Although the term e-business has only recently entered the lexicon, many companies and organizations, especially Fortune 1000 firms, have used computer technology since the days of mainframe computers and green screen terminals to enhance communications by electronically disseminating information.
The Internet has, however, has added a new dimension, a more populist dimension, to the process of digital communications. Not only has the Internet and IP (Internet Protocol) networking technology facilitated the rapid growth of a global e-business market, and in the case of the public sector, thrown wide open the doors to electronic service delivery (ESD).
Alberta Education, the provincial ministry responsible for education in Alberta, has been involved in e-business since 1988– before the Internet was considered a viable communications option for most organizations.
As with most provincial ministry’s of education, Alberta Education recognized that computers could be used in schools to help educate children. But Alberta Education also recognized that computers and telecommunications technology could be used to streamline administrative needs of the education system.
With recognition came action and the Alberta Education Electronic Educational Information Exchange (EEIE) program was born, according to Harry Hendshaw, assistant director of IT planning, Alberta Education. But the vision was not fully actualized until the availability of the Internet and IP technology.
The initial vision was to develop a centralized student database that accurately captured student enrolment in school boards across the province. Alberta Education wanted to receive student enrolment data in electronic format from schools so the ministry could create and maintain the database and cross-reference data by school, school board and other criteria.
Previous to the EEIE, when schools gathered data for enrolment reports, classroom teachers had to count all the students in the class. Then a secretary summarized the data from each class on forms and mailed them to the ministry where data was entered into a computer system.
There were a number of record-keeping problems associated with manually collecting information from school boards. Not only was it “a long, somewhat error-prone process” but the manual system had a detrimental impact on funding decisions, says Hendshaw.
For instance, students who were attending two different schools might be double-counted in a manual system that did not allow for cross-referencing. Also, it was difficult for the ministry to reconcile information it received at one point in the year with the final status of students at individual schools. An up-to-date electronic database would make it possible for the ministry to make accurate funding decisions based on actual student enrolment.
The EEIE project resulted in the development of a province-wide student registry system by 1992 but, initially, schools had to mail student data to the ministry on diskettes or upload data by connecting to the ministry’s mainframe computer using low-speed modem-to-modem communication protocols.
“It was kind of pre-Internet bulletin board system,” says Hendshaw. However, not all schools had the technology required to generate electronic files or communicate electronically with the ministry’s mainframe. So some schools still submitted data by fax or mail and ministry staff would manually enter it into the student registry.
To help all school districts develop local student registry databases, adapted to meet specific requirements that the ministry in terms of data fields data transfer formats, Alberta Education reviewed a number of student record packages and recommend several for use in Alberta schools, said Hendshaw.
By 1995, Alberta Education started to see that there were easier ways to communicate than the traditional fax or modem-to-modem methods. “What really kicked it off for us was seeing that we could replace some of our old fax and mail forms with actual Internet forms and database access processes” using IP technology in an extranet system, says Hendshaw.
Alberta Education contracted a local computer company to develop and manage the student registry and hired a resource person to manage the development of extranet applications. The mix of internal staff and a few vendors, without hordes of consultants leading the project, kept costs reasonable, kept Alberta Education in charge of the project and allowed the ministry to focus on its goals, says Hendshaw.
“If it had only been consultants [driving the goals], I’m fairly sure the vision would have come and gone with the consultants,” says Hendshaw. “It was really the management in our department that had a vision of the way things could be different. They were able to work with our stakeholders to achieve that vision.”
MEETING OBJECTIVES, AND BEYOND
Alberta Education has met its project objectives. Its Web-based EEIE system has eliminated manual processes in student record keeping and enabled information sharing across Alberta’s education system.
The IP network infrastructure links more than 2,000 schools and 150 school districts with Alberta Education, enabling the ministry to capture province-wide student registration information–on approximately 560,000 students across the province–twice a year.
The project, over its life, has cost Alberta taxpayers an estimated $5 million. The payoffs, while difficult to quantify in dollars and cents, have been “significant,” says Hendshaw. “The major payoff was not something that we necessarily foresaw, and I’m not sure how we quantify it, but it enabled the different mode of funding for the whole educational system.”
The implementation of the student registry enabled Alberta Education to fund school districts on an actual enrolment basis in a way that is “auditable,” says Hendshaw. For elementary and junior high schools, for instance, the ministry provides school boards with a list of students on which funding was based so school districts can double check the funding foundation.
For high schools, the ministry was able to meet a political objective–to fund high schools based on course completions, a politically desired “funding for results” model, a model that was almost impossible under a manual funding system.
