Accelerated Solution Delivery Improves Customer Engagement

Nonprofit accreditor Cognia leverages low-code to centralize systems, maximize their technical investments, and become more responsive to shifting market requirements.

Schools choose to go through the process of accreditation on a semi-regular basis to affirm that are a credible education provider.

In the United States, this process is often conducted by third-party organizations like Cognia, who has a 125-year history providing accreditation, assessment, and student development services to K-12 schools.

Evolving business requirements, such as support for new user groups and rapid technology adoption in the education sector, have put pressure on Cognia to modernize their customer-facing systems. Historical reliance on traditional programming languages made their current systems inflexible and costly to maintain, let alone update.

With an ambitious goal on the horizon – one year to deliver a centralized customer engagement portal – Cognia’s selected the Mendix low-code platform to develop Cognia Home. In just 9 months, Cognia unified their customer experience and today supports over 45,000 users with a range of engagement tools for teachers, administrators, and students.

High Code, High Cost of Ownership

Cognia exists as the result of a 2018 merger between AdvancED and Measured Progress, leaders in accreditation and standards-based assessment, respectively. Merging resulted in a renewed organizational vision that required a new technology approach.

“Over time we’ve tried to change from operating with a more binary pass/fail approach to looking at the overall health of a school. We want to provide more opportunities for these institutions to make continuous improvements,” said Scott Davidson, Cognia’s Vice President of Teacher Development, who has over a decade of experience in education, starting in the classroom.

“Making accreditation more about continuous improvement means a few things. First, it changes who we work with – shifting from a focus that is purely organizational to engaging with individuals like teachers and administrators. Second, it presents a shift in what the nature of our work looks like,” he added.

That drag had stemmed from the fact that Cognia simply is not a company that specializes in software development. It is a nonprofit with a nimble technology team responsible for managing a complex landscape of aging systems.

“Looking back, we’ve had a fairly standard organizational design and methodology around software development,” said Cognia VP of Software Engineering, Douglas Potts.

Historically Cognia’s team would assess the market for solutions to buy as use cases would arise. However, as Cognia sits at a unique cross-section of domain areas – nonprofit, education, and governmental – building in-house was often the best option.

“Our tech stack was split between Java and .NET, so we used a collection of things like Angular, Spring Boot, SQL, NBC, ASP .NET, and C#,” said Potts.

With so many resources dedicated to maintaining the status quo, little time was left for Cognia’s development staff to explore innovative projects. These traditional development challenges came to a head when Cognia’s CEO, Mark Elgart, expressed his vision for a customer portal that would serve as a single entry point for a customer to access all of Cognia’s services.

Technology Aligned to Business Aspirations

“Our CEO had been looking for something like this for quite a while. But our resources were spread thin amongst other projects, so it never quite came together in the way that was expected. The request came up again in 2020. This time we had a deadline to deliver and make this new portal available within one year,” Potts recalled.

Potts had the realization that the development team wasn’t staffed to achieve what the CEO wanted. He quickly began evaluating other means of software delivery and ultimately uncovered low-code development as a promising solution, homing in on leaders in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant.

“The idea of being able to develop quickly and also iteratively in a way that would allow us to have a solution in place in a short period of time is really what drove us toward low-code, and ultimately Mendix,” said Potts.

A key factor that set Mendix apart during the evaluation was its all-in-one offering.

“We aren’t architecting something completely from scratch. Out of the box we don’t have to spend so much time on those things with Mendix. That allowed us to focus on what we really wanted to deliver,” Picou added.

With a new platform in hand, the team began development of Cognia Home with the support of Mendix implementation partner, EPI-USE, in May of 2020.

Centralizing Customer Engagement

Senior Product Manager Nick deKanter was at the helm of the development of Cognia Home. Prior to this project he had no experience working with low-code platforms.

“I spent some time in the different courses Mendix offers to get the lay of the land. I was intrigued by the idea of low-code. I became very excited about it during development when I saw how quickly and effectively we could put the product together,” said deKanter.

Of the challenge at hand, deKanter said, “We had a series of products, or collections of features in some cases, that weren’t really integrated as a product. They had little bits of functionality, but there was no unified or central user experience.”

“We had customers that engaged us in areas such as accreditation or assessments, and they didn’t know about our broader work or offerings as an organization. We were challenged to put together a digital product that would help connect the dots between our products and offerings,” he summarized.

In January of 2021 Cognia Home went live, just nine months after development started and a full three months before the CEO’s deadline. The new application has quickly become “the center of the Cognia universe.” Upon entering the application a user can see all of the products their organization has been provisioned, manage their account profile, and communicate with other users.

Accelerate Development Through Abstraction

Throughout the development process, Cognia was able to to deliver quickly, rapidly respond to new user requirements, and retain flexibility as they scale their user base.

The abstracted nature of the Mendix platform lets business collaborators and developers speak the “same language” throughout the software development lifecycle, which in turn speeds development.

“All of a sudden you’re collapsing the development lifecycle, and that allows us to focus on functional requirements over technical specifications,” Potts said.

“That was a major confirmation that we had made the right choice,” he added.

