Friday, February 12, 2010

Troubles for StudyWiz - an acid test for the LP procurement framework?

Ship Sinking in the Strait of Gibraltar by Johnny Shaw. Used under Creative Commons license.During Wednesday this week it became apparent that things were not great with eTech - one of the (relatively) newer players in the UK Learning Platforms market, which provides its StudyWiz platform to about 13 Local Authorities (LAs) and other schools (29,000, according to its own site). An increasing number of tweets indicated that Becta were going to contact schools (and presumably, LAs) who had opted into StudyWiz as part of the Learning Platforms Framework (which itself has been the subject of much blogging here and elsewhere).

I had assumed that StudyWiz had been at BETT but for some reason I hadn't seen them - however it became apparent that they hadn't, despite still sponsoring various elements including TeachMeet. A couple of direct messages on Twitter during Wednesday suggested that eTech Europe had gone into administration. The information isn't as easy to find as you might hope, especially if your school was depending on it, but it appears to be here - a winding up order served by HMRC (PDF). Subsequently it would appear that eTech appears to have gone into global administration - see this article from an Australian newspaper last weekend (PDF) - despite receiving an AU$2million government grant after being "unable to secure finance from other sources" in 2009. eTech is an Tasmanian-originated company which had previously grown rapidly across the globe (see video with obligatory dot com fußball and table tennis segments) and, like all of the other providers of Learning Platform services under the framework, had to pass a number of tests which weren't just concerned with what its product could do, but also about the viability of the company.
Ten companies made it onto the framework and a number of advantages were promoted as pointing to why the LP Framework was A Good Thing. One that was routinely mentioned but not (to my mind anyway) ever taken seriously as a scenario was that "if one of the providers go under, then within the framework [a school or LA] should be able to move to another supplier". Everyone who heard this imagined schools getting bored or dissatisfied with products or companies - but not the companies themselves going under. Well, I guess this situation is the acid test of that claim - and it might ask some serious questions of a number of groups:
  • first of all, Becta, under whose guidance the Framework was put together. The "moving to another supplier" idea is, course, an assumption predicated on interoperability - another core principle of the LP Framework but one which, when discussed with anyone involved at an LA or RBC level, is normally met with either a chuckle or a shrug. Essentially, everyone is aware that it appears that most vendors appear to pay lip-service to true interoperability. Becta's role in this will be to deal with many of the issues which arise from this for those LAs and schools who opted for StudyWiz through the provisions of the LP Framework. It's always been my understanding that if a school purchased direct from StudyWiz/eTech (or any supplier) and didn't go through the Framework then they wouldn't benefit from its provisions, even though eTech were an approved provider. It appears that Becta, eTech/StudyWiz (in whatever form they are now) and the affected LAs are meeting next week to sort things out and plan ahead.
  • secondly - and obviously - eTech/StudyWiz. If the worst happened and those schools or LAs who chose StudyWiz under the LP Framework route are forced (or choose) to move to another supplier, then it will very quickly become apparent how easy or otherwise it is to get data and content out of StudyWiz and into another system. However, I hear that StudyWiz might export into Common Cartridge format, which offers some options if your tool of choice can work with that.
  • finally, the other providers under the Learning Platform Framework will be immediately affected by how interoperable their systems are. Of course, I'd imagine that any school or LA approaching another vendor with questions about bringing the content and operation of a learning platform in from StudyWiz would be met with the answer "Yes" to almost any questions they might have. However, listen more carefully and I wouldn't be surprised to hear the trill of discussion in UK offices, or Skype calls to developers in India asking if it's possible to hoover up information once held in StudyWiz courses into the one you're trying to sell to schools. It's also interesting to see employees of other LP providers retweeting messages from their users expressing relief that they didn't choose StudyWiz.
I've often read the company profiles of those involved in the LP framework and noticed the number who trumpet investment by venture capitalist companies and even provide dedicated channels of information for their investors. This is obviously understandable - companies need/want to grow and I'm not questioning the morality of companies selling 'stuff' to schools to make money, it's more of an interest in how some of the basic functions (like teaching, learning and management) of schools can be affected by wider economic issues.
[Edit 12/02/2010 18:00 a direct message on Twitter points me to the travails of a company which appeared, as if from nowhere, a few BETTs ago and appeared to swallow up several existing companies whole...]
As it turned out, the star of the above video, Geoff Ellwood, tweeted that everything was kind of OK. Now it may well be the case, but to my mind one of the issues of having venture capitalists and investors depending on your performance (and you as a company depending on their confidence in you) must be that you need to send positive, upbeat messages to them. I can't guarantee it, but the confidence in that statement might not have been shared by a school nervous about the position of StudyWiz. As I understand it a new company formed from the ashes of eTech and will be named StudyWiz and retain the staff and IPR of the product (as it is, on Friday morning, StudyWiz confirmed the predicted management buyout). However, would I be right to assume that any contracts with eTech now won't be valid as that company doesn't exist any more? Any new procurement through the Framework would take at least a year, so will LAs & schools be expected to enter into fresh agreements outside of the Framework? (These are genuine questions - I don't know the answers and am just asking the ones I'd want to if that was my situation...). The LP Framework document itself is huge - "so big that schools wouldn't see the need for its size" as someone from another LA once said to me - but it's in situations like this when it becomes apparent why these agreements are as detailed as they are. I'm willing to bet that any LAs and groups of schools who involved their legal teams in drawing up the terms of any contracts are now very relieved that they did.
Co-incidentally the news of StudyWiz's troubles surfaced during a day which started with a Google Alert in my inbox which linked to a story of how a Californian college was "eliminating" BlackBoard for Moodle. Now, if you're an occasional reader then you might think that this was just another "Look! Moodle's winning!" link, but I'm interested in other issues. San Jose City College stopped using BlackBoard for mainly financial reasons (a combination of a cut in budgets and increased license costs) - again an example of non-educational factors affecting a whole institution's teaching & learning strategy. We're in the fortunate position that if our hosts & service providers (Atomwide) were to have issues, or for any other reason we (as an LA) chose to move our learning platform provision elsewhere, it would be a fairly simple process (though large in terms of the volume of the data we'd be shuffling around) to transfer things. There are plenty of Moodle hosts around (most good, with only one that springs to mind of the "don't ask me about them or I'll rant" variety) which (importantly) gives us choice - and the ability to have more control our own destiny in terms of technology provision.
I've always thought that interoperability was (understandably) near the bottom of a list of priorities for LP vendors - after all, if it's difficult for a school or LA to leave once they've seriously committed to your product, then you've got them for life, right? I'm willing to bet that, with a shadow seeming to have passed over StudyWiz, interoperability has bumped up most vendors' to-do lists now...
If you're a StudyWiz customer, either through the Framework or not, in the UK or not, what are your plans? Are you going to sit tight or try something else, either through another provider or on your own?

61 comments:

  1. I would have thought that legal obligations of a company generally get passed on to "heirs and successors" (or whatever phrase is in many contracts). Though whether the new company now conforms to Becta's financial viability criteria, and whether Becta is obligated to check, who knows.

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  2. I'm sure there is the usual phrase that liquidation or administration automatically terminates the contract. Like with most things a pragmatic approach given the number of customers is a first step. If the management buyout has secured the schools' data and there can be assurances that the service will continue for these schools, then it's likely to continue.

    A market where it is the hosting companies that compete for your business rather than proprietory systems offers some protection as long as you you can get at your data if they go belly up. This is only true if the system (like Moodle) concerned has enough market penetration and such a market has been created as a result.

    I'm sure Studywiz will not be the last to suffer as the downturn hits the education sector.

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  3. Ian, interesting article and some very valid points. I just wanted to comment, as it is very unfortunate that ETech has gone into administration and I do understand how much pain this will cause schools and local authorities moving forward. I therefore endorse your comments about interoperability.