And, once the student data is on the school or school district database, it’s a push-button operation to provide Alberta Education with the data the ministry needs. And schools find the digital data useful for class scheduling and maintenance of emergency contact information for individual students.
Reflecting the political user-pay and privatization political winds that had started to blow across the province, Alberta Education began providing transcripts for a fee, rather than providing them at no-charge. Typically, requests for student transcripts arrive around the time graduating students are applying to post-secondary institutions.
Ordering and fulfilling transcript requests was a manual process, but the Ministry began looking at the possibility of using Internet technology for transcript ordering and for the secure capture of credit card payment information.
Before the EEIE system was in place, students who lived in Edmonton could come to ministry offices to request and pick up transcripts. Students who lived outside Edmonton had to mail or fax transcript request and payment to the ministry. Now all students can order transcript from their school over the extranet and have them shipped from Alberta Education to the appropriate post secondary institution.
Considering Alberta Education now charges for transcripts, Hendshaw is pleased to report that the EEIE system has brought service improvements and province-wide equity to the processing of transcripts.
SECURITY A PRIORITY
Hendshaw admits that there are “all kinds of privacy and security issues around transmitting student data and providing access to student data.” However, with dial-up and point-to-point extranet connections, security isn’t as big of an issue as it might have been. Even so, access is restricted to school personnel with an extranet ID.
“We have upwards of 2,500 of these (IDs) right now, and then we use a secure Internet to transfer student data back and forth,” says Hendshaw.
Data transfers take place over secure browser links, rather than standard links and Alberta Education has standard firewalls in place on servers.
Parents and students can browse curriculum-related information and material, education guides for parents, teacher guides, and other ministry, school board and school information and announcements at a public Web site (http://ednet.edc.gov.ab.ca/). But student data is on a separate server than the one that houses publicly accessible data.
While Alberta Education’s public Internet Web site is not, technically, part of the EEIE project, it is another example of how IP technology has enabled Alberta Education to communicate more effectively with another segment of its stakeholders.
EVOLUTION NOT REVOLUTION
Hendshaw says the project evolved over time, as the technology evolved. But it has never strayed from its main goals: to ensure school boards could get accurate student registry information to Alberta Education so the ministry to could get appropriate funding to school boards.
“With such a long, intricate, project, it was important that we could deliver results in stages, so the first one–and it was a big one–was the Provincial Student Registry,” says Hendshaw. “Things have changed since the days when there was a really limited scope of available technologies that restricted you to doing things in a certain way. It’s really opened up, and we know it’s just going to continue.”
But, as with most evolving technology projects, especially those that started in the 1980s and grew to incorporate IP technology, the EEIE project uses a variety of technologies.
The EEIE student registry is housed in a Software AG Adabase database hosted on an Alberta Public Works Supply and Services’ Hitachi mainframe computer running IBM’s Multiple Virtual Storage (MVS) operating system. New database systems are being developed on Microsoft’s SQL Server running under Windows NT on Digital Alpha hardware in Alberta Education offices.
The mix of legacy system and new technology gets even more interesting when the schools are brought into the picture, especially since Alberta Education does not control the computer technology individual school districts and schools purchase for pedagogical and administrative needs.
“Basically we had to develop a system that could be used with a variety of products and that’s another reason why we went for an internet-type application, where schools could be running a variety of browsers and we wouldn’t care necessarily if they were Mac or IBM browsers,” says Hendshaw.
AS FOR THE FUTURE
Now that the EEIE system is in place, Alberta Education is not resting on its laurels. The ministry has recently contracted with one of its boards to develop an Internet-based product called “Edulink” that will further facilitate file transfer and data validation.
Alberta Education is also expanding the electronic data collection to include other information from school boards so the ministry can more accurately gauge the educational results schools are achieving. Hendshaw says the ministry is about to start using the EEIE system to take stock of the “tremendous inventory of the school buildings” across the province. “It has been difficult for the department to get a good handle on what’s there, what condition it is in, what age it is, and what repairs are going to be needed,” he says.
The goal is to capture building information on a database searchable by date built, scheduled maintenance, maintenance completed and other facilities management criteria.
“We were fortunate to catch a technology wave at the right point,” says Hendshaw. “We got on and rode it, and are still riding it.”
If history is a mirror to the future, Alberta Education will no doubt continue to ride it, one step at a time, in a way that keeps costs low and benefits–to the ministry, school districts, school administrators and students, taxpayers and political masters–high.
Paul Lima ( [email protected]) is a Toronto-based freelance writer specializing in high-technology.