Vic Education blasted over e-learning system blowout

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Vic Education blasted over e-learning system blowout

Key contractor says it's 'not a technology issue'.

Victoria's Education department has been blasted over its handling of the Ultranet e-learning project after an audit estimated costs would blow out to $180 million by June 2013, almost three times what was first budgeted.

Ultranet was designed to provide students with a personalised webspace for online learning and collaboration, while providing parents with a window into their child's "test results, teacher feedback, homework activity, attendance and timetables".

CSG won the original contract in June 2009 to deliver and maintain the system, but it later offloaded its technology solutions business — which handled the contract — to NEC Australia in May 2012.

The 'business as usual' phase of the Ultranet contract is set to expire in June 2013, according to a Victorian Auditor-General report (pdf), which raised the prospect that the system could be scrapped entirely once current hosting and maintenance arrangements lapse.

But NEC Australia, which is currently hosting and maintaining the system told iTnews that the technology isn't the problem.

"NEC Australia's technology behind the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Ultranet project is not the issue and, when used properly, has provided successful outcomes at many schools throughout the State," NEC's strategic business IT solutions general manager Stephen Birrell said in a statement to iTnews.

"The technology is highly relevant to Australia's education sector and to other countries looking to modernise their learning outcomes in education.

"The successful implementation of any IT project is reliant on aligning three key elements - people, process and technology. The effectiveness of even the best technology and processes is undermined if users do not participate or coordinate the organisation's information assets."

A CSG spokeswoman referred questions to NEC Australia.

CSG also noted in its most recent annual report (ashx) that the technology component of Ultranet won an iAward for e-learning systems.

The project has become a political football in recent times, with the state branch of the Australian Education Union banning "all actions involved in the use of the Ultranet" as part of a campaign for improved pay and conditions. (pdf)

The AEU said late last month that over a year of negotiations with the Baillieu Government had failed, causing it to step up action.

However, the auditor-general barely acknowledged union activity as a factor in the lack of take-up of the Ultranet system, focusing instead on the planning phase.

'Poorly planned'

The Auditor-General blasted Ultranet as "poorly planned and implemented", "significantly late and over budget — and with limited functionality — when compared with what was originally announced".

It said that the project's costs had been "poorly recorded" by the department, and that "serious procurement and probity lapses" it detected had triggered internal reviews.

The audit found that between three business cases developed for Ultranet, none answered the question, 'Why invest?'.

It also noted that advice from other departments to delay or can the project had little impact, and concerns raised in further gateway reviews went largely unaddressed.

Teachers received coaching on how to use the system up to two years before the system was actually live, and an August 2010 'pupil free day' that was meant to facilitate a large Ultranet trial did not go as planned, due to technical difficulties.

"The Ultranet transitioned from a project to business as usual (BAU) in April 2012," the audit noted.

"Transition to BAU means that responsibility for the Ultranet technical solution now rests with [the department of Education's] IT Division, while the business owner and business team is the Student Learning Outcomes Division.

"BAU also means that the contractor should now be solely responsible for hosting and maintenance activities."

However, the auditor revealed that not all contracted functionality had been delivered when the contract finally transitioned to BAU.

"For example, records management, timetabling and student reporting are yet to be delivered to schools," the audit noted.

"[The Education Department] continues to work with the contractor to deliver these functionalities".

The audit noted that unless current hosting arrangements were extended beyond June 2013, the department would need to find a new supplier of hosting and maintenance services for Ultranet.

The audit estimated that actual capital and operating expenditure for Ultranet was approximately $162 million by June this year, with the figure expected to rise to $180 million by June 2013.

The department's own data suggests the total cost by June 2013 would be "nearly $109 million", less than the audit figure but still 83 percent above its initial projected costings.

Read on to find out why the Union ban isn't the only problem for Ultranet uptake, and to see which departmental project won audit praise.

Usage hit by opt-out

"Use of the Ultranet is well below expectations, with only 10 percent of students and 27 percent of teachers logging into the system," the audit noted.

Those figures were possibly inflated, "because some schools have established the practice of having staff regularly log in, so that their presence is centrally recorded, even if they do not undertake any activity in the Ultranet."

"This means that, at best, [the department's usage] data is on the high side," the audit noted.

While Ultranet was originally meant to be used by all schools, the department had since decided schools could opt in or out of the system. The auditor noted that "without near-universal take-up by students and teachers ... the significant investment of taxpayers' funds will ... be wasted".

Praise for fibre

The Auditor General gave the department a more favourable score on its handling of the VicSmart project, which brought fibre optic broadband services to schools.

During 2012, phase four works continued with 244 schools having their connections upgraded from 10 Mbps to between 20 Mbps and 50 Mbps, and 11 schools moving to 100 Mbps connections.

"The main driver for this upgrade was the need to support access to network applications such as videoconferencing and voice over internet protocol, which require Quality of Service network technology," the audit noted.

"Until this time, VicSmart provided base bandwidth only, and did not support Quality of Service traffic."

The auditor noted that the project was delivered on time and to budget, and had delivered on its promise to equip schools with progressively better internet connections.

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