    However it has to be said that there has been no real standard suitable to support true interoperability other than HTML itself, SCORM and IMS common cartridge are only half the story. We are working at the moment to come up with an interoperability model that will allow interchangeable learning platforms and other forms of educational software to plug and play with our technology. Its a tough job and we have already spent the last 12 months working on it for our new product, “Life”. Needless to say we have made some progress which should mean platforms like moodle can work alongside our own platform in future. The key thing is choice. We need to provide as much choice as possible. If we are good at what we do our software, tools and value will naturally get used. Therefore I see moodle as a friend and we expect our new product functionality to work alongside it moving forward. What we can bring is the weight of a commercially invested toolsets with a global connected learning community.

    As for the situation with Studywiz, We want to help, I've instructed our lawyers and accounts teams to look into the current legal status of the company. Time will be critical at the moment and I understand there may be a management buy out being planned. We are however able and willing to submit an expression of interest for the business, however we don't want to risk any quick solutions the management team may have in hand because we are all ultimately here to help schools. If schools end up in a scenario where they are without a service from ETech, we can ensure continuity of learning by providing some free options for the schools and authorities that have been affected. More news will follow on this as soon as we are able to reach the administrators.

    Your comments about trumpeting investments are interesting because having been in many discussions with investors and having raised money to put into the education sector, it’s a hard process to go through. Education is critical to us now more so than ever due to the impact of this generation of learners on the future UK economy. China is turning out more graduates than any other nation on earth. Investors understand this and are not just making investments to make a quick profit. It is a good thing to attract this investment and successfully use it to improve learning outcomes and secondly to turn it into a real return. My view is that regardless of the climate investors are still willing to support education as it has so many more benefits than material profit.

    I do recognise that this may be an alarming time for schools however I do believe a solution will come out of this for users of the Studywiz platform. My final note is, do not give up on learning platforms they really do enhance learning. Whether you are a moodle user or other platform user don't turn your back on the benefits these tools can unleash.
    Matt Clarke CEO/CTO UniServity Ltd

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  4. According to our LA, it seems that Etech/Studywiz, having laid off almost all their staff, hopes to support 13 LAs and all the individual contracts with 3 staff in the UK (or is that now 2 as one is leaving apparently?)And of course that support will come from Tasmania.

    GD - you are right. The idea of UniServity coming to the rescue sounds nice, but didn't Matt Clarke take over as CEO of UniServity in October 2009 when the previous CEO Alan Wood was replaced as a condition of the emergency funding that was provided by a Private Equity company to keep UniServity afloat? Has anyone else heard that?

    Frying pan into the fire, I should say.

    Schools should be very worried. If their learning platform disappears, the cost will be massive. All that wasted goodwill and energy from the staff and school community? Same applies to Moodle of course, if it is built on the passion of an individual who then moves on. Is this why there is so little 'transformation' going on in schools?

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  5. We knew that UniServity has been having financial problems because they laid off about a third of their people back in October, according to one of those who went. Hadn't heard about Alan Wood though. Wasn't he the founder? The similarities between what has happened to ETECH and what is happening at UniServity are uncanny. Perhaps he will buy them out when they go under?

    What's BECTA saying about all this?

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  6. We've had so many problems with the service going down and being incredibly slow that we insist our kids back up all their work to the school servers all the time, and they are allowed to take backups of stuff they are working on home on memory sticks so they can keep working when University isn't available or is just too slow to use.

    All our meaningful school data is kept on SIMS, and all work is backed up to school servers (which are then backed up of course) so I am not sure what interoperability issues there are in reality.

    Of course, this rather defeats the object of what the learning platform is supposed to be about, but we have to live with the reality and don't take risks. University is very clunky but it does some things OK - when it is working! We just can't rely on it.

    Just be sensible about it - back everything up!

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  7. When you look at what Matt Clarke says it seems more like bluster than reality "I've instructed our lawyers and accounts teams" UniServity only has about 30 people working for them, so it seems unlikely they will have accounts TEAMS!!!! and what about offering free options for LEAs and schools - more likely to be have our product for free now and we will charge you an arm and a leg for it later, once you are so tied in that you can't escape.

    And what is Becta doing? Either they knew all about this and haven't said anything, or they didn't know when they should. they're supposed to be checking all these things out all the time in their role as advisor to schools etc.

    Be good to hear what Becta thinks and what it is going to do.

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  8. Good article and interesting discussion.


    One of the primary flaws of the Learning Services procurement was its *lack* of effective interoperability standards (see http://www.publictechnology.net/content/9549).


    SALTIS (www.saltis.org) is now working with Becta to improve the interoperability standards in this area - the technical outputs from our first collaboration are due next month, after which SALTIS will be working with a variety of companies on implementation. But this is a first step and there is a long way to go.


    Sara says "I am not sure what interoperability issues there are in reality". To mention just a few: runtime interoperability between learning tools and learning management systems (e.g. returning scores to a common mark-book, student product for marking by teachers); circulating student competency data; e-portfolio exchange; standards for aggregating (or sequencing) learning activities; automatic authentication (or single sign-on)... the list goes on. All these break down into broadly two areas: (a) exchange standards, which ensure that you are not locked into a single product (the importance of which the discussion above illustrates) and (b) allowing different plug-in services to work together at run time in an integrated environment.

    It is not a question of backing up your data, but ensuring that one programme understands the data written or sent by another programme.

    If under a future government procurement is decentralised (e.g. to school level), interoperability becomes even more important. What we are working towards is a world in which a Head of Department can buy an innovative niche tool and, on installation, it will plug-and-play with all the other systems installed in the school.

    Crispin Weston

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  9. Dear Crispin,

    Sorry for the slow reply, I have been away for half term. When I said that I couldn’t see what the interoperability issues were, I didn’t mean on a technical level, I meant on a practical level. When we (the LA) were sold the pup that is UniServity, we raised the issue of what to do with all the data and resources that we had built up over the years on our existing system. We were told that it could be all moved over seamlessly, but we were advised that it was far better to start again and only move across the things that we valued. We felt it was good advice at the time, and did just that. It meant we had to be quite ruthless about what we kept and what we ditched, and it was like moving house – out with the old and in with the new. (It later turned out when we identified a load of stuff we wanted to move across ‘seamlessly’ that it just wasn’t possible, and the story we were told was probably a cover for what the UniServity system actually couldn’t do) hence I guess what Matt Clarke is now saying about developing interoperability with their new beta release in September. My colleague is very cynical about this – he calls it vapourware, meaning the promise of something new that aims to get you all excited but actually when push comes to shove usually doesn’t materialise. We’ve experienced a lot of that from UniServity already.

    However, enough of a moan! The point I was making remains: we use UniServity where we do use it for current work. When it is finished (and whilst it is being worked on) we back up back up back up to our school servers and kids to their USB sticks, so that when UniServity goes on a go-slow work to rule or stops working altogether the school and the kids can still function. Therefore, when we do change our system (which seems certain now) we will move on with what we have and start up with the new system.

    We have all the files on back up already, so, that’s what I mean. In practical terms, what are the interoperability issues?

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  10. I hate to harp back to it but BBC jam, if allowed to continue, would have created a basis for a SCORM 2004 “standard” and provided the opportunity for interoperability between learning platforms. Educators would have demanded that BBC jam content would be available from all the of the learning platform vendors who were on the BECTA Framework.

    Opposition from both the VLE and content industry put an end to BBC jam and teachers and learners are continuing to see the fallout from this decision.

    • No interoperability between platforms.
    • Little new and innovative learning content
    • Poor uptake/use of learning platforms in schools
    • VLE businesses struggling financially

    For those people struggling with content migration and wondering what to do next I would suggest that you look at holding your content outside your learning platform. Use a standards compliant Learning Object Repository (LOR) and when you want to change your platform you don’t have to move your content at the same time. Of course you will still have problems if you decide to move from one LOR to another but at least your not dealing with the delivery mechanism (learning platform) and content store (LOR) at the same time.

    As for Studywiz, I don’t think it will die but vendors need to recognize that content is king not the delivery technology. Only when schools get access to high quality content will learning platforms be a success.

