Bang for the Public Buck

Like all massive disasters, this has to take place in New York City.  ARIS, the Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, is New York City’s web-based portal for NYC school teachers and students.  It is a case study that unfortunately typifies the experience of public education in technology.  While I generally encourage educational institutions to move towards technology, I can’t help but abhor the incompetence in how they go about it. 

First, those that sit on the school board have no idea what it costs to build a web application and thus the district is bound to get completely ripped off.  ARIS was built for the NYC public schools for a sum of $80 million dollars.  That’s a lot of money for IT infrastructure, even on a per student basis. 

Second, due to the giant pain of the “sales cycle” in education, all but the most cumbersome businesses wouldn’t even touch the market with a ten foot pole.  The company contracted to build ARIS was none other than IBM, and the result was precisely what one might expect: it’s down a lot, it’s painfully slow, it’s ugly, and few people use it outside of top-down mandates.   

This amidst enormous budget cuts – of course educators and administrators are angry  

Public Education is not taking cues from the rest of the world.  If it was, they would let young (cheap) technologists have at it.  Almost all the good web technology came out a few people sitting in their room tinkering, and within a year or two they created something useful, fast, and sometimes even pretty. 

Innovation almost never comes from the institutional players; it comes from small teams of people that pop up out of nowhere with something groundbreaking.  If education wants any piece of that action, they need to learn to skip the big money and the big companies and make room for all the little players out there trying to make products that make a difference to teachers and students.

Recommendation: Every district should set up a small committee with discretionary funds that can purchase or license technology on a whim with the specific objective of moving fast with smaller amounts of money. 

2 Responses to “Bang for the Public Buck”

  1. stephen lyle March 1, 2008 at 1:02 pm #

    Interesting (sad) news about IBM in NYC. Did you know North Carolina ended up paying over $200 million for a statewide student information system where IBM was the prime (contract was actually with PwC consulting, but IBM bought them in 2004). What went wrong there? NC wanted SO MUCH out of their new, web-based SIS that PwC/IBM had to use a ton of people to manage the project, the vendor, and the NC Dept of Public Instruction to keep it from falling apart. Expectations for what a web-based SIS could provide in 1998 when the RFP came out were completely out of whack with the state of technology. The software that came closest was difficult to learn, though very powerful once learned. And there were over 1000 requirements for enhancing the software that had to be added. Ten years later, it’s still not completely rolled out to the state, though they’re very close and should be done this year. What they have achieved is actually quite impressive, but a combination of factors make the process extremely painful and hugely expensive. These factors include a demanding client, a huge scope, a tightly-written contract, and therefore any prime contractor willing to take the plunge will approach the project very conservatively, build in lots of risk mitigation, and generally manage things rigorously to ensure they won’t lose their profit margins.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the same dynamic happens with all large districts and many state contracts. When the players spend a lot of energy to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of (justifiable concerns, of course), then efficiency and even the original objectives of the project get sacrificed. A community-led effort to accomplish those same goals would likely move faster and produce a vastly better product. Of course, the district or state has no guarantee of success, and can’t threaten legal action against some entity. In short, it has no way to cover its behind. I don’t know of any large district or state willing to take that chance.

    In the realm of the public sector (which is entirely political, of course), being safe and having someone to blame in the case of failure will trump the educational ideals that are otherwise professed. In business, taking risks is generally known to be part of the game. In government, it won’t happen without electing leaders who have some balls (pardon my crudeness). If an assistant superintendent of technology comes along who doesn’t mind losing his/her position in order to push for genuine innovation, and puts the needs of the educational community above all else, then you might have a shot at an open-source, community-driven success story. I’m not holding my breath, though.

  2. mpstaton March 3, 2008 at 11:07 am #

    I also dread the politicization of education and it’s ramifications. And, I too watched too many requirements be placed on a system in Houston ISD.

    It’s completely contrary to the common knowledge of the internet startups I surround myself with. Namely, one should start with a simple and unique concept and put up something that’s remarkably easy to use. One should not clutter this product with any advanced features. And once people start using your site, slowly introduce features and respond to how users want to use the site. This process moves pretty quickly, and before you know it you’ve got a site with advanced functionality and a solid and loyal user base. This happens with a team of one to ten people usually.

    Thanks for the insightful comments again Stephen.

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