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TECHNOLOGY / SERVICES

NSW Govt Slammed Over Botched $158M Education Tender

By David Richards | Friday | 16/05/2008

EXCLUSIVE: A $158 million NSW public school's Connected Classrooms Program is today under scrutiny with suppliers to the project claiming that the whole tender program has been "botched". It has also been claimed that the NSW Treasury has instructed the NSW Education Department to "inflate the price of projectors, whiteboards and software to schools by up to 25%".

The suppliers claim that the appointment of online retailer Dell to be the lead contractor and installer has shocked many as Dell doesn't have the experience to handle such a large Pro AV project.  In Victoria La Trobe University dumped Dell as their preferred "projector" supplier after ongoing support and product quality problems. (See separate Dell story).

During the past week NSW Education Minister John Della Bosca is believed to have got over 600 letters from schools concerned about the roll out of the project which will see 55,000 NSW classrooms fitted out with new broadband based teaching technology.

ChannelNews has also been told that the NSW Opposition are currently undertaken a major review of the tender process and that they have contacted several disgruntled companies involved in the tender.

Claims have also been made that schools are being "ripped off" by the NSW Education department and that the health of thousands of NSW pupils and teachers are potentially at risk from "tunnel vision" caused by the standard throw Dell projectors which the NSW education department is recommending schools to buy.

The project which is designed to deliver broadband based education to NSW schools via flat panel TVs and projectors coupled with video conference facilities and electronic whiteboards will allow pupils to interact with teachers thousands of kilometres away while also receiving live TV education feeds into classrooms. It will also facilitate "intelligent" whiteboard teaching.

Documents seen by ChannelNews raise some serious questions about the whole tender process as well as the scope and performance of projectors chosen for use in up to 55,000 NSW classrooms.

The tender for interactive software, as well as thousands of interactive whiteboards, data projectors and LCD Monitors was scheduled to close at 3pm 25 Jan 2008.

However at 4.20pm on 31 Jan 2008, an email was sent by Tim Anderson (Director, InformationServices) for the NSW government informing suppliers that the closing date was being extended to 5pm on the 5 Feb 2008, because of alleged complaints by Commander, a communication company that had had past dealings with the NSW Education department and were the official distributors of Promethean education software which is now going to be used in 55,000 NSW classrooms.

The delay in the process allowed two new distributors to be appointed who eventually won a major part of the NSW tender.

It has also emerged that of the products recommended very few were called in for review or testing by the Education Department.

NEC executives who were contacted by DET to supply a sample projector, have told ChannelNews that after being signed for by DET officials the $3,000 projector mysteriously disappeared and is now being classified as lost.

A key part of the tender and deployment process was based on DET being responsible for the management of the tender so that vendors could interact with one NSW Government department and schools obtain a volume deal on the chosen equipment for the project.
 
ChannelNews investigations reveal that  DET not only obtained a "best of buy" deal via the tender process but they are now making money from the deal by quoting schools prices that are up to 25% dearer than what they obtained from vendors.

In one email seen by ChannelNews DET has told schools that the purchase price of an Epson EMP400 is $1,955. However the price tendered for this particular projector was up to 20% under the quoted price.

A visit to the Smart Buy web site which is a recommended source for schools to buy hardware the price of the Epson EMP400 is $1,600.

According to various executives in the Pro AV channel DET could well pocket over $30 million by overcharging schools.

Senior executive Brian Garner of Sydney based Brighter Image Pty Ltd (ABI) a wholesale only distributor of audiovisual products to Government and a key partner of several vendors who submitted pricing and documentation for the tender said, "DET has marked up all bid prices when calculating the purchase price by schools. An email from Paul Hopkins, Chief Procurement Officer DET to NSW School principals dated 28 April 2008 reveals that the price quoted to schools was approx 15% higher than the price they submitted to DET."

He added, "This brings into question why DET is seeking to make substantial profit from discretionary school purchases when contracts are designed to maximise "value for money" for schools. The impact of this decision, when it becomes public, will undermine confidence in all contract purchasing throughout NSW".

Another senior executive of a Melbourne based company who tendered equipment said, "I recently met with Tim Anderson as part of a debrief. When I raised the issue of overcharging schools he said the schools will never find out. When I questioned him about the exclusion of certain projectors that were better specced and cheaper than the ones chosen he told me that he was limiting the number of heads to bang."
 
