The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh. Here he reports on a Lancashire secondary school that is living up to its Microsoft Showcase School status by piloting, for proof of concept, Microsoft School Data Sync (SDS) and Teacher Dashboard for Microsoft Office 365.
Supported by two Microsoft partner businesses, the school demonstrates that SDS makes it possible to populate classroom applications – in this case Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook, and Teacher Dashboard from Axis12 -- automatically and quickly with details of pupils, classes and groups held in the school management system. By achieving all this securely and flexibly, with the aid of Azure Active Directory, SDS further aligns Microsoft’s powerful suite of Office 365 applications with the real working world of schools and classrooms.
It’s important, at the outset, to emphasise that this highly innovative project is the result of a creative co-operation between the school, Microsoft, and two highly experienced Microsoft Partners.
Ribblesdale High School, in Clitheroe, Lancashire, is one of 20 UK Microsoft Showcase Schools. ‘Showcase’ status reflects a continuing commitment to embracing technology to enhance the quality of learning.
SalamanderSoft: a Silver Microsoft Partner, are already well respected for their work on integrating data from school management systems with key school IT systems. SalamanderSoft’s product has be running for several months at Ribblesdale successfully meeting the considerable technical challenge of making SDS work seamlessly at all levels and creating Class Notebooks. Their Salamander Active Directory product enables SIMS data to be transferred to Microsoft SDS as well as direct automatic creation of Class Notebooks.
Axis12: Teacher Dashboard, from Axis12, is a popular product globally, because it provides teacher with easy, ‘dashboard’ access to student activities on Office 365. It enables the teacher to see completed assignments, share documents with groups or individuals, and generally keep an overall ‘birdseye view’ of student work within Office 365. At Ribblesdale, Teacher Dashboard, like OneNote Class Notebook, reaps the data integration benefits of SDS.
School Data Sync at Ribblesdale High School
Given Ribblesdale High School’s Microsoft Showcase School status, it comes as no surprise to discover that the school is moving towards a one-to-one tablet rollout, using Microsoft Surfaces and Microsoft applications. The approach, though, is careful and gradual. Five years ago, teachers’ desktop pcs were replaced by Windows laptops, in a step towards the concept of mobile learning. Then, in the Spring of 2016 six teachers across the curriculum became a pilot group for creating a new, collaborative, style of engagement with their students, using the features in Office 365 Education. In fact, there were two separate but closely related pilots, both intended to explore how teachers and students could engage with Office 365. One pilot worked with OneNote Class Notebooks, the other with ‘Teacher Dashboard’, from Microsoft Partner Axis 12.
In both cases the aim was explore how teachers could most readily engage with their students, making best use of the rich potential of Office 365 applications. In particular, as a minimum starting point, teachers would be able to distribute work and resources their classes and receive assignments back, either when completed or in progress, all within Office365.
For Deputy Head and Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE) Paul Edge, the ability to work like this is a step towards the emerging one-to-one, anytime/anywhere environment – everyone working in Office365, on their own devices.
"Some one-to-one projects are a bit like those play centres where the children are all free within the confines of the centre. So it’s some distributing homework with Google Drive, some with email, and so on. I feel that work should be set in one standard way, through one platform, which for us is Office 365."
One additional advantage of having one widely recognised application, he suggests, is that the working environment can easily be made appropriately accessible by parents.
"If they know how homework is shared they can have their parent platform and be told automatically of work that’s set. Support at home goes a long way."
That, then, is the vision. At Ribblesdale it is being developed gradually, with careful piloting and always an eye for the challenges involved in moving to fuller implementation. Of these, perhaps the most significant was that of identifying which students were members of which classes, so that work could be passed easily and quickly to where it was wanted.
The key role of Microsoft Data Sync
Any conventional school or college works on the basis of defined classes and groups. A subject teacher may be responsible for a dozen or so separate classes, and needs to be able to identify, and have a to and fro relationship with, each member of each class.
In pre-technology days, teachers struggled with typewritten lists that were always quickly defaced by handwritten crossings-out and additions, because pupil data changes day to day. The arrival of school management systems, such as Capita’s SIMS, which is in use at Ribblesdale, solves much of this problem in that changes entered by an administrator are incorporated into the definitive central database overnight, and the latest version is available to all appropriate users, on the principle of ‘Enter once, use many times’.
However, populating Class Notebook and/or Teacher Dashboard with class lists drawn from the management system has not, up to now, been a quick automatic process. Says Paul Edge,
‘The manual process of putting classes and names into class notebook takes too long. In fact if you teach, say, eighteen classes, it’s not going to happen. The need is to rationalize so that you just have one system.’
And that rationalisation is what’s now available with Microsoft’s ‘School Data Sync’ (SDS). https://sds.microsoft.com/
School Data Sync ‘mirrors’ student information, organised in classes and groups as in the management information system, into Office 365 and Azure Active Directory, from where it will automatically populate any classroom application, including Office 365, OneNote Class Notebook and Teacher Dashboard. Ribblesdale staff find that with SDS, OneNote Class Notebooks become easy to use. Set-up delays are eliminated, and everyone can get on with their teaching and learning. Teachers comment on the ease of setting and reviewing assignments that can be completed at home, and on the facility to look at work in progress and make suggestions for the next step. One teacher homes in on just how much easier it is, with SDS, for activities to be distributed to groups of pupils.
"Having OneNote Class Notebooks set up automatically has allowed me to distribute activities to pupils before the lesson starts. This saves time and lets pupils review certain aspects before the lesson."
The parallel pilot project using Teacher Dashboard also demonstrates the value of SDS. ‘It provides a valuable bridge towards creating a perfect ‘single click’ set up’, says Jon Kent of Axis12, who adds,
"The pilot with Teacher Dashboard was so successful, Ribblesdale have agreed to become a Teacher Dashboard Showcase school. Looking to the future, further integration will provide a sync of parents details to automatically set up Teacher Dashboard parent notifications."
By running pilots for both Class Notebook and Teacher Dashboard, staff and students at Ribblesdale are given alternative but complementary options when it comes to having easy access to Office 365 applications. The common factor, though, is the breakthrough embodied in School Data Sync which brings applications to life by populating them with up to date pupil data, truly reflective of the core information held in the school MIS.
Building on what is a carefully planned pilot programme, supported by Microsoft and experienced Microsoft Partners, Ribblesdale is poised now to move forward to a more efficient and transformative learning environment which fully involves parents as well as teachers and students. Paul Edge is optimistic, with good reason.
"I am really excited about the future,’ he says. ‘Having the groups within Office 365 opens up opportunities to interact with students and parents on a number of levels. A successful home-school relationship is essential to allow students to fulfil their potential."
He can see, too, that the Microsoft Surface rollout will provide a massive boost.
"I am also looking forward to staff and students getting to grips with OneNote Class Notebooks and Teacher Dashboard, as we rollout Microsoft Surfaces at Ribblesdale. School Data Sync will help remove barriers to the success of this project and allow teachers to focus on teaching and learning and not admin."