Saskatchewan Schools: The Hamsters Turning the Wheels Are Tired.

Updated: just heard from a bunch of you that this is a provincial issue, not local to Saskatoon. Edited the title and added those thoughts below.

April 26, 2016: updated again at bottom of post.

Apparently it’s 1995 in Saskatoon Saskatchewan schools. When it comes to technology, anyway.

I just got an email from my son’s public elementary school parent committee, asking me to forward this message to my MLA and to Premier Brad Wall, apparently at the request of the board of directors of the Saskatoon Public School Division.

The email said that this is not just a problem at our school, but affects most of the elementary schools in Saskatoon*, and has been a problem for over two years.

(*And since I originally posted this, I’ve heard from a number of you this is an issue with schools across the province.)

I figured posting it here was probably more effective (emphasis mine):

“As a parent at xxxxx School in Saskatoon, I have become aware of ongoing phone and network issues at our school. These problems stem from a lack of bandwidth and outdated network equipment.

As a result of these issues, communication by phone with the school is often interrupted or completely incoherent. There are times when members of our school staff have to make calls on their cell phones, because landline service within the school is so inadequate.

This problem also affects the learning of our students and productivity of our administration staff. The lack of bandwidth does not allow for new devices at the school to be used to their full potential. Programs purchased for the school, such as Mathletics, cannot be used because of inadequate bandwidth, internet access during classes is prohibitive. Administration often cannot perform required daily tasks.

Technology is now at the forefront of learning and phone communication is essential for not only every day school administration but also for the safety of our students. As a concerned parent, I would like to know what the Government of Saskatchewan and the Ministry of Education have planned to correct these issues.”

Am I really having ask the provincial government to intervene in this matter – so my kid’s school has working telephones? Never mind basic use of the internet.

Here’s another piece of communication, sent to principals in a rural Saskatchewan School Division (again, emphasis mine):

As I am sure you are all aware, the internet is painfully slow, again, today. This has been the trend for the last several months, and unless there is a dramatic shift in use across the province, I do not see it improving.

The issue is the ‘big pipe’ in Regina that connects CommunityNet** to the rest of the world. There are approximately 175,000 K-12 students across the province, approximately 30,000 between the two universities, and an additional number in colleges and libraries across the province. I don’t think that 250,000 users would be an unfair estimate.

Collectively, we are sharing a 4Gb connection (4000Mb). That gives each potential user .016 Mb…or about a quarter of the speed of an old dial up modem connection.

As there is currently no guarantee of a minimum level of service for individual divisions, any efforts we make to use our bandwidth responsibly, including caching, filtering, and throttling, just means that someone else now has access to a bigger chunk of the pipe that we freed up for them.

We are attempting to work with Sasktel to address this issue at the provincial level, but as I am not confident that they will be responsive to the needs of Saskatchewan’s student population, we started investigating other options more than a year ago. Due to our rural location, we simply don’t have the same options that would be available to residents in urban centers.

These options are not quick, easy, or cheap, but we are determined to reach a solution that will enable success for all in xxxxx. I thank you for your patience, and for explaining the situation to your staff while we work through this.

**According to the Province of Saskatchewan, CommunityNet is “a private network that is separated from the internet, yet provides access to the internet”.

Basically, it’s about privacy and security. The Government of Saskatchewan uses three separate CommunityNet VPNs: one for Education, one for Health, and one for Executive Council. I’m sure there’s a much fancier explanation, but you get the gist.

I’m amazed they wouldn’t have this issue in Health.

**************

April 26, 2016

So, in 2013 the Sask Party apparently recognized the CommunityNet bandwidth issue:

Screenshot (607)

Six months later they announced they were finished upgrading CommunityNet for schools:

“”We are extremely pleased to announce the completion of significant upgrades to CommunityNet that will provide students and teachers across the province with access to the digital tools they need to succeed,” said Education Minister Don Morgan.  “This is the most significant increase in bandwidth access for students since the program’s inception in 2001 and the upgrade provides more than double the speeds at most schools and in some cases up to ten times the speed.””

The May 2014 release also says:

“The Ministry of Education will also be providing an additional increase of $2 million annually for operating costs, to ensure faster, and more equitable, internet access for teachers, students, and administrators across the province.”

Then, just two months ago, February 2016, there was another government announcement. It consisted of two parts, one being the reallocation of funds to deliver new portable classrooms, and the other:

“Morgan also announced a $3.4 million grant for CommunityNet, which will provide for continued bandwidth upgrades in provincial schools where needed across the province… SaskTel will assume administrative responsibility for the network and begin making necessary investments to provide the new bandwidth in the coming weeks.”

In hindsight, Saskatoon Public School Board Chair Ray Morrison’s quote in this release is interesting:

“With the increasing usage of technology in the classroom, the investment in network infrastructure is a step in the right direction to addressing the bandwidth issues our schools.”

A “step in the right direction” – not exactly a ringing endorsement.

As for SaskTel assuming “administrative responsibility” for the network; who had it before? The May 2014 release I quoted earlier was a SaskTel release, so…?

This is interesting because in 2004, the provincial auditor raked the NDP government over the coals for not defining ownership of this rather important piece of government infrastructure (emphasis mine):

“Based on our study, we found that the Government does not have adequate processes to oversee the security of government information carried on CommunityNet.
We recommend that the Government: clarify which agency is responsible to oversee the security of CommunityNet; approve and implement security and data classification policies…; make the agency responsible for overseeing the security of CommunityNet also responsible for monitoring security and ensuring corrective action is taken.”

I found some answers, I think, in this fabulous Dec 2015 article in the Weyburn Review:

“One of the issues is there are different responses to responsibility from CNet (CommunityNet), the Ministry of Education and SaskTel (who is a provider of CNet in the province).”

“…not a typical vendor relationship that exists with SaskTel…”

Apparently some school divisions have opted out of CommunityNet altogether.

“… it is easier for school divisions within Regina or Saskatoon, where they have access to providers like Rogers, Shaw or other services.”

One Estevan school trustee apparently noted:

“…the provincial auditor should really challenge the current partnership between the Ministry of Education, CNet and SaskTel.”

Like it did over a decade previously?

“Greg Jacobs, the external communications manager for SaskTel, noted that under the current agreement, they take direction from the Ministry of Education. “Schools have to make a request to the ministry to increase their speed. If the ministry sees it as necessary, than we get direction to apply the upgrade to the school.””

Sounds like this is a classic case of Whose Job Is It to provide our schools with what they need – SaskTel’s or the Ministry of Education’s. Perhaps Don Morgan answered this when he said in February 2016 that CNet administration being passed to SaskTel. That’s not going to work, though, because just like we’re seeing with P3s, the Minister of Education cannot pass the buck on education – it stops with him.

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3 comments

  1. Are they using VOIP phones? Did they not keep the old land lines?

    Every year I hear complaints about problems using the Internet on school computer or via school WiFi. Most kids seem to rely on their smartphones now.

    Like

  2. Pretty wild considering Sask Tel just ran a fibre optic line into my home. Why are single family dwellings the infrastructure upgrade priority? Start with the schools first. Sort the bureaucratic confusion by taking responsibility. Basic expectation of government.

    Like

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