Can you describe what SharePoint does in one sentence?


Possibly the most difficult job I get asked to do is to describe SharePoint succinctly.

It’s not because I don’t know what SharePoint is, and what it does – in fact, I use it extensively myself for lots of different purposes, and I see it in regular use in schools, colleges and universities. But the reason it is difficult to describe is because SharePoint is such an multi-functional system, that it’s like trying to describe the whole of Windows, without using the words “operating system”. In fact, I often resort to saying “Well, SharePoint is to the web like Windows is to the PC – it’s the thing that enables everything else to happen, and it’s designed to help you get a job done, whatever the job is”. It stores documents (like a shared drive and document management system combined), it manages document workflow, it allows you to create websites, wikis and blogs, and hundreds of other things too.

Gerald Haigh

That flexibility is part of the reason why it’s now used by 80% of universities in the UK and over half of all schools (either directly, or because their learning platform is based upon it). Sometimes schools run it themselves, and other times it’s provided as a hosted service (like the SIMS Learning Gateway).

As it’s a topical issue on this blog (especially with the launch of SharePoint 2010), I asked Gerald Haigh, a freelance journalist and author of a number of educational leadership books, to take some time out to share what he’s learnt about the way that schools are using SharePoint. He’d recently spent some time with Tom Cooper in Lewisham, and they are using SharePoint there in the BSF project:

I’m fascinated by what’s happened with SharePoint in Lewisham schools, because it’s a prime example of schools engaging in their time-honoured tradition of taking ownership of something in a way that wasn’t quite foreseen.

I heard the story from Tom Cooper, who is Lewisham’s Strategic Lead for ICT, and for my money one of the most clued up people in the country when it comes to what ICT can do for school transformation. What seems to have happened, give or take some technicalities around procurement, management services and BSF, is that because Lewisham Borough Council as a whole have long used SharePoint 2003 for basic communication purposes, it seemed a good idea for the Borough’s BSF secondary schools to have SharePoint as part of their managed learning environment, along with a VLE and an MIS. They’d then be able to exchange information with the local authority.

So SharePoint 2007 went into nine secondaries as part of a trust arrangement between the schools and the authority. The idea was that SharePoint would be a sort of overlay, available on the school home page as the Lewisham BSF portal with basic information such as the ICT service desk phone number.

But what happened, according to Tom, is that when the schools saw it sitting there, there was the collective sound of pennies dropping.

“One of the first BSF schools, Forest Hill, said, ‘We’ve got a use for this. We think we can put the whole of the school admin up there’.”

Fortunately, they were talking to the right person, because Tom immediately responded and he and VT Group (his BSF Partner), worked with Forest Hill to set up a web-based SharePoint infrastructure that’s become the main area of communication for students, teachers and the leadership team.

“Teachers have access to their files from wherever they are. We’ve expanded it to governors and it’s now going out to parents to give them access to the areas that the school agrees they need.”

At Forest Hill, SharePoint is now completely customised to the school brand. The home page leads to a wealth of information with photographs and video.

“We’ve been able to reduce the VLE down to the basic teaching and learning tools,” says Tom, “With SharePoint bearing the load for everything else.”

Now the Forest Hill initiative has been used as a model for the other eight schools, with more to follow as BSF rolls on. I suggested to Tom that the image that comes to mind is of a thin layer of SharePoint being spread over the top of the schools as a convenience for the authority, then the people in the schools looking up and thinking “Hey, that looks useful” and reaching up to pull it down for their own use.

Tom agrees.

“Originally we put it in to integrate with the other council departments and the schools picked it up and ran it with and customised it. The bottom line is this has become a really important vehicle, integral to our BSF strategy and with what’s available in SharePoint 2010 it’s going to improve dramatically.”

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