Editor’s note: Updated on Dec. 7 at 10:45 AM with a comment from the Ontario Ministry of Education. (See bottom).
Ontario’s Ministry of Education is failing to provide students with consistent access to computers and lacks proper security training and practices to protect the personal information of students, according to the Auditor General of Ontario.
Auditor General Bonnie Lysk released her annual report on Dec. 5, including a full section on the topic of IT systems and technology in the classroom. It concludes that the Ministry of Education has no broad IT strategy for curriculum delivery, use of IT by students, and administration of IT. Access to computers and the age of the equipment and software varied. The discrepancies owe to the fact that 55 per cent of school boards across the province (there are 72 boards, but only 69 responded to the auditor’s survey) have an approved policy for IT asset life-cycle management.
IT spending also varied at the four schools visited by the auditor. It ranged from 0.87 per cent to 1.09 per cent of operational expenses, over four years of operation.
Differences in the IT gear available to students – which includes laptops, tablets, Chromebooks, and digital cameras – varied not just by region, but also within a single school board. For example, the Toronto District School Board has no policy on the ratio of students to computers. In some cases the student-to-computer ratio at a school was 1:1, in other cases it was 8:1.
“We did not note any system to encourage and enable private-sector donations to schools of lightly used IT equipment as a way for boards to save on costs and to make student access to IT resources more equitable across the province,” states the auditor’s report.
Heather Payne, the CEO and founder of coding school HackerYou and previously, Canada Learning Code, has seen the disparity in technology literacy across Toronto first-hand.
“It’s interesting they are highlighting what’s been a known issue for so many years in my circles,” she says.
For example, going to a high rise at the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto to deliver a coding class presents different challenges than seen in other areas of the city. “We got through a third of the curriculum that we would with kids coming to a downtown coding class,” she says. “It shows you how drastic the difference is between groups that have access to technology and those that don’t.”
Regular access to technology is key to a modern education, Payne says. Digital literacy is a requirement for fostering a knowledge economy.
“School can be the equalizer, even if a kid doesn’t have access to a computer at home, they can have it at school,” she says. “Just getting started learning to code or being comfortable with computers can change the trajectory of their life.”
Other concerns raised in the auditor report include:
- School boards aren’t taking all reasonable steps to prevent unwanted access to student information. With nearly one in five accounts going unused on the system that holds student’s personal information and education records, it’s clear that more people have access than is required. Also, accounts are not being deleted when people leave their positions.
- Boards aren’t providing formal security awareness training and have no cyber security policies. Three-quarters of school boards say they do not provide either.
- Only six per cent of school boards say they are aware of IT risks and have a formal disaster recovery plan.
- Some IT purchases are not providing good value for money. In one case, a board purchased 2,710 smartboards for $9.7 million but did not provide training to teachers, resulting in some just being used as projection screens.
- Each school board procures its own student information system. If all boards used a centralized system, it could provide cost savings.
The Ministry of Education sent a comment to IT World Canada in regards to the auditor’s report. It says the Auditor’s report is welcomed as an opportunity for improvements and efficiencies.
“The use of technology in schools is a core component of these consultations and the ministry looks forward to gathering more public input to address how our education system can best harness technology to drive student success,” a spokesperson writes. “The Auditor General’s recommendations will help inform the ministry’s efforts as we work to build a stronger publicly funded education system for students, parents and educators.”