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  11. Whilst I agree the withdrawal of BBC Jam was a blow as it would have helped push both quality and technical standards for SCORM, I do not agree with the 'Content is king' assertion from Neil Livesey. Where the training and support are well resourced take up of learning platforms can be a success. Why not ask Hampshire County Council how they have managed to get over 90% buy-in from their targetted 435 primary schools. Over the last year they have had an average of 84% of these schools using the platform each month. In January 2010 they had 23% of over 70 000 users logging in. What's more during this Spring half term in a school holiday they've had 6% of students and 5% of teachers logging in. Not bad for a platform with no centralised content contracts plugged in. True the county targeted training with some timely content resources but this was largely created 'in-platform'. By far the most important contributor to the success of the roll out has been the training program and curriculum support provided by some very talented and well respected seconded primary teachers.

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  12. Studywiz hasn't survived - they've gone bust. The so-called 'new company' has bought up the assets at a knock-down price presumably. so whoever has a contract with Etech no longer has a contract in effect, because their contract is with Etech not the new company. I'm not sure how this can possibly work, especially since we are not talking about UK law but Tasmanian/Australian law. Given that Etech was given two million dollars in funding very recently, and still went bust, what chance has this new company realistically got? What confidence can Etech's customers possibly have, especially since it seems from what I have seen that the people who have bought up the assets are the same people that presided over Etech going bust in the first place. If you need any support, the new Etech/Studywiz is very unlikely to offer it for free. They will say that whatever has been paid for already is gone because the money is gone (company gone bust). Pay again please. You have got to be very brave to risk getting burned twice on this one. If you are an Etech customer you should be looking for the exit now whilst you can.

    Same goes for UniServity by all accounts. If they had only half a million in emergency funding and not a lot of income since then which is what we are hearing then how long are they going to be around. A friend of mine's school is using UniServity, and they are getting quiet advice from the LA to look elsewhere and be ready to move certainly at the end of the contract and sooner if UniServity falls over (they've been having all the problems Sara has been having with UniServity and more. The LA is really embarrassed because they recommended them, but at least they are being grown up about giving helpful advice now.

    As for a standards compliant LOR, not sure that is the answer. All your content has to be scorm then doesn't it? Hardly any content is - and Crispin is talking about something very different from scorm 2004, so you still face the problem of things moving on and you having to update and upgrade all the time anyway. There is a hell of a long way to go. I think Sara’s approach makes sense, especially if your learning platform doesn't work like she says about UniServity.

    So - ditch UniServity and Studywiz, but where do you go? Is Moodle the only answer - even that has its shortcomings and challenges.

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  13. Will Hampshire be able to transfer the training programme and curriculum support to a new platform?

    What advice is Hampshire giving its schools now that only 10% of the 435 schools are not tied to Studywiz?

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  14. Hampshire don't need to transfer training as the platform is continuing. But they could. The key to the training wasn't about 'Where to click' like so much of the training you get from the companies themselves. Their trainers are teachers and who engaged staff in so much more than that. The program was about changing culture which is transferable. That's why each school received 6 days training over a year and much of this was good old fashioned CPD. You need to commit resource to this.

    No schools are tied to Studywiz. They are members of the Hampshire Wizkid learning platform which is part of range of centralised services coming on-line built around identity management. It is a moving evolving feast of tools for schools. If you're changing culture in the right way its easier to move forward with changes.

    Do you think perhaps one of the big advantages of an LA scale platform is you have LA scale back up? Schools that have gone alone with a supplier (whether that be commercial or a single techie in a school) are pretty vulnerable to suppliers disappearing. I'm pretty sure you will find the statements made to Hampshire schools on Google if you are interested and capable of efficient searching.

    Anyway as long as "VLE database" content is exportable in a readable XML format then its not going to be difficult to transform that into content for another forward looking platform. In that respect content may be a prince but do you not think so much teacher/student created content especially in the primary phase is ephemeral. It can be thrown away or exported as HTML for records?

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  15. I don't disagree with Colin that training and support are crucial, but my content comment stands. If you don't have content, whether generated locally, nationally or commercially then the purpose of a VLE begins to unfold. I'm delighted that some authorities have embraced these technologies and are making sound pedagogical use of them and long may this continue.

    Just to clarify a LOR can hold any content not just SCORM but it does need to have some standards compliance whether that be file format or packaging standard. Which means that you can just about hold anything in a LOR.

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  16. I think Neil’s point is very valid ‘If you don’t have content…then the purpose of a VLE begins to unfold’.

    It’s great to read Colin’s comments on the approach being promoted and supported in Hampshire but sadly this isn’t the case in most LA’s. Most of the LA’s that I work with have been cajoled into approaches and strategies, as was Sara, that do nothing more than meet the needs of the learning platform provider, or it might be more accurate to say cover up the inadequacies of the learning platform itself. The matter of lack of interoperability is glossed over by convincing schools/teachers/users to create resources using internal tools which means LAs and Schools are locked in or lose it because there is no way those resources will ever be exportable never mind interoperable.

    Whilst I have a lot of respect for what Crispin is trying to do with Saltis I can’t help feeling that Becta have completely lost the plot with the content packaging project and can no longer see the wood for the trees. It’s time to take a step back and take a long, hard look at how teachers, schools and learners really need technology to work, draw a line under what’s gone before and take some brave decisions.

    Like BBC Jam before, the ndrb (www.ndrb.org.uk) could provide a solution to many of the issues raised here at least on the content front. Learning platform independence, standardized content packaging and copyright conformance to name but a few yet what stands in the way? Petty partisan politics and a desperation on the part of Becta to keep the commercial market happy.

    If Becta had invested as much in moodle development as it has in developing the learning platform framework or as much in the ndrb as it is doing in the ecosystem, the UK education community would have a technology that might not only meet it’s needs today but also tomorrow, it would also have ownership and governance!

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti a commercial market but build it onto a solid central framework based on open source and open standards that is owned by the tax payer and can move with the times and encourage rather than discourage innovation. There are lessons to be learnt from what’s happening with StudyWiz and Uniservity but are we brave enough to learn them and apply them?

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  17. Colin,

    Not sure if I am capable of efficient searching. What chance of joining in some of the expert training sessions run by your super secondees?

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  18. Colin, I’m capable of advanced searching, but I haven’t found any statements made to Hampshire schools. Perhaps I was using the wrong search terms? I guessed at contrition, apology, mistake, waste of taxpayers’ money and similar. Perhaps those thoughts don’t feature in your letter? I think probably not, given the tone of your postings – in particular the last one (I thought PS was remarkably restrained in response)

    LAs almost always get buy-in from their primary schools, especially when the LA is spending money that belongs to the schools anyway but has not been devolved. What is somewhat astonishing is the lack of any admission on Colin’s behalf that Hampshire – who will have spent hundreds of thousands if not millions on the Studywiz programme – made any sort of mistake. It may be that Colin had nothing to do with the original decision to go with Etech (although I suspect he did) and whatever the LA has said to schools the reality is those responsible for the decision, not just in Hampshire but in the other 12 LAs that are apparently using Studywiz (and the LAs that have chosen UniServity, which is apparently a similar basket case), made that decision without carrying out any proper checks on the company involved. Etech and UniServity’s financial meltdown must have been entirely predictable.

    If the LAs feel they have nothing to apologise for, that is because they are hiding behind BECTA who should have been making the checks in the first place. I notice that BECTA has ditched Etech (http://localauthorities.becta.org.uk/index.php?section=pf&catcode=ls_pict_06&rid=13143) but offers no explanation or apology themselves. Does that mean Hampshire is now continuing a BECTA-approved contract with a non-BECTA approved supplier? That seems to be a nonsense, and it indicates that despite Colin’s confidence the wheels have yet to come off the Hampshire bandwagon.

    Interestingly UniServity remains a BECTA approved supplier, despite all their problems. Given what has now happened to Etech, any school or LA that is relying on them should be asking serious questions – and making hasty and detailed plans for alternative provision when they follow Etech down the Swannee!

