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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 5, March 2005

Teachers online 24/7?

by Larry Kuehn

Is it a good idea to keep track of everything a kid needs and does on a central computer database? Do teachers want to have all aspects of classroom information in a central database, including their lesson plans, daily marks, report cards, IEPs, and most anything that can be quantified?

Unfortunately, those questions were not asked of teachers before the provincial government and some school districts created BCeSIS. Yes, it does rhyme with CSIS, and it stands for B.C. electronic Student Information System. The aim of the project is to have a common system on demographics and outcome information to ensure that what happens in every classroom is aligned and compliant with the government’s education objectives and the district accountability contracts.

BCeSIS may have already come to your school district. Forty-three districts, with about two-thirds of the students in the province, have already signed up. A handful of districts are already training staff to implement the system.

The ministry claims that signing on to the system is voluntary. How much of the system is actually used—for example, whether all lesson plans must be entered and revised continually—will be a local decision. Any district that tries to go it alone in creating an alternative system that will meet the demands of the ministry for particular information will find it costly.

Consistent with the "loose/ tight" style of management the government has adopted from the corporate world, tight control is centralized in government around what must be done, but responsibility for carrying it out is decentralized. This is done by a combination of privatization and downloading of costs.

The privatization has two aspects. One is the creation of BCeSIS as an organization. School districts join BCeSIS, but it operates like a private organization, with a meeting of delegates who make decisions, much like B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA). Although its membership is made up of public bodies, its organizational meeting was closed to anyone other than the ministry and a representative of one of the districts that has signed on. Such arrangements, like School District Business Companies, allow publicly owned organizations to operate outside the Freedom of Information rules that cover public bodies.

The other aspect of privatization is that BCeSIS contracts with an Ontario company, Administrative Assistants, Ltd. (AAL), to provide the software and maintain the data. The costs have been downloaded onto boards. Each school district will pay $10 a year per student (about $6 million a year, if all are in). That, of course, does not include the cost of the computer that will have to be on every teacher’s desk with an Internet connection, so that the teacher can enter throughout the day the attendance, marks, changes in lesson plans and assignments, and so on. It does not include the cost of the computer and Internet connection the teacher will have to have at home—this is a 24/7 system with "real time" availability. It does not include the cost of the training or other costs of maintaining the system. Nor does it take into account the amount of instructional time used in maintaining all the information that is eventually to be on the system.

The company, AAL, that is providing the software and will be storing the data is Canadian. Presumably the data won’t be accessible to U.S. intelligence agencies, as required by the U.S. Patriot Act of all data held in the U.S. However, most of the company’s clients are U.S. school districts, and corporate ownership often changes hands, without regard to borders.

Sociologist, Langdon Winner who studies information technology, points out that "a technology is not only a symbol of a social order. It embodies it." The social order built into BCeSIS is the most troubling aspect of the project.

It implies that data-based decision-making is all that counts—that quantitative data, not authentic qualitative data, is what’s valued. It moves many decisions outside the classroom relationship between teacher and students, with a focus on compliance and congruence with central government objectives. It is individualist, in focussing only on data on each student, rather than on the social aspects of a classroom, which are collective and not easily broken down to individual data. And it is almost Orwellian in the degree to which it makes possible surveillance by those with access to the data.

The social order implicit in an information system is also defined by what information is not collected or considered important. After 2001, the ministry stopped collecting information on class sizes, while insisting on more and more data on students. Despite a school district’s having to gather information on class sizes in order to certify that it is meeting the legislated class-size averages, the ministry did not want the information.

BCeSIS has been created by stealth. Work has been going on for an extended time, with little consultation at any level. It was viewed as a technology project rather than a social-educational issue about what information is important. Most teachers in the 43 districts that have signed on may not have heard of BCeSIS, despite technological-change clauses in many contracts that require a board to give notice of changes like this and to enter into discussion with the local on the conditions of undertaking the project.

It is time for teachers to ask questions of their school boards. Will this technology support teachers’ making professional judgments based on the needs of the child and the curriculum? Or is this another element of a program to deprofessionalize teaching?

Larry Kuehn is the director of the BCTF’s Research and Technology Division.

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