The solution to the BCeSIS problem is not more BCeSIS
by Larry Kuehn
One response to the current disaster would be to throw a lot more money—lots more money—at fixing it. That would be more bandwidth, more data storage, more access for more people who can be on the system at one time.
That is not a sensible solution. The problem with British Columbia enterprise Student Information System is in its centralized design that requires 40,000 people to all put all their data on one central database that they link to directly through a web browser.
When BCeSIS was being created, an alternative was put forward. It would have been based on having software and data at a school and district level, with a roll-up only of necessary information to the provincial level. In other words, the central database would only hold what is needed at the central level and would not be the place where all the processing happens.
Take a look at an example of secondary counselors to see the difference. Counselors need to have access to the data of who is in the school and what courses they want to take. They then need to run scenarios to see how assignments to classes can be made that balance out with class size limits and other factors.
With BCeSIS, they have to do all this work online on the central database and servers. While they are on doing this, they are using up bandwidth for the connection, they are taking up one of the limited connections to the central servers, and they are using computing power. At the same time, every other secondary counselor is trying to do the same thing, every teacher or the support staff are supposed to be putting in attendance, and many are trying to put in marks on daily assignments.
Obviously, the more districts that are on BCeSIS, the more pressure there will be on every element of the system. The “success” of forcing nearly every district to use BCeSIS has pushed an already overloaded system over the edge.
In fact, BCeSIS has failed at nearly every key time when lots of people have to be on in a short block of time, such as with student programming and preparing report cards.
Why centralize all data in BCeSIS?
When the request for proposals went out to industry for the data system, the ministry received proposals that would have allowed for much of the online activity to be on computers at the school and district levels, with frequent updating to the central database of that information that needed to be available centrally.
Why would the ministry choose a centralized system that in its very design would be likely to fail? Does the minister really need to find out every day what students are in class in every classroom in the province? Does the minister really need to look into every classroom to see what marks any particular student has gotten on assignments that day?
Why, then? One possible explanation is to look at the government’s overall data plans. Other ministries, such as health care, are developing databases to hold the health information on every person in the province. When all this data is held at a provincial level, data matching and data mining will be possible. Have we been asked whether we want a society where all of this information about us can be combined?
Another explanation might be that the ministry wants to check up on teachers by looking for patterns in the data. Data-driven decisions are the trend that has accelerated in the US under the No Child Left Behind approach and the new Race for the Top funding sweepstakes. And AAL, the Ontario company that developed BCeSIS, has the US as its main market and we have a tool designed more for the US reality than the Canadian reality in schools.
Who is making the decisions?
BCeSIS belongs to the ministry, although they say the data belongs to the districts. They have created a management system that has representatives from districts, along with ministry representatives, as decision-makers. A steering committee is the real decision-making body, with regional representatives selected by the district representatives.
Outside of the people on the steering committee and the software and service companies (AAL and Fujitsu), no one seems to have much influence on the decisions. They have refused to provide the BCTF with information about their plans, let alone have any teacher influence on the decisions that are made.
What’s the alternative?
Opening up the data to a third-party program is one possibility. This would be a program that the student data is loaded into for that school alone. The counselor could use the program to do all the sorting they needed to on the school computer and work out the timetable and student assignments without competing with every other counselor in the province needing to do the same thing at the same time. If that information is needed centrally, then it could be uploaded to the provincial system.
Similarly, for student grade books, a separate program could be used for the teacher to maintain online records with all the advantages of more flexibility than exists in BCeSIS. When it comes to report-card time, just the report-card information could be uploaded directly to BCeSIS. There would be no need to spend all the time competing for computing resources and doing data entry on a clunky system. Some districts have already done this—adopted a real gradebook program, and written a program for the uploading of report-card grades to BCeSIS when it has to be.
Even if the current problems with BCeSIS are reduced, that will be only a temporary fix to a system that is flawed in its design.
BCTF executive calls for ministry action
The BCTF executive passed several motions calling for solutions to the problems:
- That the BCTF demand that information, and the decisions about the directions and funding of BCeSIS, be opened to the public and to the BCTF.
- That the BCTF call for a change in direction on data management to allow for BCeSIS to be open to third-party software that allows uses for attendance, gradebook, course scheduling, IEPs, and other essential elements to be carried out at the school and district level, not at the central level.
- That the BCTF ask locals to pressure their boards to call for a change in direction and to give instructions to their representatives to BCeSIS to open up information and consider a change in direction that would allow third-party local usage.
- That the BCTF call for the ministry to provide funding for districts to be able to adopt third-party software that will serve the needs of teachers and districts, rather than the ministry and the vendor corporations.