CLUE's investigation of Toronto District School Board (TDSB) Information Technology

The story in gave a good overview of a problem experienced by one of the teachers in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). News stories have tight deadlines, and there is much more that we have learned since the deadline for that story. As the policy coordinator for CLUE I have received multiple replies to questions from Jill Worthy, the superintendent for the district that includes Monarch Park Collegiate.

This afternoon I also had an hour-long phone call with Jacob Chan, General Manager of IT for the board, who also had Jay with him on a speaker phone.

First thing to note is that the board has been quite helpful in discussing the situation with us. While individual members of the community may not agree with all the decisions being made, we need to acknowledge that the board is being fairly open. I would have appreciated more documentation on CTMI and other board technology issues being on their website, but this is hopefully an oversight that can be fixed over time.

Some point-form notes on the technology policy of the board.

  • TDSB was created in 1998, amalgamating 7 boards (See: Facts and Figures about the TDSB)

  • The overall policy given to the IT people was amalgamation, which needed to include budget cuts.

  • The initiative to amalgamate the IT and roll this out to all of the schools was given the name of Classroom Technology Migration Initiative (CTMI). This happens to be based on Microsoft technologies, but it is a TDSB and not a Microsoft acronym.

  • The board provides a common computing environment to all schools. Some licensing fees are paid by the Ministry, and some locally (With Adobe, Autodesk given as an example). I need to confirm this, but if I understood this correctly this is an important policy issue: from the standpoint of an individual school board budget there may be no license fee difference for FLOSS and Ministry provided non-FLOSS.

  • Individual schools are able to create their own labs based on their own school priorities and staffing. The boards only technology responsibility is for the common environment. They do not impose choices on schools, but also do not offer support for alternatives to their common environment.

  • There is ongoing consultation (as recent as yesterday) with staff across the board: teachers, librarians, principals, etc..

  • They do 5-year planning cycles, with the most recent one being 2001 which means they are currently in more active consultation with staff.

  • Providing board support for diversity in the classroom is fundamentally at odds with the board policy of amalgamation and budget cutting. Each new option requires additional staffing for support and thus raises costs.

  • I did not at all get the impression that the IT services people are opposed to FLOSS. They leverage it where they can such as with firewalls, but must respond to the policy priorities given from the board. They don't appear to be members of the FLOSS community, or are as aware of FLOSS options as they are of proprietary software options, but that is an entirely separate question.

There was some additional information from a specific problem experienced at Monarch Park.

  • they are using CISCO network switches configured to automatically shut down a port (network drop in a classroom) based on some rules. One such set of rules relate to packet-storms or other flooding of a network connection. This could indicate a faulty configuration on a machine, or a student abusing the machine to try to cause problems with the school network. Rather than allowing a single desktop to cause a Denial of Service on the entire school, the network drop is automatically shut down.
  • this was observed on some of the ports that were used in the Linux lab. If other hardware was plugged in there wasn't a problem. They did not suggest that the problem was with Linux, but it was also outside of their specific mandate/budget/etc to fix the problem.

Parents with children at Monarch Park may wish to talk to Mr. Montgomery about some of the other issues within the school. I do not believe that CLUE should become too involved in the school politics within a specific school, as we have a mission that is Canada-wide in scope.

Some suggestions for moving forward with our community and the TDSB

I believe that the best place to introduce FLOSS alternatives into the classroom will still be with individual teachers. The IT department is not able to set policy or grow their budgets, and any changes to the services offered from them will have to come from teaching staff and from the policy part of the board.

The policy-setting part of the board are not going to be well versed in the ongoing changes that are happening in the computing marketplace. To most people, a computer and software is like a toaster: it just does a job, and all the options are thought to be basically the same. They do not separate hardware from software, with software being the set of rules that the hardware obeys. They are not going to be aware of peer production, peer distribution, or the various social-sciences (political, ethical, human rights, etc) implications of software. To them buying hardware and software is going to be no different than buying blackboards.

It is going to take the very friendly help of concerned citizens giving presentations to the board to introduce them to the ways in which purchasing software is not at all like purchasing a blackboard. I do not believe that accusing them of making mistakes in the past is going to be helpful, but gently introducing them to the wider issues. People may wish to write their MPP, given much of the policy push towards amalgamation and reduced educational budgets comes from the provinces.

We also have to be clear in what we say, and what we prioritize. Many people in the FLOSS community concentrate on the royalties that our competitors charge. For all but the most expensive software, royalty fees are not the largest costs associated with the end-use of software. There are also deals being struck between software vendors and provincial education ministries to reduce these fees, in some cases with the province paying the fees entirely such that these costs do not show up in a school board budget at all.

The lack of royalty fee to the educational institution are also not the greatest benefit of FLOSS in the classroom, and I believe there is a need to emphasize some of the curriculum and other non-monetary benefits to FLOSS to the school boards. The ability to study and improve upon existing software is critically important to computer science students. Where monetary issues should continue to be raised is with the home, where parents are being pushed to purchase the same software at home as being used in the classroom. Ideal is if students are supplied with CDs which they can install on their home computers, where the software is multi-platform (at least Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh and various flavours of Linux) and available at no additional cost.

Individual teachers need our support. An example is the problem that Mr. Ed Montgomery had with network drops failing in his classroom. An adequately recognized third-party consultant from our community, likely acting as a volunteer (at least not costing the TDSB any money), could have helped diagnose the problem. This could have included putting monitoring equipment between the desktop and the network drop to monitor any traffic over the link, so that there would be no speculation about what the source of the problem was.

There is also only so much time that teachers can spend, as much of their work would be outside of regular paid time. We need to be available to supplement the technical support, and assist in curriculum development and training of the teachers where appropriate. Teachers are not going to want to take the personal risk and initiative of offering their students alternatives in the classroom unless they know that there are people there they can call upon for extra support. Anything that the board is not willing to offer as it relates to FLOSS alternatives, we should figure out some way to offer.

A suggestion I made is the possibility of magnet schools. While a full set of alternatives may not be possible at all schools, it may be possible to designate certain schools to be a magnet for both the teaching staff and students who wish to explore specific options. While a single teacher in a school can only do so much to maintain an alternative lab, a group of teachers, with the support of a department head and principal, will have no problem keeping specialized labs running.

Related news

Part of the letter I received from Laura McAlister, Superintendent of Curriculum, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, included a mention of the Ontario Software Acquisition Program Advisory Committee. I sent messages to the contact address for the committee to learn more. While I don't yet know any details, they have given me an account on their internal communication system. I will learn more over the summer, but this might be a foot in the door to be able to offer additional support at the Ontario provincial level to software used within the school.

How is my driving?

CLUE is a member-driven organization, and as the policy coordinator I need feedback from members to set priorities. Please join the discuss mailing list and let us know your thoughts. If you are not yet a member, please join as we are a member financed and directed association.