You might remember a guest post by Mark Reynolds earlier this year about how Warwickshire County Council were moving their schools to the cloud. Well six months on, here is a detailed story by Harvey Woodall (Warwickshire E-Learning Adviser) about why this project came about, the migration to Office 365 for education, positive feedback from the 185 schools subscribed, and future plans.
Through a PFI project known as We-Learn, Warwickshire schools have had access to a centralised ‘Learning Platform’ since 2004. At the start of this project the Learning Platform product provided by a Microsoft partner was not really fit for purpose and offered no real benefits for schools. This is not a criticism of the partner, but rather a reflection of the software and technologies available at the time. The Learning Platform did improve significantly throughout the eight years of the PFI project and although never perfect, became an important tool for communication, collaboration and learning support within a large number of schools and indeed across the authority.
Although the option to continue with this Learning Platform was available at the end of the We-Learn contract (August 2012), the pricing (without PFI subsidy) was beyond what most schools would be prepared to pay. As such, the search for a replacement product started in April 2011 with a significant number of meetings with all of the main VLE/Learning Platform suppliers. It became clear that most of the products were very similar in what they offered, many were over-complicated by too many features and toolsets and prices varied very considerably. Our experiences over the last seven or so years had demonstrated that schools wanted a product that was simple to use with an effective range of communication, collaboration and storage tools. They specifically didn’t want VLE –type functionality with the ability to assign work to pupils, take it back in and mark it electronically. This had been available in the previous partner product and had been little used. Integrated email was an additional requirement as was the ability to ‘plug’ in other third party products or content in the future.
By the end of 2011 we had focused our attention on developing a solution around Google and were working with a third party to pilot this in a number of schools. Around the same time, Microsoft approached us with an offer of some support and a recommended partner (BFC Networks) to look at an in-house SharePoint 2010 solution. Proof of concepts for both the Google and a SharePoint solution were developed and presented to schools at a series of meetings in early 2012. Feedback from schools was positive for both solutions. However, there was recognition that the familiarity of the SharePoint solution (the previous Learning Platform was based on SharePoint 2007), together with the improved functionality in SharePoint 2010 had particular benefits for our schools. The SharePoint solution was therefore developed further and in particular to create ‘template’ sites for both primary and secondary schools which could be used as a starting point for each school’s Learning Platform site.
As the solution development continued, the decision to concentrate on SharePoint 2010 was further supported by Microsoft’s decision to make the Office 365 for education A2 plan available to schools free of charge. Our focus had to change slightly as there are differences and some limitations with SharePoint in Office 365 for education when compared to a local installation. The final solution was actually to combine a local instance of SharePoint with the Office 365 for education cloud service, with the local instance being available to provide the facility to integrate code which otherwise would not have been possible in the cloud. Warwickshire has the benefit of a single active directory that contains all school users. This provided the basis of a federated solution with the required Office 365 for education active directory. Warwickshire had provided a hosted school email system based on OWA for a number of years. The move to Office 365 for education provided the opportunity to migrate this older mail system across to the cloud service.
In May 2012 presentations were again made to schools demonstrating the Office 365 for education SharePoint sites as well as the new email system. At this point, schools were asked to commit to a two year subscription to the service. Certain third party products including Purple Mash and Autology were bundled with the subscription to add value and given this, the subscription price offered represented an exceptionally good deal. We had anticipated between 100 to 150 schools would subscribe; to this point 185 schools have committed with the majority being primary. Most of the school’s SharePoint sites required were created prior to the end of the summer term with administrator access available to allow their customisation.
Over the holiday period a great deal of very complex work went into ‘breaking’ our dependencies with the original system and creating the required users in the Office 365 for education environment. There were significant challenges along the way, but by the first day of the new term we had migrated all but a handful of the required 85,000 users to Office 365 for education and provided access for them to email. It took a further three weeks to make the sites available to all school users and work is still on-going with some of the single sign on integrations to third party products. Advisers have been busy supporting schools in customising their SharePoint template sites; many of these are shown on our twitter page (https://twitter.com/welearn365). Additionally, a number of schools have undertaken the customisation and building process themselves using just basic help guides. The simplicity of the template together with the range of tools and features available within Office 365 for education SharePoint has helped to make this process very accessible.
The start of term was particularly challenging because of problems relating to password re-setting and, yes, there are minor bugs that are only just coming to light as the SharePoint sites are starting to be used more. However, the feedback from schools that have started to use their new Learning Platform has been very positive. On the whole users are finding it simple to use and easy to configure/customise to meet the needs of their individual schools. Future developments to the platform will provide accounts for parents and a method of surfacing basic MIS information in a secure but cost-effective manner. Further integrations are expected with other third party products and we are now also starting to look at the implications of SharePoint 2013.