Cognia further accelerates development by leveraging the many “out-of-the-box” offerings available within the Mendix ecosystem, ensuring that Cognia’s developers can implement new ideas more rapidly and repurpose those ideas in future projects.

“What stood out to me were the number of out-of-the-box functions at our disposal,” said deKanter. “Something simple like the configuration of a text box – you can click a button and it’s there with the HTML.”

As a digital hub, Cognia Home also incorporates several integrations that have been standardized by the Cognia team. This includes APIs to connect to customer data, an integration with Salesforce, and connections to standard teaching tools such as MyVoice for classroom collaboration.

Responding to Evolving Requirements

By developing Cognia Home in Mendix, the team now has the tools and flexibility to iterate on the solution over time.

“We can’t just be focused on delivering great user experiences. We have to build an environment that is nimble enough to be changed. We need iteration to be a part of the equation throughout, and that is a huge part of being innovative,” said Davidson.

From a user experience standpoint this has taken shape in small improvements, such as offering single sign-on, all the way to incorporating new features like Communities of Practice, a social media-esque forum where users can connect and share knowledge.

“Teachers or administrators from all over the world can network with each other in our Communities of Practice,” said deKanter. “There is an ability to create groups. If you want to network with other teachers in Lexington, Kentucky, that work in childhood education, you can create a group for other users to join.”

“It’s a great piece of functionality,” he continued. “If you think about the real-world equivalent of going to an educator conference, of course there is learning that takes place in seminars and sessions. But a lot of the excitement is in talking to other teachers in the hallway. That is what we’re recreating in a digital environment – a place where people can network, get to know each other, ask questions, or share best practices.”

Community feedback has also helped to make Communities of Practice even stronger and more relevant for users over time. For instance, group moderators requested the ability to email all the users in their group with updates.

“We built the group email functionality in Mendix in probably 2 or 3 weeks,” deKanter recalled. “What amazes me beyond the speed of development is the ability to build something right the first time around. We get very little in the way of customer support calls related to our Mendix products. The ability to test things and deliver accurately is a huge benefit for us and a testament to the skill of our partner EPI-USE.”

Ensuring Future Scalability

To support their customer base as it continues to grow, the Cognia team is automating processes to reduce repetitive or tedious tasks for users or customer support.

“Right now we’re at about 45,000 users. Automation allows us to effectively support that volume of users,” deKanter said.

“For example, our new individual user management feature. Moving a user’s alignment from one institution to another used to be 20 minutes of work for a Cognia employee. Now, the user can do it themselves in two clicks. Some of those administrative tasks may not be the most exciting, but the results certainly are.”

Having an enterprise-grade low-code platform has enabled Cognia to shift time and effort from redundant development work to exploring new ideas. Picou cites the platform’s capabilities around “integration of various systems, enabling streamlined workflows, and security and compliance” as key for the scalability of their program.

From a backend perspective cloud flexibility has been as critical as automation in Cognia’s ability to scale, as Mendix is by nature a cloud-native low-code platform.

Cognia originally chose to deploy Cognia Home to the Mendix Public Cloud, but due to changing requirements needed to shift to their own private cloud instance on AWS.

“We’ve had great flexibility with Mendix and the way it speaks and works so nicely with AWS. We have been able to manage our workloads on the digital side very effectively,” said deKanter.

Collaboration Fuels Innovation

Since its launch, Cognia Home has helped users navigate the often complex, layered processes of accreditation and student learning with ease. “We’ve made the user experience simple and intuitive,” said Davidson. “We’ve been able to have a very light touch from a training and enablement perspective because of that.”

On how the organization quantifies the success of Cognia Home, Potts said, “We stepped into the world of Mendix and low-code with the idea that we were going to be able to achieve a number of different things. We wanted to move faster and save money, and we also wanted to provide the value that is expected in our applications for our customers. We’ve done all three of those things, so I’d say that is what I am most proud of.”

For the Cognia team, low-code development has proved to be more than just a vessel for faster software delivery and lower cost of ownership. It has also been a bridge between IT and business stakeholders as their organizational mission and culture evolves.

“The way that the business side can participate in a Mendix development project allows us to be experts in what we’re good at and not have to learn a new language or process. When we are bogged down in the minutiae of the details, we stop dreaming and visioning and thinking big. When that happens the end user experience can suffer as a result,” said Davidson.

“In the work we’ve done on Cognia Home with Mendix, I notice that we have the ability to balance the focus between long-term and day-to-day specifics. We’re remaining much more conscious of the larger vision and retain that through line more effectively.”

Picou added that Mendix “has enabled us to achieve our strategic goals with greater efficiency.”

With their first Mendix application deemed a success, Cognia is now focusing on structuring their team and processes. This includes establishing a low-code Center of Excellence (CoE) that can disburse Mendix expertise throughout the organization and serve as a hub for future development projects.

For the Cognia team, a CoE will be the next step in enabling business contributors to bring their ideas to life within the confines of an IT-sanctioned development platform. “We have no shortage of ideas. When you think about having the ability to develop at the speed of thought, those ideas and concepts are usually coming from within the business. To provide a business user the capability to quickly conceptualize their ideas – I think that is the true power of Mendix,” Potts concluded.