In a separate email sent to Tim Anderson by a Sydney based supplier it says, "I understand your comment regarding limiting the "number of heads to bang", but XXX has been appointed as one of those "heads", so why wasn't  XXX appointed for the Epson knowing we were approx 10% cheaper for the same product."

The email goes on to say, "I can't accept any justification for this decision particularly in view of XXXX record as a contract supplier over many years. The fact that ABI already has the Epson listed on Smart Buy at just under $1,600 demonstrates the potential problems with the decision and pricing given to schools. With this projector, the performance of Electroboard vs. XXXX will be similar, it will most likely be Epson if there is a "head to bang" over performance or availability!"

Another criticism of the DET tender process centres on the recommendation of a Dell projector and various whiteboards which several organisations have claimed will cause "tunnel vision for both teachers and children."

Investigations carried out by ChannelNews reveals that both teachers and thousands of school children could be at risk of damaging their eyesight by using the high-tech whiteboard and long throw projectors that DET is recommending to NSW schools.

Tests carried out in the UK by the National Radiological Protection Board have shown that the peripheral vision of users may be harmed even when they are not looking directly into the beam of a long throw projector which can cause tunnel vision. 
 
A story in the UK Times reveals that concerns about the possible risks first arose three years ago, when engineers at Selectasize Visual Aids Ltd, who at the time were installing some of the whiteboards into schools, found themselves being dazzled. "When we first took a look at them in 2002, our engineers became concerned about the projectors' bright lights causing stars in their eyes," said Sam Livermore, the Managing Director. The boards work by using a projector to screen an image on to an interactive white board in the classroom, which allows the teacher to open files and call up material during lessons. The computer is connected to the screen with a wireless connection. By touching the screen the teacher can use the board as they would a mouse on a desktop.

Mr Livermore contacted experts, including Dr Chris Hull, senior lecturer in clinical and visual optics at City University, London, and the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, which procures all technology for state schools.

The Health and Safety Executive investigated his concerns. In a letter dated May 3, 2002, Steve Walker, Principal Specialist Inspector (Radiation), wrote that after investigation by the NRPB, there appeared little damage to eyesight from looking directly into the beam, as most children and adults would look away. However, he added: "There remains a possibility that a viewer's peripheral retina could be overexposed even when he or she is not actually staring at the projector's apparent source."

The letter continued that in this case the person would not look away because "no protective aversion response is evoked in viewers".

Using the limits recommended by the International Committee of Non-Iodising Radio Protection, the NRPB discovered that if a person looked into a bright beam from a few metres away for around 20 seconds, they could damage the retina. But like looking into the sun, most people would turn away before then.

One of the projectors chosen by DET and recommended to schools to purchase is a standard throw projector from Dell (1409S).  However this model is not listed on any Dell website.
 
In briefings to companies tendering to supply the Education department, DET apparently went out of their way to communicate that they required short throw projectors and in the final selection they have recommended short throw projectors from Sanyo and Epson.

However it is the recommendation of standard throw projectors that is causing concern with some technology vendors.

Well aware of the issues in the UK DET believed that the short throw projectors would eliminate potential "tunnel vision" problems as they could be placed very close to a whiteboard.

The tender put out by DET claims that the mandatory projector specs tendered must support keystone correction. However the specs for the Dell model chosen reveal that the unit does not have keystone capability.

The tender also required that projectors put forward had to produce an undistorted image covering the entire board however the Dell projector fails to meet this specification according to industry experts.

In an email to Principals, Paul Hopkins of DET makes reference to the standard throw projectors he said that they "mitigates any potential occupational health & safety concerns".

Investigations by ChannelNews show that the Dell 1409S unit has one of longest throws of almost all standard projectors and that it is more likely to cause tunnel vision and have a higher OH&S risk.

Brian Garner of API told ChannelNews, "It was the clear understandings of most vendors that DET would only accept a short throw projector option because of DET's acknowledgement of the British Governments report that teachers could develop "tunnel vision" from prolonged teaching looking into projector lights".

Several vendors contacted by ChannelNews have said that a key condition of the tender was the supply of short throw projectors. However two days prior to the closing of the tender DET advised suppliers they would consider a standard throw projector which has now been scoped into DET's recommendations.

If you have a contribution to these stories please send an email to [email protected]

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