The Belgian Department Of Education of the Dutch speaking Community have been collecting data electronically for several years. Through time these developments have been coordinated in a project called EDISON (Electronic Document Interchange between Schools and the "Onderwijsdepartement").
The shift towards EDI has started in September 1991, when all 1100 secondary schools were invited to send in the statistical data collected annually in a file format on diskette. To that purpose they had received floppies and diskettes of different types with a dbase entry program.
As this turned out to be a great success, it was made compulsary for the secondary schools in the following year and introduced on a voluntary base in the (over 3000) primary schools. The latter responded more reluctantly. Secondary schools tend to be larger and have enough administrative staff, while primary schools may be as small as two classes with no separate administration.
Census data, being collected twice annually, were sent in on diskettes for the first time in February 1993, when we started with secondary schools only. Data entry diskettes were distributed, together with an instruction set to convert school administration databases in the desired formats. The response was enthousiastic (98% response). Primary schools were not involved until two years later.
In the meantime the Department of Education went through a reorganisation and this resulted in the schools having a single point of reference for all their documents. The layout of the documents was also rationalised and redundant documents were eliminated.
We then started a close collaboration between our IT department and the different school automation bodies (small firms, organisations, head teachers working together, ) to prepare EDI for all documents being interchanged between the Education administration and the schools. We had workgroups on legal, organisational, technical aspects as well as several specific projects to build or adapt our schools and personnel databases.
Data had to be collected with a valid digital signature because the information is used to process the payment of teachers salaries and to calculate school subsidies. The legal workgroup thus prepared an interchange agreement and sought consensus on this matter with the trade unions and the school gouvernment associations. Thanks to this cautious procedure we gained much confidence.
Technically speaking, the digital signature is a RSA based software. Initially we used Cryptware by Utimaco and now we have a made-to-purpose, more PGP-like module.
At the time EDISON was launched, the Internet was not seriously considered as POPs were not available outside the telephone areas of Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent. We instead created an X.400 network with the Net-tel Route400 software. Schools get the EDISON software and the Route400 Remote User Agent free from us and we run a 5 persons helpdesk to help them through installation, modem configuration and digital signature procedures.
The physical network is composed of:
After a pilot schoolyear (1994-1995) with 22 schools we started production with 150 schools evenly distributed among secondary and primary levels. There are now 3800 schools engaged and we might well reached almost full deployment by the end of 2002.
Schools use our X.400 e-mail system for EDI exchange with the Department of Education. The schoolyear 2001-2002 brought our schools on the Internet for their e-mail needs. This way our schools were not burdened with redundant e-mail interfaces.
At the moment a 32bit Windows client has been made available (since May 2000). Our software has been re-written in C++, using UML. This new client, christened "Fluxus" (after the Indian tribe in a well-known urban Edison legend), opens multiple communications channels, primarily through an Internet connection. We believe this to be a milestone on our way towards a comprehensive web client.
If all goes well, 2004 will bring us a full webbased client in an e-government environment. The first phase of the client was completed at the end of june 2003. The evaluation was constructive, but showed that a lot of work still has to been done, especially in the security area. In the second round the building and testing of the real first webrelease will be accomplished in 2004. In 2005 all schools will then be invited to join working with this new state-of-the-art e-govenment webservice.