By guest blogger Audrey Armitage
A blistering state review concludes that “poor management, poor decisions, and poor system functionality” were to blame for Idaho’s failed $61 million effort to implement Schoolnet, a learning management management system owned by Pearson.
The recently released report by the Idaho legislature’s office of performance evaluation examined the attempt to implement the system in schools statewide.
Rakesh Mohan, who directs the office, said the report found that problems with the system and management of the system “compounded themselves and prevented the goals for a statewide instructional management system from being realized.”
The state’s department of education launched a statewide pilot for the software in 2011, with the help of a $21 million grant provided by the J. A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, an Idaho-based philanthropy focused on education.
Although the pilot gave all districts full access to Schoolnet, only a “limited number” of districts received training, funding, professional development, and technical support for the software.
The report found that by 2013, several schools had stopped using the Schoolnet due to problems with the system’s functionality, prompting the foundation to conduct its own review of the program. The foundation ultimately withdrew its funding after the department and Pearson failed to demonstrate critical improvements in the operation and implementation of Schoolnet, the report says. (Schoolnet operated as its own company prior to 2011, when it was acquired for $230 million by Pearson.)
Stacy Skelly, a Pearson spokeswoman, did not comment on the findings in the state report criticizing Schoolnet’s functionality. In an e-mail, she noted that Pearson, a worldwide education company based in New York and London, participated fully in the earlier review of Schoolnet’s role in Idaho by the Albertson Foundation and “supports [those] findings.”
The foundation’s review described interface difficulties between Schoolnet and the Idaho System for Educational Excellence, a statewide longitudinal education data system, concluded that expectations were “set too high” in terms of the scope of the project and the features enivisioned for the software, and offered suggestions for improvement.
According to a recent financial statement, the number of students using Schoolnet grew 10 percent in 2013, and the system now serves more than 10 million students across the country.
In January 2013, the state’s department of education identified and notified Pearson about problems with the system, according to the report. The report described a range of issues, including problems with access to student data, unavailable content, inability to communicate and share materials across districts, and inadequate training. By April, Pearson had fixed many of these problems, but the company said there were seven major issues that were unresolved.
Despite the continuing problems and the withdrawl of grant funding, the department of education continued to pursue the program and seek alternative funding, while also “minimiz[ing] the significance of” the issues arising with Schoolnet to legislators, according to the report.
Officials from the department of education say the blame for the failed implementation of the learning management system rests largely with Pearson.
Implementation of Schoolnet “was bound to be unsuccessful from day one” because school districts “cannot implement a software platform that does not function properly,” said Pete Koehler, the chief deputy to state schools superintendent Sherri Ybarra, in a statement.
Koehler also alleges that Pearson and Schoolnet failed to provide accurate usage data, an obligation spelled out in the contract and a necessary tool for teachers using the program.
Koehler’s statement acknowledges that the department made a “mistake” in signing the contract. He noted that the department officials who ended up working on the implementation of the software “were not a part of the original adoption of the Schoolnet platform,” as the adoption of the software took place under the administration of former schools chief Tom Luna. Koehler said the current department officials were “taking over a program that was struggling from the very beginning.”
The report outlines recommendations for steps the state can take to prevent similar problems with other large-scale technology projects.
Those suggestions include setting clear, comprehensive plans for use of the technology, setting measurable goals, and providing evidence that the project can be sustained over time. But the report also said that the department of education has not demonstrated the value of a statewide instructional management system, and that “the poor decisions made by the department” have “limited future options.”
Koehler, who formerly served as an interim schools superintendent for an Idaho district, also seemed to question the wisdom of implementing a single learning management system across Idaho.
“There is not and never will be a software solution that will be adopted by all teachers and all districts” in Idaho,” Koehler said in his statement.
UPDATE (April 1): This post has been updated with a response from Pearson.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.