YSIS on chopping block

The Yukon Student Information System, or YSIS, has been unpopular with teachers since it debuted in the autumn of 2010. It’s been criticized as slow, buggy and expensive.

Yukon’s Department of Education is looking to replace its controversial student database.

The Yukon Student Information System, or YSIS, has been unpopular with teachers since it debuted in the autumn of 2010. It’s been criticized as slow, buggy and expensive.

And, because it’s based on a system in British Columbia that’s being phased out, it needs to be replaced in the next three to five years.

That won’t be soon enough for many teachers.

“Why are we throwing good money after bad?” asked Katherine Mackwood, president of the Yukon Teachers Association. “Can we not cut our losses now?”

British Columbia decided to scrap its system this autumn, after consultants deemed the program wasn’t meeting the province’s needs. That raised the question of whether YSIS would die an early death – it depends on BC’s servers to operate.

Not so, said JoAnn Davidson, co-ordinator of technology with Yukon’s Department of Education. It will take BC several years to switch to a new system, and in the meantime, the Yukon’s records are safe, she said.

Just how much the program cost remained a mystery to the public during the territorial election. When Liberal candidate Kerry Huff suggested YSIS’s cost had soared to $1 million, territorial officials refused to comment, noting an edict against wading into election issues.

Now, Davidson insists that Huff’s estimate is an exaggeration.

In all, the territory has spent $771,000 on the system over the past two years. That’s slightly above a budget of $760,000 – Davidson attributes the modest cost overruns to additional travel costs incurred while training more than 800 staff in the territory.

That spending includes the cost of paying two teachers, who were seconded to provide technical support to their peers.

Also included are annual operating costs, which work out to approximately $20 per student, said Davidson. With 5,100 students enrolled in the Yukon last June, that means the system’s operating costs were $102,000 last year.

The cost of the software itself was a trifle, at $61,300. It would have cost far more if the Yukon hadn’t piggybacked with British Columbia, which has spent $11 million customizing the parent program that YSIS is cribbed from.

Switching to a new system won’t be nearly as costly, said Davidson. Now that many teachers are trained to use a modern, online database, switching them to another, similar system shouldn’t take much work, she said.

And data that needed to be entered by hand into YSIS should be easily ported over to a new system, said Davidson. “We wouldn’t have the up-front costs. The data is convertible.”

If that’s the case, Mackwood wonders why the territory plans to wait several years before switching to a better program.

“Why should it take three to five years to replace a system that’s so confusing to us? It doesn’t make sense.”

Perhaps the territory is locked into a contract that requires it to continue using YSIS for several more years, said Mackwood.

Not so, say department officials. They’re free to switch to new software when they wish.

YSIS doesn’t work without an internet connection. That’s a weakness in the Yukon, with the territory’s patchy internet service.

But competitor programs are also internet-dependent, said Davidson. “We’re in the 21st century.”

YSIS suffered a big crash last year. But the program has worked “exceedingly well,” without a crash this year, said Davidson.

Some teachers have reported being locked out of the system for prolonged periods. But that’s because they aren’t logging out properly, said Davidson.

And, contrary to reports otherwise, the database doesn’t list sensitive medical information or histories of behavioural flare-ups, said Davidson.

Even so, having to enter attendance into the program at the start of every class eats into time that could be used to socialize with students or teach, said Mackwood.

“Our teachers are also becoming data entry clerks,” she said.

The Education Department bought YSIS after it received a blistering report by Canada’s then-auditor general Sheila Fraser, who criticized the territory for not collecting enough data to evaluate whether its educational policies work.

Now, YSIS ought to produce a wealth of data, useful to track whether students are slumping in their performance in a particular subject, or whether a new program is effective, said Davidson.

That ought to help student councils craft better school-growth plans, she said.

The system is primarily used by teachers to track attendance and grades.

Individualized learning plans are also stored in the system, to ensure that teachers are aware of the special needs of students.

And graduation profiles are also recorded, allowing for the easy transfer of students from the territory to British Columbia.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.