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  19. This has been a very useful thread for us. We have been looking at Learning Platforms as we have to develop what we are already doing (quite successfully so far we think)

    we were looking at both Studywiz and Uniservity as options, but will not be using either. We fell the risk is just too great, particularly with Uniservity. Although we know that studywiz has been in trouble, it has been taken over, but we just don’t feel confident that we can predict what is going to happen with a product that is based overseas. Add to that the fact that Becta has now stopped recommending them.

    We have not been able to find any helpful guidance about uniservity, although we have been warned by several people that there is a big question mark about their future.

    Also, although they talk about their new products with a lot of confidence (and are bullish in fact), we think that 'Life' is like Sara says just vapourware, and anyway the concepts seem to have been lifted directly from other suppliers, notably Frog. The thing about Frog is that it already exists, and is being used very successfully in a number of very significantly successful schools up and down the country - Cramlington and Ninestiles for example. Uniservity is just too big a risk for us. Also, we have been told that when they were pitching to LEAs as long as two years ago they were showing a login system for young children that used icons in place of the children having to remember letters and numbers. It turned out that the system didn’t exist, it really was vapourware and what was being shown was a demonstration made up using Flash. The Lea that bought it was not impressed. Also, the new parent access system they are selling was according to the the LEA already supposed to be part of what was sold originally, so uniservity is trying to charge twice for the same thing, which seem wrong. Add to that the big problems they have had with people being able to use their system here in the north west and it is definitely a trap we will not be falling into.

    So thanks everyone for the very useful information – keep blogging!

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  20. The extent of Studywiz's problems can be seen here - http://www.tasmaniantimes.com/index.php/article/another-coupla-mill-down-the-gurgler

    'The insolvent company has no assets' apparently, and Colin's happiness that Studywiz will continue might be misplaced: 'Mr Morgan (the liquidator) said he would examine the sale of Etech’s intellectual property, chiefly educational software, to director Geoffrey Elwood’s new company Studywiz.

    “I will look at that to see if it is a commercial transaction and whether creditors have been disadvantaged by the transaction,” he said. “If it’s not commercial, or they have been disadvantaged, there is a right to action.”'

    Clearly not out of the woods yet then!

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  21. PS - You are more than welcome to attend any of my training sessions. I am one of the secondees working within Hampshire and am more than happy to discuss what we have been doing. Find me on Twitter @ianaddison or http://ianaddison.blogspot.com

    D Thomas - I am not involved in the contractual side of things, I am a mere teacher in this huge machine, but I know our schools are very happy with what we have done for them and the doors that have been opened. We have teachers collaborating when they didn't before and we have children accessing resources they could not have done easily before. Mistake? Waste of money? Not at all. I'll find you 70,000+ logins a month that show otherwise.

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  22. Ian - I am sure what you are describing is excellent, and backs up what Colin says about the training/CPD being meaningful and creating sustainable value. I'm not in any way rubbishing the good things that you say you have achieved.

    My concern - and it is backed up by what others have posted - is that you could and would have achieved this with another platform. In fact, that's why it is sustainable, because it is pedagogically based and not technology dependant.

    Where the waste lies is in the millions that have been spent on Studywiz up and down the country, in many cases probably paid in advance, that looks likely, to quote the Tasmanian Times, to be going down the gurgler. It is clear that BECTA had the responsibility to ensure the suppliers they recommended are sound and will be around, not just companies out to make (or lose) a quick buck or two.

    They have patently failed with Studywiz, and UniServity, and who knows what other suppliers. Netmedia has also disappeared off the scene. That isn't to decry or undermine the work you and your colleagues have been doing, but it is to be very critical of those who are involved in the contractual side of things, because it is inevitable that when rather than if Studywiz does fade away it is going to cost a whole lot more money to put in place the necessary contracts to replace the software you are going to lose. That money could and should be better spent, particularly in the world of cuts we are all walking into.

    Well done you. Shame on BECTA. And a big thumbs down to the LAs like Hampshire that bought a pig in a poke. Your primary schools in particular will not be at all happy when they lose money to pay for this big mistake, and the individual schools that made their choices, be that Studywiz or Uniservity by relying on BECTA's guidance will be similarly cursing.

    But good luck.

    ReplyDelete
  23. So many Trolls so little time. But I will bit. Funny how many people commenting only joined blogger in Feb 2010 ;-)

    Just for the record, Hampshire primary schools were given the choice of having their funds to do their own thing or to buy into the LA platform. Over 400 chose the latter.

    I have no foresight only hindsight but I predict ;-) that the Hampshire Wizkid platform will not disappear and will continue to serve Hampshire Schools as it grows and evolves. This will largely be down to the willingness and enthusiasm of Hampshire teachers. Note I said teachers not technicians or consultants.

    I could be wrong. Time will tell.

    Oh and hands up yes I was involved in the decision of appointing Etech. If I had got my choice Hampshire would have gone for using Moodle and have invested in developing a primary interface. But then it wasn't based on my preference it was based on a fair and comprehensive procurement process involving teachers from all phases including SEN and it covered all the bases including the risk of companies going bust.

    And as for LAs always getting buy-in from their schools. I think if you do your research, as HCC did that this patently hasn't been the case. Buy-in isn't just about funds. Its also about putting lots more effort and planning into making things work in your specific schools' circumstances. Hence the drive to have such a comprehensive training and support program.

    Come on PS and D Thomas. Who are you and what are your interests? Surely you don't expect any schools to take you seriously unless you reveal these?

    And aw shucks here you go.

    1. Open browser
    2. Type in www.google.com into address bar.
    3. Type in Etech administration hants.sch.uk in search box
    4. Click Search.

    Now after finding the evidence you are after and so I can award you National Curriculum level 4 in ICT can you write back to me using a suitable ICT tool an explanation of why "Etech in Administration" would have found that page only ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  24. Sorry but I think you will be proven wrong D Thomas no software has been lost yet.
    I am sure all Becta framework contracts have escrow agreements in them.

    And anyone who really knows understands that the costs of software licensing is minute compared to the TCO around this. Especially when it comes to something like a learning platform as opposed to office software.

    What price does one put on changing culture?

    Here's the wisdom of D Thomas

    Quote "So - ditch UniServity and Studywiz, but where do you go? Is Moodle the only answer - even that has its shortcomings and challenges."

    Fine leadership.... Not.

    ReplyDelete
  25. It was never my intention to make any of my arguments personal in any way, but I feel I have to respond to the aspersions you attempt to level against me.

    I have no interest or affiliation with Etech or any other provider. We have had a bad experience with a LP that has massively failed to meet expectations or deliver against promises - not Etech in fact, and I won’t name the supplier here other than to say that if you read the other posts you may well be able to guess who has let us down.

    I personally don’t want to see others suffering the pain of massive investment (time rather than or as well as money) and having to go through what we have. I have never bothered with blogs or being a twit, hence my recent enrolment, but I am so frustrated that I have decided to spend some of my hard-pressed time saying what I think. If others choose to ignore or take note, that is their prerogative. If schools don’t take the comments that pepper this blog seriously, that is their own lookout.

    So, to respond to your latest posting of February 28th, at 11.41 pm:

    • I don’t know what a troll looks like. To be as blunt as you, perhaps I am looking in the wrong mirror?
    • Colin – you were involved in choosing Studywiz, on your own admission. The “fair and comprehensive procurement process” that involved “teachers from all phases including SEN and . . . covered all the bases including the risk of companies going bust” didn’t work, did it?
    • But then, you “have no foresight only hindsight” . . . or so you seem to say with pride.
    • . . . and then you attempt to criticise my ‘wisdom’ and ‘leadership’. With respect, what I seek to do is make people aware that they are in danger, specifically with Studywiz and UniServity, of going down a road that could and is likely to lead to pain and grief. I would say a warning of that is offering leadership – but schools. LAs, whoever, have to look at the evidence and make a reasoned and careful judgement for themselves.
    • I do absolutely agree that the challenge is to change culture, and that is the Holy Grail, but it is important to acknowledge failings, mistakes and errors of judgement – that takes a big soul and a big heart. It is also important to share your experiences, good or bad, and that is what I am seeking to do. Please – whoever you are – learn the lessons that can be gleaned from this blog.
    • My comment “So - ditch UniServity and Studywiz, but where do you go? Is Moodle the only answer - even that has its shortcomings and challenges” was intended as a call to careful thought – which I would suggest is offering leadership – I would not claim it to be fine.

