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How Can Schools Successfully Digitize Student Records?

Technology can have a huge, positive impact on managing the growing load of student records. But district leaders need to prepare carefully before digitizing all that paper.

by Kipp Bentley / July 11, 2018

Some years ago, I spent time among rows of shelves and boxes in a large urban school district’s records archive, housed in the basement of a district office building. By all appearances, “organized chaos” would be a fair description for the ad hoc archiving and records-retrieval system.

Most schools and districts have such a space, crammed with shelves, filing cabinets and boxes, all storing legacy district and student records that can’t legally be disposed of due to state record retention laws.

For larger and older school districts, the amount of space needed to house these physical records is daunting. Given that most school districts don’t have trained archivists on staff, the organization of the records so they can be accessed and retrieved is challenging, to put it mildly.

Fortunately, school districts are adopting online student information systems, which means that much of the student record data they now gather is in digital format, reducing some of the need for archival paper storage. However, a substantial number of paper documents are still being generated by districts that fall under state record retention laws. So, one step forward, one step back is the norm.

Recognizing that maintaining such physical records storage will only lead to further headaches, some districts have undertaken record digitization projects. A recent article on the Waukegan, Ill., District 60’s scanning and digitization project offers one district’s solution to the problem. They hired an outside contractor to come onsite and tackle the project, leaving the district with a system for accessing their digitized files.

Portland Public Schools in Oregon is going another route. They’re in the midst of a district-run project with an assembled team of scanning technicians who are systematically working through boxes of cumulative student files. Once scanned, the documents are housed and organized in the district’s records management system built by DocuWare, a document management software firm. Portland school office staff are also being trained to scan all new incoming paper documents into the system, ensuring their paper storage issues won’t return. 

For districts contemplating such a project, some initial topics and questions for consideration should include:

  • Project size and scope. Should you start with a smaller pilot digitization project, like district financial records, or tackle a big one, like student records, or bite the bullet and do them all?
  • Timeline. When does the project need to be finished? What disruptions will the digitization project cause for current district processes, like how will you access paper records once they’re organized for scanning?
  • Outsource or in-house? What’s your district’s capacity for successfully organizing, managing, staffing and completing the project? Would you be better served by hiring an experienced outside entity to handle the work?  
  • Funding sources. How will you fund the project? What will be the short-term and long-term costs, and also the savings? What are the potential hidden costs?
  • Records management system. What features do you need from a digital records management system? Will the system run on district servers or on a vendor-contracted platform? What online processes will you use for current and former students to request their records? Will you charge for records access? If so, how and how much?  
  • Records access. Once the new digital records system is set up, who will need access to it? How will you manage user accounts?
  • No new paper records. With your new digital records system, how will you ensure that you're not creating a new backlog of paper records? Who will handle the ongoing scanning of incoming paper documents?
  • State retention laws. What are the state’s retention periods for all district documents? How are you ensuring you're in compliance? Note: As an example of the scope of these rules, take a look at the Colorado Records Management Manual.
  • Document disposal. If it’s permissible by state record retention laws to dispose of documents once they’re digitized, how are you handling that disposal process?
  • Communications and training. How will you regularly communicate with your schools and community about the records digitization project and its ongoing progress? How will you train the school-based and central office users on how to effectively use the new system?   

Conducting a records scanning and digitization project is a major undertaking for a school district. But the return on investment can be substantial: Freed up storage space, reduced staff time in tracking down years-old student transcripts and district financial records, and overall record management efficiencies.  

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