School IT administrator gives "Schoology" D- grade; emails show company wasn’t prepared for distance learning rush

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Schoology, the popular online learning platform now being depended on by teachers and students across the state of Minnesota during the coronavirus pandemic, was unprepared to handle the initial rush of distance learning, according to internal emails obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES.

Hundreds of students reported slowdowns and error issues during the first days of distance learning in Minnesota.

Redwood Area Schools Technology Director Stephen Lien said those problems continued for staff and students through the end of last week.

"If I were to give them a grade, it would be a D- minus, barely passing," he said. "Basically all the functions that it’s supposed to have simply had been failing."

Internal emails obtained from several school districts show Schoology did not initially have enough server space or engineers to handle the rush when students started learning from home on March 30.

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A Schoology representative said an "unprecedented number" of users—more than triple what they had seen just weeks earlier—was the biggest peak in the company’s 10-year history.

"As you can imagine, this can put a strain on certain areas within Schoology," the email states.

The company reassured schools that they were "continuously monitoring these factors" to keep similar issues from occurring. Servers were expanded, code was tweaked and engineers were brought in to assist with the fix, according to an email chain between school district technology directors across the state.

Lien, who was on that email chain, said he believes Schoology should have been better prepared for the increase of users.

"This wasn’t some bank run on toilet paper on your local Walmart," Lien said. "There was time, but they’ve just failed to stand and deliver when we’ve needed them to and they’ve come up short."

Redwood Area Schools, like many other districts across Minnesota, pay to use the service. A review of public records show these contracts can run up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When asked which Minnesota school districts have contracts with Schoology, the company refused to provide that information.

In a statement, a company spokesperson confirmed the increase in demand and directed 5 INVESTIGATES to a blog post on the Schoology website that explained the company is "making changes and updates" to address the usage on its platform.

Lien, whose district has been a Schoology customer for five years, said he is concerned about the number of users that will continue to log on and use the service, as the coronavirus pandemic forces students out of their classrooms. Many school districts in Minnesota were on spring break last week, he said.

"Those who have not gotten on board yet, who we know will be coming on board, are going to add to the existing load," Lien said. "We just need a company that can provide us what services we’re seeking so that we can teach our kids in a time like this."