    I genuinely wish every school in Hampshire that has made the decision to follow the Studywiz illusionary path every success as they change their stepping stones to transformation. However, please don’t short change them. I did see the so-called ‘statement’ that you refer to. That is why I said what I did – apologies if it was too subtle.

    Will Studywiz disappear? You think not. If you have your much-vaunted NC level 4 you may be getting Google alerts? Have you seen this? http://www.themercury.com.au/article/2010/02/19/129011_tasmania-news.html. Keep following the news.

    Oh, and if you want me to point out naivety, your comment that “. . . all Becta framework contracts have escrow agreements in them” is perhaps a good example to share with the class. No, in fact probably they don’t. And even if they do - I assume Hampshire has - what is it going to cost you to find the expertise to unravel millions of lines of code to be able to even maintain never mind develop the system (that by now, a year or two after the product was bought, is going to be way out of date)? I will accept your explanation of how you are going to spend other people’s money via any suitable ICT tool.

    Good luck Colin – and I mean it.

    ReplyDelete
  26. We were thinking UniServity but I was told about this website last week and so we are thinking again. Why doesn't more people know about how bad it is with UniServity? It was planning to cost us thousands and now we are not sure what to choose. Moodle we have tried but in the end we just can't do it ourselves since our staff expert left. We had not looked at Studywiz. What about Frog? Is that what you have gone for Janet?

    It is crazy that schools arent told that Studywiz has gone bust and University is not sound. There is nothing in the Becta website to tell you.

    In know we are behind the curve on this now but sound advice is hard to come by.

    ReplyDelete
  27. We are getting to decision time, and we were pointed at this: YouTube - Kanal von lifeisaboutlearning

    Fiona says she works for UniServity, and although what she says seems interesting, it is all pie in the sky as far as actually being delivered is concerned given UniServity's track record. We also looked at http://demo.life-cloud.net which is supposed to be the demo of the 'new' system. There is nothing there - is it another flash demo - in both senses of the word? More of Sara's vapourware it seems (we like that, it seems very appropriate).

    We have seen nothing to tempt us to UniServity. In fact, everything we have seen, heard and been told has led us to the conclusion that UniServity is to be avoided. So many schools (judging by the posts we have found) are talking about moving away as soon as they can.

    Yes - we probably will go with Frog, but the final decision is yet to be taken. We have also now seen Fronter, and that seems very stable if a little less exciting maybe. Also, they are well established financially.

    I think you need to decide what you want to do and what the school priorities are, and makes sure what you choose meets those needs.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Thanks Janet

    We looked in detail at the websites today and saw what you mean. The university website is so out of date - there forthcoming event is something that happened way back in 2008 in America two years ago and nothing has happened since and their news is from July last year, so they are not keeping their website up to date http://www.uniservity.com/news/events/140

    Then we looked at Frog http://www.frogtrade.com/?gclid=COrI7eLjs6ACFc9i4wodGzAxSw and everything that uniservity talks about in their new product seems to be already existing in Frog - you can add and take away things to create your own personalised environment plus you can share with feeder primary schools, which we think is really important. It will be good when the Frog off the shelf product for primary schools is available, but if you are a secondary school you can already support them and that's good for partnerhsips etc.

    Going to look at Fronter next week too, but at the moment Frog seems to do what unversity says it might do in a beta release in September.

    Looks good - and they seem to understand education too.

    Weekend starts here . . . have a good one all.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Has anyone heard anything about problems with security with the UniServity learning platform? We hear that being built on old technology - the reason for all the reliability problems people have experienced (and talk about above) - it's vulnerable to hacking. Has anyone any experience of this?

    ReplyDelete
  30. Not sure about the security aspects, but it's possible of course. Just because it is built on old technology does not necessarily mean it is vulnerable to hacking, but if it has been built badly then of course that is a different matter. Presumably UniServity (and BECTA) must take security very seriously because otherwise they are putting children at risk.

    http://www.hemscott.com/news/static/rna/item.do?newsId=98178657726407 gives more news about the emergency funding that UniServity got last autumn. It's a cracking read. The more I read it the better it gets - or not if you are a UniServity customer perhaps.

    UniSerivty was bailed out with an extra £208,000 of "additional working
    capital ahead of the effect of implementation of cost reductions and the
    achievement of cash generative trading".

    The cost reductions included sacking the boss Alan Wood, saying goodbye to the Chairman John Bantleman and arrivederci to a good number of staff. Apparently, the Spark Investment Manager "has been extremely active in compelling investee companies
    to live within tighter cash constraints, to shed cost, to adopt more realistic
    strategies and, where necessary, to change management". More have left recently by all accounts, and if you read the Spark Investments report (the money people propping UniServity up) it seems they are struggling themselves: "The Board is most aware that no dividend has been paid to shareholders since
    October 2008, that net assets have fallen significantly in recent years and
    that there has been an enduring discount between the net assets per share and
    the share price.

    The Board has, accordingly, assessed the Company's investments and concluded
    that, in the current economic climate, early stage venture capital investments,
    such as the majority of those in the Company's existing portfolio, no longer
    present an attractive investment for SPARK VCT plc shareholders. The Board
    believes that this is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future."

    If you read on, you see that they are ditching the businesses they have invested in as quickly as they can - and if they can't sell them off they are closing them down. "the number of unquoted companies in the portfolio has been reduced from 29 in 2007
    to 18 at the present date, by closing or writing off 10 of them and successfully
    selling one of them.

    Spark are on their own with UniServity - the SPARK-managed funds are the sole institutional investor so there is no other investment house sharing the load. They have now put well over £2.5 million into UniServity, and values it at £1.2 million. Ouch!

    Has anyone got a few bob spare to put in a bid? The longer they struggle as they are doing, the
    cheaper they will get - although don't leave it too long or you'll be competing in the fire sale!

    Or maybe the charred embers won't be worth baking potatoes in.

    Happy Easter everyone - enjoy your break. You no doubts deserve it.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Thanks very much for that.

    I have read the report, and it is does make interesting reading.

    The one thing that rings out like a bell is that if you are thinking of choosing UniServity you should probably think again.

    It looks like a racing certainty that they are going to collapse just like Etech. In particular you should avoid the old trick of paying in advance for three years: demand a big discount just for taking the risk! The software costs nothing after all, it's the support costs that are the biggest aspect (or should be at least. About £1 a year per user is more than enough for stuff like this.

    Definitely don't pay for anything that you can't see, feel smell and touch - all their so-called new developments do seem to vapourware - they even call it Cloud computing after all!

    The other thing to be careful of is the so-called references these companies give. Very often it's a pet school that gets all sorts of perks for giving good feedback as a reward.

    Ask for a list of fifty or a hundred schools that are using UniServity, and make your own choice. Ideally you should find a school that matches your own profile if you can, and especially one that is using UniServity (or whatever) in the way that you want to use it.

    Schools won't mind you contacting them, and if you do it without being steered by UniServity you might hear the truth (and it might even be good news).

    But before you buy, be sure you have checked out the finances of the company. DON'T rely on BECTA's list, because they obviously can't be relied on.

    By the way, where is BECTA in all this? All they have on their website is the news that Studywiz has been struck off.

    I notice as well that since that happened, Colin McQueen has gone very quiet!

    So thanks for the finance update. What about UniServity as an unsafe learning platform. Anyone got any news about that?

    Have a great Easter everyone!

    ReplyDelete
  32. When you look back at what Matt Clark was saying about putting a bid in for Studywiz "We are however able and willing to submit an expression of interest for the business" and then look at what Spark say about propping up Uniservity, it leaves what Mr Clark said looking more than a little incredible.

