School software gets failing grade

After nearly a decade in testing and implementation, the Ministry of Education is calling in a consultant to tell them why the B.C. enterprise Student Information System (BCeSIS) isn’t up to snuff.

After nearly a decade in testing and implementation, the Ministry of Education is calling in a consultant to tell them why the B.C. enterprise Student Information System (BCeSIS) isn’t up to snuff.

Those problems came to light in the Okanagan Skaha School District in September 2010, which was when the school districts that had been holding off implementing BCeSIS had to begin using the program. The heavy load, coupled with slow performance and other problems, made it difficult for teachers and administrators to process timetable changes, process student transfers, and complete attendance.

“One of the difficulties with BCeSIS has been whether there is enough infrastructure to support the demands on the system during peak use times, which is report cards, timetables and the beginning of the year,” said Wendy Hyer, superintendent for Okanagan Skaha.

According to Hyer, the consultant will visit nine school districts to assess the problems with BCeSIS, examining the existing infrastructure and looking at both the current services provided by BCeSIS and needed services that are not part of the package.

The request for proposal issued by the ministry when they were searching for consultants indicates they are thinking about more than BCeSIS. According to that, the consultants brief will be to assess the ability of the system to meet the expectations of a 21st century learning environment as well as look at competitive market alternatives and provide recommendations.

Okanagan Skaha is one of the nine districts on the consultant’s list, but it is not clear how much longer the program is going to be available — the company that developed the BCeSIS software, The Administrative Assistants Ltd, was bought out in November by Pearson School Systems.

“BCeSIS has been purchased by Pearson Canada and they said they are going to support the system until the end of 2012,” said Hyer. “What is going to happen after that timeline, whether or not another system is going to be available, that’s part of the discussion the ministry is having with Pearson.”

According to Kevin Epp, president of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers Union, Pearson already has software that handles student information, adding that he has heard rumours that educators have been looking at those as a possible replacement.

In a letter to the board of education, Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said that improvements have already been made and “the system is once again stable and functioning.”

Epp, on the other hand, said that teachers are still having difficulties with BCeSIS, and they are still finding new surprises and errors when dealing with the program. They are frustrated by many things, including the program interface. BCeSIS, he said, will not accept the % sign as a valid symbol, making it difficult for teachers to express percentage grades.

“I have a two-inch thick file of complaints,” he said, listing problems like lack of training and longer times to accomplish the same tasks.

The previous system used in Okanagan Skaha cost about $20,000 a year, according to secretary-treasurer Ron Shongrunden, while BCeSIS costs are in the range of $150,000.

The difficulties and costs have been onerous in other areas also, prompting the Cowichan School District to ask the ministry for a refund. They asked for $1,137,000 as of June 30, 2010, covering everything from the licensing fee to the staffer who works the BCeSIS help desk since implementing the program in the 2005/06 school year. It also includes the $10,000-per-month cost the district has paid for a BCeSIS consultant and other related expenses. Cowichan expects to add another $195,000 to the total by the end of the 2010/11 school year.

With those kind of costs, calling in a consultant is a case of throwing good money after bad, said Epp. His view is that the software is tragically flawed and it would be better to use something that is stable and proven to work.

“I don’t think we need a consultant to tell us how bad it is. Those dollars should be in the classroom,” Epp said. “It seems to me the only thing left to do is choose what’s going to replace it.”