Working with Microsoft and a leading Microsoft Partner, a large regional Further Education College deploys Microsoft technologies to bring about significant improvements in its services to staff and students that amount to a “College in the Cloud”
We’re increasingly reporting stories of enterprising Microsoft Partners working with Microsoft to provide creative, competitive, effective and replicable solutions for customers – which, in education, means learners and staff. As Microsoft UK Strategic Partner Lead Mark Stewart explained at a recent conference, “We’re a technology provider and we couldn’t do anything without partners, who make what we do relevant”.
A great example of this – remarkable for a number of reasons – is just coming to fruition at Blackpool and The Fylde College, in a project involving the College, Microsoft and Microsoft Partner ‘Collabco’.
What’s happened – and is happening – at Blackpool and The Fylde can best be described by the London 2012 slogan ‘Bringing it all together’. This is a College where, as in all HE and FE institutions, students habitually use a range of technologies, logging in and out of them as required. But as Deputy Head of IT Services Simon Bailey explains, fragmentation of experience between a range of IT products produces obstacles that today’s students, arriving with high expectations of their IT experience, aren’t always willing to tackle.
“More and more they’re looking for a single click straight into what they want,’ he says. ‘For at least five years, I’ve wanted to provide an easy entry into a collection of IT services that would enhance the learner experience…”
Now, with Collabco’s ‘Hub Metro’, branded ‘My Hub’ within the College, that ‘single click’ offering is coming to life.
Collabco’s product is a ‘Hub’ in two related senses. Firstly, it’s a ‘gathering together’ hub that provides access to the various education technologies that students and staff want to use day-to-day, making all necessary and useful data and information easy to reach anytime, anywhere. Secondly, it acts as an active management hub from which users can organise their time, keep on top of coursework, communicate and collaborate with others. All this is handled from a single sign-on ‘My Hub’ landing page which is a gateway to everything the user needs, including the College’s Moodle VLE, email, documents, assignments, calendar, and library services. This aligns with our aspiration to offer a Complete ‘College in the Cloud’, delivering the improved user experience and reduced costs associated with a cloud approach.
Two key Microsoft technologies in particular make this one-stop offering possible. One is SharePoint 2010, which is at the heart of Hub Metro. As Collabco’s Sales Manager Max Holden puts it, “We effectively take the SharePoint product and make it more visually appealing than SharePoint out of the box – customising it for a specific purpose.” (Exactly in line, of course, with Mark Stewart’s earlier remark.)
The other significant element is Office365, which brings to the mix a comprehensive cloud offering with email and Office web apps.
The whole Hub Metro package, retaining the established Moodle VLE, and adding globally recognised Microsoft tools for collaboration and communication through Office365, was irresistible to Simon Bailey when he was first introduced to it by Microsoft UK FE Business Manager Mike Morris and key people from Collabco. “It was a consolidated approach that I couldn’t ignore.” he says,
The significance of that ‘couldn’t ignore’ statement lies in the fact that on the day that Mike Morris introduced Simon to the Collabco/Microsoft package, 7th June 2012, the College was on the verge of signing off on nearly a year’s preparation for the rollout in early August of a Google cloud package with document sharing and student email (staff were to stay with on-site Microsoft Exchange). Starting over with a different product and hitting the same end date was a daunting task but as Simon says, once they’d seen the Microsoft alternative, the comparison was too striking to put aside. What Collabco and Microsoft offered was a fully integrated environment all available from within ‘My Hub’. With Office365, students would have a cloud email system, and would be using the Office technologies they’d meet in their working lives. Simon describes his train of thought on that day in June like this,
“We use Moodle as a VLE. It’s incredibly successful as a learning environment, but the student experience would be so much better if they had email, calendar appointments and assignments in the same place at the same time on a single page. That, in essence is the sell that was presented to us with Office 365 embedded. The deadline was tight, but I couldn’t walk away from that.”
The actual rollout of ‘My Hub’ at Blackpool and The Fylde College is in two phases. To begin with, there is the embedding of Office365 with email and Office Web Apps, and the strong internal communication features of ‘My Hub’. Moodle will also be firmly present in the mix, with a Moodle summary on the ‘My Hub’ landing page.
The second phase, later in the Autumn, will include more features. Some are still under discussion, which underlines just how well the product can be customised and extended beyond its initial remit. There’s likely to be, for example, actual course timetables available to students. As Simon explains – “They’ll be able to log on with a mobile device or a PC to see what classes they have that day, and we can let them know of any last minute room changes.”
Another feature that’s likely to be there in Phase Two is one that will pick up the necessary data from Moodle enabling individual students to go to their personal ‘My Hub’ site and quickly check their progress against course overall targets.
“I know how popular that will be,” says Simon. “Students like stuff in a browser and on a single button – a ‘skim’ summary.”
That phrase – ‘in a browser and on a single button’ is essentially what Hub Metro is all about, and what pleases Simon Bailey is that it chimes so well with his own idea of what kind of IT environment a college should be providing for its students. It’s possible, he says, that given time his team could have created their own integrated offering, but, he goes on,
“This one was there already, Collabco has a good vision that matches ours, and there’s no point in reinventing the wheel.”
At the start, I suggested that this project displays some remarkable features. More than anything, I suppose, I had in mind the way that it was developed in two months from the moment that Simon Bailey saw it for the very first time.
Many lessons were learned along the way in this extremely tight design and implementation schedule. To launch such a big project from scratch in just two months, which is not normal best practice for a project of this size and complexity, is an achievement that speaks volumes for the technical and management skills at work between the College and Collabco, and also about the resilience and quality of the product itself.
And the benefits? As the system beds down there’ll be a gradual, but ever-increasing, return in terms of ease of communication and collaboration. Students will be better informed, more likely to collaborate and communicate, less likely to miss deadlines or lectures. Perhaps most importantly, students will have the kind of comfortable, flexible and responsive IT experience that lives up to their expectations. It’s reasonable to assume that this will have its effect not only on student achievement and overall College performance, but on the ever-present issues of recruitment and retention in a highly competitive environment.
Pauline Waterhouse OBE, Principal and Chief Executive says – “We see the potential for the My Hub/SharePoint/Moodle and Office 365 solution to contribute to making learners more autonomous and responsible for their own learning – by virtue of, for example, their ability to check progress against their individual targets. In this way, the facility will be contributing to our quality improvement agenda and really helping to support high levels of attendance and retention”.
In the Future when SharePoint 13 comes out we will be able to add Enterprise Social Networking into our solution, making it even more compelling for students and the College
The College. http://www.blackpool.ac.uk/
‘Blackpool and The Fylde College is recognised as one of the top colleges in the country. A Beacon College, we are also a member of the prestigious 157 Group, which aims to drive forward standards in further education. Our provision is extensive, allowing learners from a variety of backgrounds to access a growing range of vocational and academic programmes at the appropriate level. We are also the UK’s third largest FE provider of HE, offering degree courses that are validated by Lancaster University, ranked in the top 1% of universities globally. We work extensively with employers both in a training provider capacity and to ensure the vocational relevance of our programmes. The College is currently undergoing an extensive programme of refurbishment that will create a state-of-the-art learning environment for years to come.’
The Partner. www.collabco.co.uk
‘Collabco is a specialist Microsoft Partner focused on SharePoint, Dynamics CRM, Lync, UAG and Mobility delivering a portfolio of services including: Technology and consultancy, IT strategy consultancy and development, project implementation, support and training. Our mission is to build products and deliver projects that are of the highest quality and best user experience.’