Saanich school district builds own software to handle student data, defies doubters

Officials say system has potential to save taxpayers and cash-strapped school districts millions.

The Saanich school district faced a lot of doubters two years ago when it revealed plans to build a computer system for tracking student registrations, attendance, grades and a host of other records.

The skeptics said a small district with declining enrolment and a tight budget could never pull off a job best left to big corporations.

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“We heard lots of that,” said Tim Agnew, project manager. “ ‘You can’t do this. It can’t be done. Your numbers are too low.’ We’ve proven that wrong.”

The district invested about $1.5 million in the project, converted three classrooms in the former Saanichton Elementary School to high-tech offices, and hired a small band of computer programmers to begin work in fall 2011.

The idea was to use local expertise to develop a student information system that was made by B.C. schools for B.C. schools — and do it for a fraction of what it costs to buy and operate a commercial product.

Less than 17 months later, Saanich officials say they are close to finishing the core version of a system that has the potential to save taxpayers and cash-strapped school districts millions.

The eight-person development team expects to begin testing its openStudent software in elementary schools this spring, with a full launch to follow in 2014. An advanced version for middle and high schools is slated to roll out in 2015.

“There was a lot of skepticism that … a small school district could accomplish this,” said Gregg Ferrie, director of information technology for the Saanich district. “In fact, it can be done.”

By taking a not-for-profit approach and using freely available open-source tools, Saanich officials expect to develop openStudent for under $5 million, with yearly maintenance pegged at less than $1 million.

In contrast, the B.C. government says it spent $97 million over the past 10 years on the B.C. enterprise Student Information System — also known as BCeSIS — a provincewide system already slated for replacement.

The total bill for taxpayers, however, was higher than that because individual school districts invested millions more in staff training and other requirements to set up the system and keep it running.

Saanich officials contend that taxpayers likely would have saved more than $100 million by using a system like openStudent instead of BCeSIS.

“The cost differential here is not minute — it’s huge,” Agnew said.

Further, the district argues that a made-in-B.C. product can be tailored to the needs of local educators and continually updated, unlike commercial products that have to be replaced every few years.

“You can’t keep doing that to your staff over and over again,” Ferrie said. “You can’t keep asking them to retrain and retrain and retrain and waste hundreds of thousands of dollars in doing that. There’s got to be a better way to do it.

“This way, the users are actually building the software for themselves. I guess our mantra is: This is the last student information system we’ll ever need.”

Not everybody is convinced. The B.C. government continues to push ahead with plans to purchase a commercial off-the-shelf product to replace BCeSIS.

Provincial officials declined to comment on the openStudent project, but a 2011 consultants’ report for government rejected the notion of taking an open-source approach.

“There is little evidence of a common, well-developed strategy to develop an open-source solution in the K-12 software domain,” stated the report by Gartner Inc., an information technology research and advisory company.

Gartner said development would take too long and carry too much risk.

Based on that, government began accepting bids for a commercial product in December. Documents show B.C. expects to spend up to $84 million on the new system over 10 years.

Saanich superintendent Keven Elder said the district investigated the possibility of entering the bidding process, but realized that government was looking for a corporation with a proven track record.

“We were not displeased that we did not qualify, because we don’t see ourselves as an entity like that in the first place,” he said. “We just want to be available alongside whatever corporation wins the [request for proposals].”

Valerie Irvine, an assistant professor of educational technology at the University of Victoria, said she considers openStudent an “admirable” project worthy of financial support from somewhere.

But she also understands why government has to be careful, especially after BCeSIS was widely criticized by teachers and staff as difficult to use.

“I think the government needs to have a packaged piece that is ready to go,” she said. “To not do that, I suppose, and go with one that’s in development, might be a risk that they don’t want to take.”

Larry Kuehn, director of research and technology for the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, agreed there are risks associated with the openStudent project, including whether the people who built the system will be around to maintain it.

But he noted there are risks with a commercial product, too, as highlighted by recent problems with the province’s new Integrated Case Management system in its social ministries. “This has been a disaster for users from all reports,” he said.

Undeterred by government’s reticence, Saanich officials continue to push ahead with openStudent on the understanding that school districts will be able to select the option that works best for them.

The Education Ministry confirmed in an email that “currently, districts may choose to implement their own student information systems and are not required to use a provincially mandated solution.”

With that in mind, Saanich is looking for partners and has approached other boards to share in openStudent’s costs and potential savings. It expects to set up a non-profit society and sign up a number of districts this year.

“We think we have something that’s going to help a lot of small districts, if not the whole ministry,” said Saanich board chairman Wayne Hunter.

“If they’re looking for money to put toward CUPE salaries or teacher salary stuff, they could probably save $60 million over a number of years just in adopting this system.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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