a trustee for his alma mater, Proctor Academy.

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