BCeSIS—going, but still not gone: A 2012 update
By Larry Kuehn
BCeSIS, the BC education database, is still operating and will continue to be in use until a replacement is up and running. The education ministry has put in place a process for replacing it. In the meantime, the minister claims that the worst problems that made it crash at key times have been fixed.
The Pearson corporation, the global company moving to dominate all aspects of education sales, bought AAL, the company from Ontario that created the software for BCeSIS. Pearson is buying up many companies that supply aspects of education, particularly ones that relate to technology.
When they bought AAL, Pearson informed the BC government that it would no longer support the current software and offered its PowerSchool software at no extra cost. This was rejected by the ministry. The province wants a single system for all 600,000 students and 40,000 plus teachers in the province. PowerSchool doesn't process data for more than about 80,000 and would have required a distributed rather than centralized model.
The ministry hired Gartner, a technology consulting firm, to do an assessment and make recommendations. Their report said that BCeSIS is a dead end and that the province should look to buying off the shelf commercial software that already exists. That report is available online at http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/pubs/review_of_student_information_systems.pdf
The report said that most of the people interviewed wanted a centralized system, with the exception of the BCTF, which called for a distributed system, although not recommending Pearson's software.
Many of the problems of BCeSIS stem from having one central database that all users must access through the internet. The nature of the teaching and reporting process means that at peak times there is huge demand for access to the database and the bandwidth necessary to reach it in a short window of time from every teacher.
However, when Gartner asked the people who had been responsible for developing BCeSIS or working with it at the provincial and local levels, they all said they still wanted the type of system provided by BCeSIS, but one that worked well. No surprise, I guess, since they were already committed to that direction and did not want to face up to the fact that many of the problems are in the concept, not just in its implementation.
One of the options considered by Gartner was using the government's Integrated Case Management system that has recently been the subject of condemnation by the advocate for children and youth, as well as by the ministry and contractors who have to use the system. Gartner dismissed the Integrated Case Management system as a bad idea—there would not be a fit with the data needs in education.
The fact that it would even have to be considered is a function of the Government 2.0 project and the general strategy of the BC government of having information about all individuals in any contact with government in databases that can be linked for data mining. The Freedom of Information and Privacy Association is holding a conference on September 19, 2012 to consider the problems related to this direction by government: http://fipa.bc.ca/home/news/322
The education ministry has proceeded with its plan to replace BCeSIS by issuing a request for information in May: http://www.govcb.com/RFI-amp-Student-Information-ADP13361645490001104.htm
At least one of the responses is online at http://www.openstudent.ca/sites/openstudent.ca/files/RFI_submission_May_2012.pdf. This is from a group centred in the Saanich school district who wants an open-source, BC-developed option. It would be built specifically to BC education specifications, rather than having to adapt an existing off-the-shelf commercial software, as recommended by Gartner.
The ministry plans to issue a request for proposals for a replacement for BCeSIS in the fall of 2012.
The advocate for children and youth has criticized the Integrated Case Management system use in the social services area, saying that children at risk are being lost in the system, leading to dangers from which they should be protected. Frontline workers say that the system doesn't really work for them and they have not had adequate training.
As with BCeSIS, it is probably not just a case of inadequate training of the front line workers who have to use the system. Certainly that is an issue—as with BCeSIS much of the "training" is really left to the person who has to enter information and who is expected to get help from colleagues who already have too many other demands on their time.
More fundamental, though, is the concept and what is seen as the primary purpose of the data system.
In all cases, but especially in education, the focus should be on the information needs of the people at the centre. An education database should be focused around the needs for the educational development of the individual student and provide information particularly for the teacher, student and parent. Instead, we get systems that are aimed at system-wide information for administrative decisions and purposes and only secondarily—at best—providing information for educational development of the individual student.
BCeSIS and the Integrated Case Management system are top-down impositions aimed at control, not systems developed from the information needs of those front line workers who actually carry out the work.