The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh
A large and rapidly improving secondary school works with Microsoft Partner SharePointEduTech Ltd to ensure that learning is effectively supported and extended by the appropriate use of technology. Here, this involves building a bespoke Hybrid solution – a Microsoft SharePoint-based portal that takes full advantage of the power and breadth of SharePoint 2013 locally hosted, together with the cost effectiveness and flexibility of the features within Cloud-based Office 365.
Droitwich Spa High School is a larger than average 11 to 18 secondary academy (1450 students) with sports college status. At the last Oftsed inspection it was found ‘outstanding’ in leadership and management, and ‘good’ in all other categories, a considerable improvement from the previous inspection. As part of the drive for further progress, Deputy Head Jonathan Brook, with responsibility for data, finance and resources, looked at the school’s existing virtual learning environment with a view to estimating its impact on learning and level of use.
‘We’ve had a VLE for some ten years,’ he says. ‘The right one, properly used, is like extending the school day, understanding that children can be at their most productive when they’re at home.’
However, the current VLE, he concluded, was not living up to that.
‘It was good at what it did, but the problem as I saw it was that it lived in a different world, with its own log-in, separately from everything else that was happening.’
To begin with he was thinking in terms of a solution that linked to the school’s SIMS management information system. This would at least put student data more easily within reach, something the existing VLE wouldn’t do. As he did the research, though, he realised, having seen SharePointEduTech’s work in other schools, that what was really needed was a branded Microsoft SharePoint based school ‘portal’, with staff, parents and students’ home pages, linked through to their routine work and activities — and with access to data from their SIMS.net MIS. Carefully constructed and used, it would become not just a useful resource, visited as necessary, but an everyday working environment – growing eventually to be a virtual version of the school itself.
SharePointEduTech on the scene
Having seen SharePointEduTech’s work on building branded and customised portals for other schools, Jonathan approached them with a view to realising the Droitwich Spa vision.
‘They were on the scene quite early,’ says Jonathan. ‘First contact in July 2013 and they picked up the pace in September. We mocked up some sketches and told them that this was the kind of thing we wanted. They were really good. It was a slick process, and their first attempt was ninety percent there.’
Consultation, inclusion and Training
Despite the pace of events, it was always important to keep everyone informed and on board as the project developed.
‘We had a working party of twenty from across the school with input on the design, content, and the taxonomy of the portal. SEN, for example, wanted to be sure that parents had all the information they needed about the support available for students’.
Staff training was an important aspect of the project both for teachers and support staff. Here Adrian’s experience as a teacher and a SharePoint expert was vital. He was able to pitch training and support at the right level for the technically minded and those whose focus was academic. He knew all the pitfalls we could expect and how to support teachers with new technology.
Right from the start, Jonathan was clear that parental access to the school portal would be crucial to what they wanted to achieve.
‘We knew that was a massive part of it. I was an area where we felt we could do a better job than we had been doing.’
The on premises portal
The first step was to develop the portal using SharePoint Server 2013 on- premises.
Neatly branded by SharePointEduTech with the school’s colours, logo and overall look, it offers access, for staff, students, parents and governors – appropriately, by log-in, because obviously not all have complete access – to timetables, email, class sites, subject sites, tutor group activities, up-to-date announcements, SIMS MIS data, out-of-school activities, the school’s twitter feed. Departments can populate their subject sites as they wish – with resources, past exam papers, The school uses a system of five houses — Aqua, Ignis, Lux, Terra and Ventus – and these are embodied in the structure of the portal and the portal has a league table of house points.
Some of the obvious early successes include an alert for unread emails –
‘It breaks a vicious cycle we were in where nobody sent emails because nobody was reading them.’
Also popular with students is a running check on their SIMS MIS reward points. Students and parents can also, because of the link to SIMS, see student reports, including past ones, revealing patterns of progress or otherwise.
Importantly, all of this – branding, structure, content, access permissions, was tailored by SharePointEduTech to the school’s needs and wishes. Their team were able to bring to the table considerable experience not only of knowing what’s technically possible and practical, but also of similar projects which they have undertaken in other schools.
The portal in this form became available in January 2014
‘We were concerned that it wouldn’t be ready in time,’ says Jonathan. ‘But when we thought about it we realised that it would never be perfect, and we should release it as work in progress, available to the parents and students as soon as possible.’
The staff had a whole day training event on the portal in January, followed by twilight sessions differentiated according to the rate at which people were becoming confident with it. Staff adoption was gradual at first, partly because the previous VLE was available to the end of 2014, and some ICT-minded staff continued to use it.
‘But through the summer term 2014 as timetables became lighter,’ says Jonathan, ‘there were more enquiries about how to use the Portal for various functions.’
Incorporating the cloud
With the on- premises SharePoint portal firmly established, the next step was to add the functionality of Office 365 in the cloud, creating a true hybrid solution for the school – A SharePoint EduTech vision that they sum up as ‘Head to the cloud; feet firmly on the ground.’
In this way, students were able to take advantage of Office 365 cloud-based mail and the vast storage possibilities of OneDrive, as well as all the Office365 web apps and tools such as Office Mix. Anytime-anywhere working, and parental engagement are considerably enhanced, and the licensing advantage of Office 365 pro-plus for Students makes this a highly cost-effective way of providing a forward-thinking school with a 21st Century learning environment.
Recently, Jonathan Brook ran a survey on student use of the Portal (using the built-in survey feature) Here’s how he reports the results:
“Over 90% of the students are using the Portal at least once a week. A quarter are using it every day.
Over half of our children are regularly monitoring their own attendance on the Portal
Two thirds of our children are regularly reviewing their positive and negative behaviour points on the Portal.
Nearly two thirds of our children are regularly using the Portal as an online homework diary.”
Jonathan also adds some student comments:
“The Graphics and Product Design sites are very useful for quickly accessing resources that aid me with my projects, as there are plenty available that are incredibly useful to my learning.”
“I like to see what we may be covering in future lessons so I if might be unsure about the topic I can learn a bit about it first.”
“I find all of the sites on the Portal useful because you can have the information that you need on here e.g. the house that you’re in. It tells us how many house points our house has got and what place we are in. It also tells us what house competitions coming up or are going to happen it is all very useful.”
“We have the sheets that were used in lesson so if I am off school I am able to access the work that was done so that I don’t fall behind.”
“I find the subject sites useful because you can use past papers, materials and videos to help you revise.”
Improved parental engagement was one of the key drivers of the whole project, and there’s been a gratifyingly positive reaction. Comments include:
“Checking the homework is fantastic. I can make sure my son is doing his homework on time.”
“Being able to see the positive and negative behaviour points is really useful. I can have conversations with my son at home before problems escalate in school.”
“I find being able to see the homework that has been set really useful. I can make sure my daughter is staying organised and it’s nice to know what she is doing at school.”
Head teacher Natalie Waters says,
“The development of the portal has been one of the most significant developments in the school this year. It has enabled us to gather the most important information about all aspects of the school in one place, keep that information up to date and, most importantly, allow parents to be genuine partners in their children’s education.“