    I wonder if he was making the bold statements to give an impression that Uniservity is in good financial health when the evidence shows it isn't. Are business people able to mislead like that?

    At least it isn't public money that's being thrown at Uniservity. I'm amazed that 'shareholders' are so tolerant of throwing their money away. Obviously followed the wrong career being in education!

    ReplyDelete
  33. Just posting to say Happy Easter To all and that we are looking forward to a great Summer term moving forward with Hampshire Wizkid (Studywiz) following on from a well attended, lively, enthusiastic Wizkid practitioner conference at the end of Spring term.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Apart from the fact that everything that schools and LAs spend on keeping UniServity going is in fact public money - in other words your money and mine.

    Matt Clarke also said "More news will follow on this as soon as we are able to reach the administrators."

    Strange we haven't heard anything.

    ReplyDelete
  35. According to Spark VCT's latest annual report UniServity has a much stronger future than some of you might think: "The "developing" companies, including in the TMT sector . . . and UniServity Limited, have generally made satisfactory operational progress, growing their revenue streams and making progress towards
    cash-positive trading."

    Full details at: http://www.hemscott.com/news/static/rna/item.do?newsId=98178657726420

    ReplyDelete
  36. I have been following this discussion with interest over recent weeks and feel I should respond to the question abut security as regards with UniServity. As a group there are a number of schools that are enrolled with UniServity, but only around a quarter are using it very much one reason being it is often very slow. There have been issues with security with hackers apparently getting into the system, for example all sorts of links to very unsavoury sites have been added. From a personal point of view my concern is that there is no way of monitoring hacker activity. The results of the hacking were only discovered well after the event, and I do worry that children could be at risk. In particular, UniServity promotes using their system for social networking. Obviously, it would be terrible if children are put at risk in what is supposed to be a ‘walled garden’. I don’t know how much these problems have been repeated elsewhere. Sorry to post anonymously but this is a bit sensitive as you doubtless appreciate.

    ReplyDelete
  37. I have been following this exchange with interest over recent weeks and felt I should respond to the question abut security as regards UniServity. As a group there are a number of schools that are enrolled with UniServity, but only around a quarter are using it very much one reason being it is often very slow but also there have been issues with security with hackers apparently getting into the system, for example all sorts of links to very unsavoury sites have been added. From a personal point of view my concern is that there is no way of monitoring hacker activity. The results of the hacking were only discovered after the event, and I do worry that children could be at risk. In particular, UniServity promotes using their system for social networking. Obviously, it would be terrible if children are put at risk in what is supposed to be a ‘walled garden’. I don’t know how much these problems have been repeated elsewhere.

    ReplyDelete
  38. When the story of Studywiz going bust first broke in February, Ian Usher called it an acid test and asked some serious questions. Now that we hear UniServity’s learning platform is open to hacking, and that children could be at risk, what serious questions does this now raise?

    One (at least) Becta promoted learning platform has gone bust, now another it seems is neither secure nor safe. If UniServity is vulnerable to hacking, what safeguards are in place to protect children? Becta has only removed Studywiz from its list of approved suppliers, not offered any guidance. Going bust is one problem, putting children at risk is a whole new issue. Ian – what do you say Becta’s role should be in this?

    Another question is for schools and parents using UniServity. With Ofsted taking increasing notice of esafety in schools, and quite right too, does this now put a school at risk of special measures just because they use UniServity as their learning platform? I wouldn’t be worried about this if I was head in that position I’d be terrified.

    No-one has answered Ian’s original questions about the validity of the existing contracts with Etech. The original contract as everyone says is through Becta. According to Colin, Hampshire is apparently ploughing ahead very successfully, but is their contract with Studywiz even legal now Studywiz is not a Becta approved supplier? What is the legal position? Again, if I was a head I’d be asking those questions. It isn’t enough to think you have safety in numbers, fine leadership means you ask the questions for yourself. Governing bodies should be raising the issue. Continued use of Studywiz (or UniServity) with your blinkers on is not an excuse and it’s not responsible. Colin – did you check out whether you have the code for Studywiz in escrow? Did you check out whether that will do you any good? I am interested to hear whether that really is a safeguard. Can individual schools ask for that sort of protection in their contracts with learning platforms?

    And there are questions for Studywiz and UniServity. They must be aware of everything that is being said on this blog. Ian has talked about it to a Studywiz employee. Nothing has been said and nothing has been denied. Matt Clarke from UniServity was very quick to chip in when he thought he could get some new business from panicking Studywiz customers, but he has not put anyone’s mind at rest regarding UniServity going bust. What about UniServity putting children at risk? I’d like to know more about the security problems with UniServity, and whether the same problems exist with other suppliers. Is Frog safe? What about the other popular ones like Fronter? By taking on the new technologies, have we put children at risk?

    ReplyDelete
  39. Colin - has the new Studywiz taken over the contract with Hampshire, or are you just carrying on with the old one using their technology until you replace it with your own? How can you carry on now that Studywiz is not a BECTA supplier? The question about the legal position is very interesting because the first contract was based on Becta’s assessment that the company was sound. But that proved to be wrong. If you are continuing the contract with the new company, who has done any checks to see that it is sound? You must be spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on this? What if the new company doesn’t survive? Lots of new companies do fail, and this is a new company taking over the business from an old one that couldn’t make it work even with millions of pounds of public subsidies. I’m glad for the schools sake that they are lively and enthusiastic. That all might sound good, but it is all the more reason to take care not to let them down.

    A – thanks for the information about UniServity being hacked. How big a problem is this? What do you mean there is no way of monitoring hacker activity? Surely the fact that you discovered what had happened means the activity was monitored? How worried are you that your children are at risk?

    Good question about other learning platforms. Are they safe, or should everyone be worried about the moves towards school-sponsored social networking. Surely we can get all the benefits and not put our children at risk?

    ReplyDelete
  40. information about esafety problems with UniServity is really very scarey. We are now going to ask for statements about safety and security to be put into the contract so that we are protected and have much stronger comeback if anything goes wrong. The problem for most schools is they don’t have the technical expertise. The place to go for the best guidance on best practice is CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre http://www.ceop.gov.uk

    ReplyDelete
  41. Quoting (selectively) from Spark VCT's latest annual report, Paul Heinrich says "UniServity has a much stronger future than some of you might think". Perhaps. But the report divides the venture capital investments of SPARK VCT into three categories. "Maturing" venture capital investments are companies with stable and growing revenue streams, achieving profitable trading or very close to it, and with stable cash positions. "Developing" venture capital investments, are companies with developed business models and growing revenue streams, though still facing uncertainties, and breaking through into cash-flow positive trading - example (among others) UniServity Limited.

    So, UniServity, which won so many of the Becta bids and that has been around for ten years apparently is just 'breaking through' into cash-flow positive trading. It still faces "uncertainties", and it does not have "stable and growing revenue streams", it is not close to "achieving profitable trading" and it does not have a "stable cash position". If it had, it would not be in the category it is in.

    I always admire optimism, especially in the face of stiff odds.

    You never know of course, but can you afford to take the risk? I suppose if it's not your money perhaps it doesn't matter so much.

    ReplyDelete
  42. This is all really worrying now. We have looked at the becta website and there are nine Learning Platforms on the Framework suppliers list. It is all very confusing.

    Core Education and Consulting Solutions (UK) is Talmos, and that used to be Azzuri, so that’s all changed.
    Fronter is Norwegian, but their address is 80 Strand London. I think they are now owned by Pearson
    it's learning UK Ltd was never on the list to start with. They have bought out Netmedia who used to be part of Espresso.
    Pearson Education Ltd. This is really strange. They own Fronter, but they say their learning platform is UniServity.
    Ramesys has recently been bought out by Capita, but Capita is selling UniServity to schools through a partnership
    RM Education plc – is the same old RM with Kaleidos etc
    Serco Learning Solutions (Serco Ltd) are really huge. If you go to their website it’s all nuclear weapons and trains in Dubai. When you go to education you can’t work out what their learning platform is. I’ve not heard of anyone using Serco.
    UniServity has partnerships with Pearson and Capita, which both seem to be about linking with MIS systems
    Viglen Ltd – the Viglen Learning Platform is from It’s Learning according to the website. Is that the same as It’s Learning UK Ltd that is now what Netmedia was?
    The one that has gone is Studywiz or Etech, but they are still being used as it says above in places like Hampshire even though they are not on the list.

