13 Investigates HISD technology vendor's 'unacceptable' performance

BySarah Rafique KTRK logo
Tuesday, November 17, 2020
A look at HISD tech vendor's 'unacceptable' performance
Texas' largest school district is currently facing 254 active COVID-19 cases, with about half of the infections by students.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Rita Martinez stands in front of a wall with brightly colored bulletin boards featuring her son's names and photos of their teachers. There's even an American flag hanging in the corner, a hallmark of most classrooms. But, this isn't a classroom.

Martinez sold her furniture when schools went to online learning in March and her living room, where her family used to gather for weekly movie nights, was transformed into a classroom.

Even though her three sons are attending school virtually, she said turning in homework assignments is hard, especially when the technology the Houston Independent School District invested in and depends on isn't reliable.

Instead of submitting her youngest son's assignments online, Martinez said she prints it out, takes a photo of it, and then emails it to his teachers. She does this process instead of submitting it on the HUB - HISD's online learning platform - as designed.

"The HUB is still crashing up to now," Martinez told 13 Investigates', Ted Oberg. "It crashed last week on us still, and I would think, since (some) kids went back to (in person), there wouldn't be a lot of people on the HUB, but my middle schooler, my high schooler, rely on the HUB all day."

The HUB is managed by ItsLearning, a Norwegian-based company which has been contracting with the district since 2014 for online learning services.

13 Investigates reviewed dozens of internal emails between HISD and the vendor, outlining frustrations between both entities as students had a hard time logging onto classes during the first week of school.

We also reviewed more than 1,375 IT help tickets from Aug. 1 through Sept. 16. Most of the issues were with ItsLearning and dozens of them were still unresolved earlier this month.

Despite internal emails where HISD cited how ItsLearning's poor performance is impacting students, the company was paid $1.1 million in October, according to online records on the district's website. HISD said the company is paid that amount annually.

HISD told 13 Investigates it meets with ItsLearning weekly "to review and discuss performance enhancements, additional functionality and support."

Still, the district admits it "has not conducted a full evaluation of the vendor's performance."

When the HUB crashed again on the second day, HISD's Chief Technology Information Officer Scott Gilhousen told the program vendor, ItsLearning, he was unhappy with the performance.

"Know that the team is working on this but to be honest this is completely unacceptable. Our kids are loosing (sic) the much-needed instruction and parents and teachers are completely frustrated," Gilhousen told ItsLearning, according to internal communications. "What additional resources is ItsLearning bringing in to support the district?"

Read HISD's emails to ItsLearning - on a mobile device? Click here to open.

"We are sorry for this," ItsLearning's CEO replied in an email that same day. "Today we have worked hard and (sic) been focused to be sure that Houston didn't have (sic) any problem."

Then, on the third day, ItsLearning said the issues the first two days were "out of the ordinary."

"We believe we have mitigated the potential risks and are confident that going forward we can provide you a more reliable service than we have seen in the first few days of this semester. We are committed to proactively supporting HISD and being open and transparent about any problems we experience," ItsLearning said in a letter to HISD on Sept. 10.

Read ItsLearning's full response to HISD.

More than nine weeks into the school year, Martinez said she's still having a hard time relying on the technology to work.

The camera on her children's laptops isn't sharp enough to take photos of their homework assignment, adding to the difficulty when it comes to submitting them online. She also said the HUB still randomly crashes when they're in the middle of completing or submitting work.

"All his schoolwork that's supposed to be submitted on the HUB, it's an epic fail," Martinez said. "I literally have to print, take a picture and tell the teacher, 'Hey, I can't upload it on the HUB.'"

RELATED: Back to school at Houston ISD falls short of an 'A'

13 Investigates asked ItsLearning for an interview regarding its performance. The company referred us to HISD. Despite repeated requests for an interview, the district only sent an emailed statement.

"The district has concerns anytime services are interrupted that impact students, parents, teachers or staff," HISD said in an email.

Technology tickets

During the first five days of school, 400 service tickets were submitted by teachers or on behalf of students.

Issues ranged from students who couldn't log in or access online textbook material, to slow speeds and teachers who weren't able to load courses online for their students to join.

Only 9% of the 1,376 service tickets submitted in August and the first half of September were resolved on the same day. About 85% of the issues were with ItsLearning.

"The tickets were submitted over a six-week time frame," HISD said in a statement to 13 Investigates. "The system supports over 200,000 students and teachers on a daily basis and although the number of tickets may seem high, it is not when compared to the proportional number of users."

See a log of technology issues at HISD from August through mid-September - on a mobile device? Click here to open.

For the students impacted, though, Martinez said the district's explanation doesn't fix their daily frustrations with online learning.

"Is it my fault that they spent so much money? Absolutely not. Is it my kid's fault? Absolutely not," Martinez said, later adding that she "wouldn't have to be emailing teachers constantly if the HUB was working."

12,000 missing students

On the first day of school, HISD said 140,102 students - or about 66% of the student population - logged onto classes, but internal emails between the district and ItsLearning dramatically undercut that total by nearly 60,000 students.

An email from ItsLearning to HISD said there were only 84,075 "unique Houston logins" from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the first day of school.

HISD said at the time that students and teachers were finding work-arounds and other platforms to use.

The next day, ItsLearning reported 138,190 unique users, but that was still thousands less than the attendance numbers HISD reported.

"I can only apologize for the stress and disappointed (sic) that our services outages have caused this week and to give our promise that we are 100% focused on supporting your students at this difficult time," ItsLearning said in a letter to HISD the first week of school.

HISD still isn't at the same enrollment as it was pre-pandemic. A school board trustee said last week that the district is down about 12,000 students.

Martinez, who didn't graduate high school, says it's even more important now that her children don't fall behind due to the district's technology shortcomings.

"Our biggest goal is to have our kids graduate high school and go to college," Martinez said. "We had to give our kids the spaces they needed and the resources they needed and this is the adjustment we had to do. This is my kid's future. This is their education and this is my life."

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