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District Scraps Cheaper, Custom-Made Student Info System

Several districts cry foul over ministry's claim that Saanich version doesn't meet standards.

By Katie Hyslop 17 Mar 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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Saanich should've known its own student info system didn't meet government standards, and wasn't going to be ready by the 2015 deadline, Education Minister Peter Fassbender reportedly said.

While the B.C. Education Ministry was sifting through proposals for a new student data system back in 2012, the Saanich School District was busy developing its own system using open source software.

Saanich's creation, openStudent, would cost anywhere from $3 to $7 per full-time equivalent student, less than $20 per full-time equivalent student than BCeSIS (the data system currently used by most districts), or MyEducation BC, the new program the government has chosen. Instead of paying a licence fee to a corporation to use the regular system, Saanich made its own version that simply tries to recover costs.

"That leaves as much possible money for other uses in education," explains Tim Agnew, openStudent's project manager, adding that the design is based on what teachers and administrative staff said they needed in a student data system during ongoing consultations by the district.

Like with BCeSIS, districts are supposed to be able to choose whether they sign on with MyEducation BC, developed by Fujitsu, or another program like openStudent.

But last week, the Saanich district said the ministry dropped a bombshell: openStudent needs to be compatible with the new BC Services Card, something that would cost the district "millions of dollars." With $1.5 million already spent on the system -- and an additional $1.7 million cost expected to finish openStudent in time for rollout this fall -- it was too much for the district, and it decided to shelve the project. As a result, Agnew and nine developers will be out of a job by the end of April.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender has said Saanich should have known this was coming, as compliance with the card was part of the Request For Proposals the ministry put out for a new data system in December 2012. He added that openStudent wasn't going to be ready by the 2015 deadline anyway, and didn't meet government standards.

But the project manager behind openStudent says it would be easy to adapt openStudent to work with the card, and it could have been done earlier if government had been clear on the required specifications.

"If you look at the [Request For Proposal] from a development standpoint, there's no actual specific requirements spelled out on that," said Agnew. "There's not a single proponent that could build an interface based on the information that's there, because the specifications simply aren't in those documents."

He added the ministry has never seen openStudent in action, despite several invitations to visit the district for a demonstration.

In an email to The Tyee, a ministry spokesperson said it was up to the district to determine how much the changes would cost.

Agnew says he sees no reason why adapting openStudent to use the BC Services Card would cost "millions" and has told the district as much. He doesn't blame the district for its decision, though, saying education is its first priority.

"This goes above and beyond what they were prepared to do," he says. "So the scare tactic worked."

A system for district needs

No one else at the Saanich School District was available for comment last week, as it is closed for spring break until March 23.

But the Comox Valley School District, which has been testing the beta version of openStudent in 11 of its schools since April 2013, is upset the program has been cancelled, too.

"We believe quite strongly in the shared services notion that school districts can do useful things together and keep costs down by efficiencies and shared services. This was a very interesting initiative that served that purpose, and for us it was well worth trying just on that basis alone," said Peter Coleman, chair of the Comox Valley district.

Coleman also liked that the program would be based on the needs of the school boards involved with its creation. The district currently uses BCeSIS, which he says "hasn't served very well," and he doesn't expect MyEducation BC will be much better.

"A well-designed system allows each using district to request certain kinds of reports from the information system, and our concerns about the government systems is that they only really serve government purposes," he says, adding that under a government system, reports useful to districts -- like those that compare data among districts -- wouldn't be possible.

Minister Fassbender was not available for an interview, but a spokesperson for the district said in an email that the 700 requirements for the new data system outlined in the Request For Proposals came from consultations completed between districts, teachers, trustees, parents and administrators. In all, 22 districts were involved in the selection and evaluation of proposals.

Comox Valley's secretary treasurer is in the process of penning "quite a strong letter" to the ministry asking them to reconsider the conditions they placed on openStudent.

The Vancouver Island North School District was also set to sign onto openStudent when it came online this fall. No one was available for comment, but a spokesperson said the board of education is "very disappointed in the discontinuation of openStudent."

In all, 44 schools in the province had been testing the beta program, and Agnew says the response has been "overwhelmingly positive."

Privacy concerns

Larry Kuehn, director of research and technology for the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said districts are better off not sharing their data with the rest of the province for security reasons, and the union told the government so in 2011.

The BC Services Card is designed to combine the provincial drivers licence and Medical Services Plan card, but Kuehn says many ministries and programs, including employment services and income assistance, will have access to the data stored under these cards. Government says it will help to cut down silos between ministries, but the teachers union isn't convinced.

"The key thing that [the ministry] want to have is every single student in the province with one record that goes from K-12. Anything which didn't fit into that framework was simply excluded," he says. Kuehn added parents and teachers would be required to use their BC Services Cards to access MyEducation BC.

The ministry spokesperson was vague when addressing that concern in an email, saying the ministry was "partnering with the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens' Services to develop an interim approach for access and security of MyEducation BC during the implementation of the BC Services Card."

The union isn't the only body concerned about the new card. Last August, The Tyee reported the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association and the B.C. Civil Liberties Union had concerns about government's consultation process, which didn't allow the public to voice support for cancelling the program.

But the ministry says support for MyEducation BC is strong: 51 of the province's 60 school districts have signed up to use MyEducation BC when it's finally unveiled in 2015.

"The remaining nine we understand are in the final consideration stages. A large number of independent schools -- approximately 18,000 students -- have also already signed on to this service, with many more considering," read a spokesperson's email, adding that the ministry was also working with First Nations schools to have them use the service.  [Tyee]

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