    How confusing is all this? Now that we hear UniServity is not safe I’ve checked and the only one that says it is secure is it’s learning, and you are saying Fronter isn’t safe. Frog isn’t on the list, but is it safe anyway? I am sure if you ask them you will get the usual yabadabadoo sales pitch, but if UniServity gets hacked into maybe they all do. What advice can we get that we can trust. Nightmare.

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  43. Re. Uniservity hacking issues. What are the particular dangers as far as hacking and social networking using Uniservity are concerned that you are particularly worried about? What should we be looking at most carefully?

    ReplyDelete
  44. I tried to post this before, but seem to have some problems connecting properly.

    In response to PS, I said hacking is a major problem for us because there’s no control over it. There is no way of knowing if a hacker is in the system or what they are doing until you come across it. It isn’t monitored because we found what had happened and raised it – there seems to be no way of ongoing monitoring. Of course we are very concerned because we have no idea what a hacker might be up to. The problem is the children are not safeguarded and I think the children are at risk potentially.

    I don’t know whether the other learning platforms are safe, but anyone who is using them in school needs to be reassured and convinced that they are safe.

    In response to Janet, the particular danger that I am worried about is that UniServity encourages schools to work together on projects, so that children in one school are working with children in another school, often in another country in our case. There are two things. The children share sometimes quite personal details about themselves in their eportfolio including photos, dates of birth and contact information even though we advise them not to. If someone who hacks in can access their eportfolios then they can access this information, and that could put children at risk. Also, we don’t know the children from other schools that are linking with our children, so my big worry if someone hacks in is if they can pass themselves off as someone else then that will put the children particularly at risk because they will assume they are safe. You have to be very careful that everyone who is on the learning platform is someone that you know.

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  45. I tried to post this before, but seem to have some problems connecting properly.

    In response to PS, I said hacking is a major problem for us because there’s no control over it. There is no way of knowing if a hacker is in the system or what they are doing until you come across it. It isn’t monitored because we found what had happened and raised it – there seems to be no way of ongoing monitoring. Of course we are very concerned because we have no idea what a hacker might be up to. The problem is the children are not safeguarded and I think the children are at risk potentially.

    I don’t know whether the other learning platforms are safe, but anyone who is using them in school needs to be reassured and convinced that they are safe.

    In response to Janet, the particular danger that I am worried about is that UniServity encourages schools to work together on projects, so that children in one school are working with children in another school, often in another country in our case. There are two things. The children share sometimes quite personal details about themselves in their eportfolio including photos, dates of birth and contact information even though we advise them not to. If someone who hacks in can access their eportfolios then they can access this information, and that could put children at risk. Also, we don’t know the children from other schools that are linking with our children, so my big worry if someone hacks in is if they can pass themselves off as someone else then that will put the children particularly at risk because they will assume they are safe. You have to be very careful that everyone who is on the learning platform is someone that you know.

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  46. This is all incredibly scarey. If UniServity gets hacked then children are put at risk. eportfolois seem like a great idea, but not if they expose children to potential harm. I’m not sure that all the learning platforms have eportfolios but they all provide blogs and messaging, so the same problems must apply. I’m surprised that none of the learning platforms have come out and said whether they are safe or not – Frog, Fronter, RM etc. This is a pretty big deal for schools in the current climate. What about the new Capita Learning Gateway. If that is hacked into then what are the implications and consequences because it aims to give parents access to all sorts of sensitive information.?

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  47. If you look at http://www.edugeek.net/forums/virtual-learning-platforms/54003-studywiz-renewal-costs.html you can see that Studywiz (the new company that is) is charging 35% more for renewals. Alprimo says I can't believe that anyone is considering giving money to Studywiz. The company has gone into administration and the owner is financing a skeleton operation whilst trying to sell the 'new' company. No wonder they are trying to put the price up 35%! You need to be asking them what you are paying for? Will the software be supported for the year? If so, by who? If the company can go into administration with the financial investment they have had I would not want to be giving them one more penny. Schools need to be so careful that they are not throwing money away. If I was a Studywiz customer I would pay monthly – in advance if necessary but better in arrears – so that I knew I had got what I had paid for. If the company is carrying on that should be acceptable because they will need the money only monthly to pay wages and monthly bills. If they object to that, then it is probably a sign that they have a limited shelf-life again. Same goes for LAs, so I expect Colin has already put that into place to protect his schools.

    As for UniServity, they are charging £1.25 to over £2 per student per year for parents to access information about their children. The problem with this is that UniServity sold parent access to information about their children as part of their original package for LAs as a way of winning the contracts they won and are now trying to charge all over again. If you buy it again it means the cost of the Uniservity learning platform is £5-£8 a head which is very expensive.

    If you use Capita Learning Gateway, it’s still expensive but a bit less so at £2,200 a year for a secondary school if you host it yourself (although Capita rips you off £5000 for project management). That works out at less than two pounds a pupil for an average secondary school and it is a much better product. Why pay a third party to let you access your SIMS data when it has to be a much better bet to do it directly with the owner of SIMS. What always happens when things go wrong between SIMS and another product that uses SIMS data is that each blames each other for the problems and you are left high and dry. Usually you can get a better deal anyway through your LA, and at least we know that Capita is still going to be around for years to come.

    At least one LA up here has solved the problem of paying out all over again by refusing to pay UniServity for the so-called new product and are getting it for free, or rather they are just getting what they have already paid for. Multiply £2 a student across the whole LA and see how much they are saving. Any LA that decides to pay must have money to burn so maybe they could share it with us.

    And of course if UniServity gets hacked do you really want all your data open to their systems? You might as well publish it on the web for anyone to see. I have mixed feelings about this exposure about UniServity being hacked, because it will just attract hackers from everywhere hoping to try their luck so it just makes UniServity even more insecure. I suppose the answer is to sort out the UniServity security issues.

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  48. I haven’t looked at this blog for a while, and I can’t believe everything I have read. I do feel sorry for anyone that is relying on Studywiz, because the future looks so uncertain. However, any school that is using UniServity must be extremely worried reading all this. The idea that UniServity is vulnerable to hacking after everything that has been in the media recently about online dangers is sobering to say the least. If children are not safeguarded and are therefore at risk that is just not acceptable, and each school and their LA has a responsibility for sorting this out. And the question about the other learning platforms like Frog and about Capita's Learning Gateway are well worth asking too.

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  49. If you look at http://www.edugeek.net/forums/virtual-learning-platforms/54003-studywiz-renewal-costs.html you can see that Studywiz (the new company that is) is charging 35% more for renewals. Alprimo says I can't believe that anyone is considering giving money to Studywiz. The company has gone into administration and the owner is financing a skeleton operation whilst trying to sell the 'new' company. No wonder they are trying to put the price up 35%! You need to be asking them what you are paying for? Will the software be supported for the year? If so, by who? If the company can go into administration with the financial investment they have had I would not want to be giving them one more penny. Schools need to be so careful that they are not throwing money away. If I was a Studywiz customer I would pay monthly – in advance if necessary but better in arrears – so that I knew I had got what I had paid for. If the company is carrying on that should be acceptable because they will need the money only monthly to pay wages and monthly bills. If they object to that, then it is probably a sign that they have a limited shelf-life again. Same goes for LAs, so I expect Colin has already put that into place to protect his schools.

    As for UniServity, they are charging £1.25 to over £2 per student per year for parents to access information about their children. The problem with this is that UniServity sold parent access to information about their children as part of their original package for LAs as a way of winning the contracts they won and are now trying to charge all over again. If you buy it again it means the cost of the Uniservity learning platform is £5-£8 a head which is very expensive.

