For the past five years, PowerSchool has allowed students to monitor all of their grades just by typing in a simple login code. The website, managed by Pearson, PowerSchool’s parent company, provides services such as showing attendance totals and current and historical grades.
However, the PHS PowerSchool does not send lab day notifications or automatically show grade percentages, so Aaron Olkin ’16 decided to take the website one step further by creating the short-lived PowerUpdate, which included those features. The problems that arose from the creation of this online service resulted in the shutdown of PowerUpdate and a closure of PowerSchool for almost two weeks, starting on September 17.
PowerUpdate began as a tool that would help students and do the work of logging into PowerSchool for them. “The goal was to publish new grades,” said Olkin. “When a user signs up, they provide my PowerUpdate server with their username and password to PowerSchool, and my server pretends to be them and automatically logs into their account every so often. And if it sees a new grade, then it sends an email to the user.”
Rather than creating another website, Olkin blended the characteristics of a site and an app to create something else. “I would refer to [PowerUpdate] as a web-app, which is basically just a combination of a website and an application. A website is generally something that is just providing information, whereas a web-app is providing more service, so it’s more interactive,” said Olkin.
The fact that the administration had no hand in the creation or validation of the web-app was the primary reason that PowerUpdate was closed. Principal Gary Snyder said, “The app was not school–approved … It’s not an app that we say parents can use or that the school offers.”
Because the school did not create or approve PowerUpdate, the program could be seen as a cause for concern related to security breaches or student privacy. “Because it was unauthorized, we needed to close the portal until we understood everything about the app and what that meant,” said Snyder. “Anything that is not approved that is going to be attached [to PowerSchool] is going to raise some questions and flags.”
The school is obligated by law to protect student data, as problems may arise if leaks occur. “There is a [Family Educational Right and Privacy Act] that says that the school has to protect student data,” said Olkin. “So if they are providing this electronic form of data, they are required to make sure it’s secure. And by a third party having that data, they’re no longer in control of it, and they can’t guarantee its care.”
“One of the large issues in general is around student data privacy—and PowerSchool is built to ensure privacy,” Snyder said. “People are concerned about data privacy … There are laws around student data and privacy.”
Olkin said it was not his intent to invade others’ privacy through the creation of the web-app, though he admitted that, while it would be difficult, he could see others’ grades if he tried. “It’s very easy for me to see my own grades through the server, because it’s designed for that. It’s not designed for me to see someone else’s grades. While it’s technically possible, it would not be easy or a fun or simple process that I would want to do.”
In addition, Olkin’s server contained the login information solely for students who voluntarily submitted their usernames and passwords to his website.
Despite its effect, Olkin’s app was a casual creation, not originally intended for widespread use. “I initially created a piece of it to prove a point to a friend, and then I had written some code for that, and I realized that I have this code and I could use it to make this notification service,” said Olkin. “I decided ‘Why not?’ Students at PHS would probably love it. I knew that I would love it, so I made it.”
The few students at PHS who were able to use PowerUpdate before its shutdown responded positively regarding its accessibility and convenience. “With PowerUpdate, they would send you texts [or emails], so you could see your grades right after they came out, which was a lot easier for me,” said Matt Herwig ’16. “I thought it was helpful, but they only sent me a few emails before it got taken down.”
The web-app gained popularity within a couple days, spread through word of mouth by users. “Within three days, it sort of blew out of my control, and people were signing up who I had never even heard of. It got 105 users after 3 days, and I just don’t know that many people that well,” said Olkin.
Even some students who weren’t able to use the web-app talked highly of it after hearing some of its features. “I was never personally able to use PowerUpdate, but after hearing about it from some of my friends, I definitely think I would have used it before it got shut down. Grades are such a big part of every student’s life, so anything that would make it easier to monitor them would definitely respond well with the student body,” said Avery Peterson ’17.
Pearson provides resources such as a mobile site and percentages, but the school does not. “PowerSchool actually [provides] a lot of the things that I did—they [provide] email notifications, and they [provide] percentages,” said Olkin. “But because percentages are disabled because the administration wants it, they [also] had to disable emails and mobile applications because [those] have percentages.”
Olkin speculated that the avoidance of percentages is rooted in the fact that the school wants to lower competition between high-achieving students and to avoid students from urging teachers to bump up their grades.
“I think that it has something to do with the fact that, if students saw that their percentage was really close to moving their grade up, they might bug their teacher about it,” said Olkin.
Although disappointed to see PowerUpdate ultimately shut down, Olkin still takes pride in the extent of his creation. “I’ve built a lot of different projects … but I had never really built anything that gained any widespread usage or acceptance,” said Olkin. “I built something this time that people apparently really liked and shared with their friends, and that was really cool to see.”