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?