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K12, Inc Fired After 270k Miami Students Suffer Disastrous First Two Weeks of Fall Term

I have to admit up front, after the vast majority of the US’s 76 million K-12 students and 20 million postsecondary students had to move online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is remarkable how few disasters we have seen with emergency remote teaching migrations. While there are plenty of complaints about course quality, tuition breaks, and other aspects of remote teaching, for the most part school has been available and EdTech platforms have handled the surge in demand. Of course, when we have real problems, they can be particularly frustrating for students, parents, and teachers.

Over the past two weeks we have seen what I believe is one of the two biggest EdTech failures leading to large-scale outages at schools this year (the other being the Fairfax County Public School system in April). The nation’s fourth-largest K-12 district, Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida with more than 270,000 students, has seen a series of technical problems disrupting students from taking class. Yesterday the school board had enough and canceled the $15.3 million no-bid contract that the district had signed with K12, Inc to provide a suite of learning platforms, effective immediately, leading teachers to scramble and migrate back to Zoom and Microsoft Teams usage.

Initial Move to Zoom and Teams

When COVID-19 hit in March of this year, Miami-Dade worked with teachers to use a combination of Zoom and Microsoft Teams to provide a learning platform for teachers. 1 According to Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, in June the district assumed they would be able to move back to face-to-face delivery for the fall.

By mid-July it was apparent that remote instruction would remain in place through 2020, and Miami-Dade announced My School Online, its “distance learning option for those students in grades K-12 who wish to continue their education full-time through innovative learning environments but still maintain their connection to their enrolled schools”.

Enter My School Online and K12

The plan for Fall 2020 through My School Online was to have K12, Inc provide the overall platform. This was a relatively new move for the company that has long been a virtual charter school operator, with much of the strategy being developed in response to the pandemic. In other words, this was a new use case and platform setup.

K12 does not build all of the software, instead leveraging D2L Brightspace as the LMS, and Newrow, a company acquired by Kaltura in January, as the video conferencing platform for live teaching sessions. K12 builds the overall platform that integrates these different tools into one solution.

When school started Monday of last week (August 31st), teachers and students faced immediate problems being able to access the MSO platform, particularly the video conferencing.

Adding Cyberattack to Software Problems

K12 admitted a number of problems that week, but the platform was not the only issue as described last Wednesday in The Panther, a student newspaper. 2

The first week of school for students, teachers and parents alike in Miami-Dade County Public Schools has not gone as planned. After connectivity problems plagued students on the K12 platform during the first day of school, the district reported that they had identified and resolved the connectivity problems; initially, the district blamed a software glitch. However, after a second consecutive day of issues, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho held a press conference where he announced MDCPS had been the victim of a cyber attack. While the district has claimed that no students’ personal data was accessed, multiple students have come forth disputing that claim, noting that the passwords they had on their computer were compromised. [snip]

There was speculation about the possible failures of MDCPS’s online learning launch in the weeks before school started. Concerns arose that the “My School Online” platform was not very user-friendly for teachers, and many questioned if hundreds of thousands of students could access the platform at once. The district hoped that these concerns would quickly subside and maintained that the program that cost them $15 million in a contract with K12 would pay off.

However, it appears that their gamble backfired, as the district’s social media pages have been flooded with complaints, with some even calling for the district to scrap the program and either revert to conducting classes on Zoom or return to in-person learning. Schools in Miami-Dade are currently slated to return on Oct. 5 pending any coronavirus spikes, but Carvalho has floated the idea of returning in the second or third week of September in recent press conferences. These struggles have led to MDCPS indefinitely discontinuing the K12 program for students in middle and high school; the students in these grades will now use platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom instead.

The New York Times reported on the surprise finding on the attack last Thursday.

The computer network for the district, the fourth largest in the United States, seemed to be overwhelmed with traffic, and students were confronted with error messages and other technical difficulties that lasted for days.

On Thursday, school administrators said that the problems had stemmed from cyberattacks — and that a 16-year-old student at South Miami Senior High School had been arrested.

Board Decision

While officials figured out the cyberattack last week, problems persisted with My School Online this week, leading to an extended discussion at the school board meeting Wednesday night as described by the Miami Herald yesterday.

It took 13 hours and 400 public speakers for the Miami-Dade County School Board to decide it had heard enough.

The marathon meeting started at 1 p.m. Wednesday and culminated in the board’s vote at 2 a.m. Thursday to stop using My School Online, the controversial online learning platform run by a company called K12 that many say is largely to blame for the school district’s extraordinarily disastrous start of the school year.

The amended proposal brought forward by vice chair Steve Gallon allowed the school district to use the platform through Friday — and then immediately sever ties.

While some see the immediate end of K12’s platform as a blessing, teachers and families in younger grades woke up hours later Thursday morning to discover lesson plans already lost and the link to the K12 platform redirected to another website.

The $15.3 million agreement for K12 to power My School Online was awarded as a no-bid contract based on an exemption from procurement processes for curricular materials. Besides avoiding the paperwork and evaluation processes, Miami-Dade also made the decision in the district office, apparently with no input from educators working at the schools.

It turns out that the contract was never finalized and executed, so there was no cancellation, and K12 is not disputing this decision. According to a K12 statement after the board meeting:

Six weeks before school began, K12 began a customization of our platform to build something specific to Superintendent Carvalho’s vision for Miami-Dade. The first few days and weeks of school were deeply disappointing for all of us. We offered to make a multi-million dollar investment in this innovative model to deliver on the vision that Superintendent Carvalho and K12 CEO Nate Davis shared with K12 assuming the financial risk, and with no expectation of immediate financial gain or payment. Only after satisfactory proof of both the concept and implementation of the updated K-5 learning system, would we be willing to discuss with the district terms of possible remuneration or payment. The school board chose not to go that direction and we respect that decision.

EdTech and Management Problems

There is still much that we do not know about this Miami-Dade situation, including how well the transition back to Microsoft Teams and Zoom will go and what exactly caused the problems in the first place. According to a report on NBC6 South Florida, however:

“For the most part, though, the K12 system itself seems to be working, the biggest problem we’re having is with the Newrow portion of the K12 system,” [fifth grade teacher Justin] Romanelli said.

Newrow is My School Online’s video conferencing tool. Many speakers at Wednesday’s meeting bashed Newrow as being unreliable.

For now I will add that there appears to be an extraordinary amount of poor decision-making by the district office involved. I see the need for improved platform support beyond what was provided in the spring, but rushing through a massive centralization on a new platform concept on the scope of 270,000 students is strategically naive and risky. K12’s president admitted his company’s faults yesterday on CNBC when asked about impact on investors:

It was a complex solution with a very short timeframe which really became a herculean task to solve. And so we weren’t able to meet that complexity in the time that we had, but I will say that that particular installation won’t have an impact on our financial position. I think it was a special project that was more about creating something new and innovative, not about the bottom line.

During the board meeting, there were also questions why the K12 project was run by “two subordinate staffers.”

Let’s hope that this is the worst EdTech platform story that we’ll hear this fall.

1 Technically, they integrated Zoom into Microsoft Teams to allow for video conferencing along with the other Teams communications capabilities.

2 By the way, excellent reporting by students in this post.