    If you use Capita Learning Gateway, it’s still expensive but a bit less so at £2,200 a year for a secondary school if you host it yourself (although Capita rips you off £5000 for project management). That works out at less than two pounds a pupil for an average secondary school and it is a much better product. Why pay a third party to let you access your SIMS data when it has to be a much better bet to do it directly with the owner of SIMS. What always happens when things go wrong between SIMS and another product that uses SIMS data is that each blames each other for the problems and you are left high and dry. Usually you can get a better deal anyway through your LA, and at least we know that Capita is still going to be around for years to come.

    At least one LA up here has solved the problem of paying out all over again by refusing to pay UniServity for the so-called new product and are getting it for free, or rather they are just getting what they have already paid for. Multiply £2 a student across the whole LA and see how much they are saving. Any LA that decides to pay must have money to burn so maybe they could share it with us.

    And of course if UniServity gets hacked do you really want all your data open to their systems? You might as well publish it on the web for anyone to see. I have mixed feelings about this exposure about UniServity being hacked, because it will just attract hackers from everywhere hoping to try their luck so it just makes UniServity even more insecure. I suppose the answer is to sort out the UniServity security issues.

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  50. I tried to post before as well without success, so here goes again. I feel so sorry for anyone that is relying on Studywiz because they must be worried to death. How can you be sure that this new company will manage to survive when the last one had all that money from the government and collapsed. Add to that the fact that Studyiz is based in Tasmania and what sorts of comeback can you possibly have? The idea of paying monthly is brilliant, as long as your school can manage it. That way you know you are not going to lose anything (other than all the time and effort of starting all over again). Parents will be most worried about the school throwing thousands of pounds away. I’d be looking to move if I was with Studywiz anyway. Perhaps that's the arrangement schools should have with all suppliers where there is any sort of risk the company might not be around tomorrow or next week.

    We are now planning ourselves to move as soon as possible – especially given the latest revelations about UniServity being hacked into which are very worrying after everything that has been in the media recently about the hidden and not so hidden dangers that students face online. Any school that is using UniServity has to be extremely worried reading all this. It is not acceptable if proper safeguards are not in place. We’ll be raising this with our LA and working out our next moves very soon.

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  51. I should have said that you don't HAVE to have online access to data for parents - if you read GrumbleDook on this blog http://www.edugeek.net/forums/virtual-learning-platforms/55001-deadlines-vle-s.html he sets out the picture excellently.

    He points out that parents need to have the information and support they need to be involved in their child’s learning and development. However, technology is only a tool.

    The point is that you can be working well towards the requirements without shelling out loads of money to Capita or UniServity or anyone else. Much better to get the right processes in place before you go technical, because technical is only one means not the only end.

    You can save yourself the worry that the data might get hacked into as well as saving cash.

    If your teachers are using the MIS and your processes as they should do and communicating with parents as they should then is there really a need for parents to access information all day every day? Maybe on attendance in a few cases, but that should be the exception rather than the rule if there are any doubts about internet security as there seem to be with Uniservity for example.

    Safety first.

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  52. Given that none of the Learning Platforms has come out and denied that they are vulnerable to hacking is it safe (unsafe) to say that they all must have something to hide?

    From what you hear and see on the telly if you work in the military you always expect things to go wrong. The strength of your planning is working out how to deal with problems. It’s probably inevitable that any online software is vulnerable, but what do you do when that vulnerability is exposed? Clearly if you are learning platform, it seems not a lot.

    It’s no surprise that UniServity has been hacked because it is built on such old technology. Studywiz probably wouldn’t notice given its problems. But if is the case that the likes of Capita, Fronter and Frog are vulnerable then BECTA should be stepping in and making some pretty strong statements.

    I say again – where is Becta in all this? Maybe the most worrying thing is that after next Thursday schools are going to be even more on their own. Roll on retirement.

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  53. You say "if it is the case that the likes of Capita, Fronter and Frog are vulnerable" but there isn't evidence as far as I can see that is the case.

    The only platform that has been revealed as unsafe because it has been hacked is uniservity.

    That's bad enough, but let's not tar everyone with the same brush without some evidence.

    But I do agree it is disappointing that BECTA has not said anything reassuring. Maybe they can't because there is nothing they can say, which is worrying in itself.

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  54. Perhaps that's right, but it is surprising that none of them have come out and denied they are vulnerable to hacking.

    If they are not, then what have they got to hide?

    You would think they would take every opportunity to reassure schools.

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  55. Now that’s very interesting. As a result of a series of discussions we’ve been having and the comments on this blog I got the short straw to phone Frog and ask the direct question about safety and security.

    I got straight through and the person I spoke to was pleasant enough but he soon seemed very uncomfortable that I had raised the issue. When I told him in some detail about the concerns we had because of what we had read his response was “so what’s the problem?” I asked directly if Frog is safe and secure. He then said he’d try and find someone to answer the question and went away. Then the line went dead and after a few minutes I realised he had just put the phone down.

    So what’s that about? I was very surprised at the reaction – it wasn’t what I expected at all. So maybe there is something concerning that people should know about. Curious and suspicious. And not a lot of use for us because it doesn’t actually clarify anything.

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  56. We have a list of approved learning platform suppliers in the north east, set up by the Northern Grid for Learning.

    Both Frog and Fronter are now available as approved suppliers. They have gone through checks as to the safety etc of the platforms and as to whether the companies are sound. Frog and Fronter are both on the list (as are Blackboard and Its Learning) so it suggests that the checks gave them a clean bill of health.

    However UniServity is not approved. I am told it was once going to be on the list but then following detailed checks the company/product was found not to be suitable.

    So maybe you can take this as your guidance if you are concerned about UniServity's safety and suitability – avoid them like we are! The Northern Grid guys seem to know what they are doing, so we are happy to go along with their judgement and guidance.

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  57. I should say to be fair that we concluded our investigations and have reached the point where we are satisfied about the safety and security of both Frog and Fronter.

    As D Thomas says, the only platform that has been revealed as unsafe because it has been hacked is uniservity, and now we learn that they are not approved by the Northern Grid. It looks like Uniservity is definitely the one to avoid.

    And I guess now we are never going to hear anything from BECTA on this, RIP.

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  58. Was PS responsible for this unsolicited email that was sent to school?

    From: P S [mailto:ps648653@gmail.com]
    Sent: 15 June 2010 18:02

    Subject: UniServity learning platform - are your pupils at risk?

    Dear John,
    If you are still using the UniServity clc learning platform, are you aware that your pupils could be at risk? Have you been warned that UniServity has been hacked and inappropriate activity has resulted? Safeguarding children is top of all our agendas. Can anyone afford to take this risk?

    All the information is in Ian Usher's blog "troubles for Studywiz"
    http://moodlea.blogspot.com/2010/02/troubles-for-studywiz-acid-test-for-lp.html
    It also says that UniServity's financial future seems far from secure.
    Are planning go to UniServity's very special conference on June 30th in Reading "Developing Parental Engagement". If so you might want to ask what is going on.
    We are all very worried about these revelations here and are reluctant to be fobbed off. Let me know what you think.
    Best wishes,
    Phil

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  59. I hear that UniServity has had to downsize into smaller offices, and has lost some more staff.

    The critical moment will come if the much trumpeted release for their new software gets delayed.

    If Life doesnt happen in September, then expect UniServity to die a death.

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  60. Nothing to do with me, if that is a question you are addressing to me that needs an answer.

    Strange question to ask on the blog. What school? Why don't you ask John? Or email this PS and ask her/him?

    As an afterthought though, there seems nothing wrong with the sentiments expressed. Are your pupils at risk?

    Good question. And the answer is . . . ?

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  61. went to our LA IT conference yesterday and saw Studywiz. Uniserivyt had a display too but there was no-one there to talk to - wanted to ask about safety. maybe the company has turned into vaporware too lol :)

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