Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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9/29/2009
11:28 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins
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NYC Schools Overpaying For Proprietary Software

The PTA at my daughter's school spends $3,000 per year for an online learning management system. That's $3,000 every year that they shouldn't have to spend.

The PTA at my daughter's school spends $3,000 per year for an online learning management system. That's $3,000 every year that they shouldn't have to spend.The lucky beneficiary of this enormous annuity is eChalk, a vendor which peddles its proprietary software throughout the New York City public school system and beyond.

The software-as-a-service (SaaS) application is built on a .NET framework that includes administrative tools to control permissions, update calendars, and allows teachers to share progress reports and upcoming tests and assignments with both parents and students.

It also looks a lot like the first corporate portal you ever saw back in 1998.

For $3,000, the public schools are paying out the nose for a one-size-fits-all application that not only doesn't look particularly modern, but doesn't build any real institutional knowledge and doesn't take advantage of modern collaborative technology. And while eChalk benefits from the economies of scale inherent in the SaaS model, the schools continue paying the same amount every year.

Three thousand dollars per year.

That's for just one school. Torrance Robinson, president of eChalk, wouldn't discuss pricing, but told me in an email that "eChalk has been working with the DOE [Department of Education] for 10+ years and is used by schools in all 32 districts and all five boroughs."

The software looks like it hasn't evolved in 10+ years either.

There are several open source alternatives to choose from that would be a lot less expensive in the long run, including Moodle, SchoolTool and Funny Monkey.

The reason the Board of Education decided to use a ready-made application from a proprietary vendor? I don't know, because the Board of Ed wouldn't return my call.

I did, however, ask a couple of people who create open-source software for schools.

Bill Fitzgerald, founding partner of Funny Monkey, which builds learning management systems using Drupal software, suggested that the people buying the software aren't the ones actually using it. "Sales talks to procurement people, and they're not connected to users or the developers who build the product."

What about the fact that open source applications require more customization and hands-on knowledge on the part of administrators?

Fitzgerald admitted that open source software "requires you devote more time at the outset." But on the other hand, he told me, "you are spending your money in-house, and the skills you acquire developing the tool stay within your school district."

Tom Hoffman, the project manager for SchoolTool, said that schools haven't even started retooling internally for this purpose. "What has surprised and disappointed me is that the educational IT world in general seems incapable of saying, 'over the next five to ten years, we have to build up the internal capacity so that we can take advantage of open source and ultimately change the way we do things, hire people who can deploy and manage open source software and change the way we write RFPs.'"

Hoffman notes that educational institutions don't even have to do it abruptly. "The customers have to signal that they're going to change the rules of the game and then change the rules. But currently they have no capacity for making that sort of large change."

Hoffman also suggested that school and other government officials suffer from an inferiority complex compared to the private sector, and are therefore afraid to demand what they want from their vendors. "They don't have the adversarial attitude I would think they would. They don't want to force the industry to do anything -- they're happier following the industry," Hoffman said.

I'd also hazard a guess that it's easier for administrators to simply buy a product out of the box, and it's easier for them to believe the platitudes of commercial vendors, who can quote self-serving total-cost-of-ownership figures in their sleep, than to investigate the long-term advantage of open source alternatives.

The Board of Ed should revisit this approach. Spending $3,000 per year for a single school is an outrage, especially since it's not money well-spent. It would be better to spend the money on an application that schools can use to extend the classroom online (rather than simply using the Web site as a dissemination point), while involving school officials more closely with the application itself and eventually reducing the cost of maintaining it.

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