Victorian schools win on broadband, fail on IT in the classroom

A report from the Victorian Auditor-General on how the state is approaching IT for education has shown that while it might have a strong broadband backbone, it has failed to deliver a platform on which to help the digital classroom.
Written by Michael Lee, Contributor

The Victorian Auditor-General has given the state's Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) the thumbs down when it comes to its technology-based projects in the classroom, but the thumbs up when it comes to providing broadband.

A report issued by the auditor-general today claims that DEECD's own Digital Learning Statement doesn't have a clear plan for how IT should be invested in the department. Furthermore, the report states that the current statement fails to deliver on a directive in the 2008 Blueprint for Education and Early Childhood Development that requires the department to have a plan of action to use learning technologies as part of its teaching and learning.

The auditor-general claims that this oversight has also not been reported to the Minister for Education and that, to date, it still has no strategy on how to approach IT use in teaching and learning.

The lack of planning is evident in one of the two projects that the auditor-general's report focused on.

DEECD's Ultranet e-learning system was meant to be a statewide learning platform that students, teachers, and parents could access via the internet. Described in DEECD's Digital Learning Statement as the key foundation for IT use in the classroom, the auditor-general's own opinion of it was that it was "poorly planned and implemented," and that none of the three business cases developed were well thought out or provided a conclusive argument for approval.

Despite unconvincing business cases, the project went ahead, but not without raising red flags from the Department of Treasury and Finance (DTF) and the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC).

"The project continued despite advice from central agencies that it should cease or be delayed. Further, there is no trail of documentary evidence to explain whether, or how, DEECD addressed the many critical issues raised by DPC and DTF."

"It is difficult to understand why the Ultranet procurement was able to proceed to contract execution given the significant concerns raised by DPC and DTF, as well as the many adverse ratings that DEECD had received from various Gateway reviews since the project first commenced," the report said.

In terms of cost, Ultranet was meant to cost AU$60.5 million when it was announced in November 2006. The report's conservative estimates now put actual costs (by June 2013) at AU$180 million.

Its user-base is also low. It attracted only 10 percent of students and 27 percent of teachers, and these numbers are currently in decline.

Functionally, Ultranet has had its original scope scaled back from its original specification. Of six government commitments made in 2007 that the platform was meant to achieve, one was delivered three years late, and another is simply not relevant due to poor uptake of the system. The remaining four have either not been delivered or have been de-scoped.

The other project looked at in detail by the auditor-general is the VicSmart broadband network, originally planned to provide a minimum of 2 megabits per second to all state government schools.

Unlike Ultranet, the auditor-general praised VicSmart, stating that it was "well planned and underpinned by a business case that provided a robust needs and options analysis".

The report said that the DEECD had delivered VicSmart on time and on budget.

"The project has delivered a high-speed broadband fibre-optic network providing internet access, email, and a range of digital applications. Schools report very few problems with VicSmart, and its quality, functionality, and performance parameters are meeting expectations," stated the report.

During the rollout of the network, which began in 2005, internet connectivity speeds increased about 60 times from 64 kilobits per second to 4Mbps. Today, DEECD has upgraded the network up to 100Mbps for some schools.

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