The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh, and looks at the way King's School, Macclesfield, has been planning for its future with Office 365 and the help of Hable, a Microsoft in Education partner.
Office 365 is available to staff and students at no cost through their academic institution. To check eligibility and download onto your devices, please visit Office.com/getoffice365.
A high achieving independent school updates its IT provision with a view to ‘future proofing’ the service offered to staff and students. The Cloud, and particularly Microsoft Office 365, provides a cost-effective ‘anytime/anywhere’ infrastructure which is highly capable not only of responding to a fast changing educational landscape but also of supporting staff and student initiatives still to come. As the school prepares for a move to a brand new site, the flexible and responsive nature of a largely Cloud-based IT environment will become particularly pertinent.
For as long as most of us can remember, schools have had to develop the necessary resilience to live with the reality of constant change. Leadership which is not only far-sighted but also responsive in the short term is probably the key to success, but there are some necessary support mechanisms, such as, crucially, the quality of the school’s IT policy and infrastructure. If the IT is unfit for purpose, creative thinkers are dragging a ball and chain; if the IT is responsive, intuitive and powerful, it provides an efficient working environment, sparks ideas, and lights up the forward path.
The King’s School Macclesfield, founded in 1502 is no stranger to change, and after a series of alignments with the shifting 20th Century political and social landscape, is now well established as a high-achieving independent selective day school for 1240 boys and girls. There are infant and junior as well as senior divisions, covering an age range from 3 to 18. Within a very few years, the school hopes to be in a new, out-of-town-site, a significant transformation in itself, that will require meticulous planning if new opportunities for teaching and learning are to be fully realised.
The King’s School, however, is a thinking-ahead organisation. For some time, Toby Seth, Deputy Head (Development), whose remit includes strategic planning, has led preparations to provide staff and students with a responsive, integrated IT environment.
Like many schools, the network infrastructure at King’s had grown in a piecemeal, uncoordinated way. Says Toby Seth:
"When I started here just over four years ago there were two networks on two sites, and none of it was stable. Simple things like accessing documents was challenging, staff were being forced to work around IT rather than with it. Connectivity was poor and frustration levels were very high. Teaching was impeded rather than supported by IT."
The first job, then, Toby explains, was to provide a single working network:
"Once we sorted that out, and staff saw the merits of an efficient network, they were keen to make more use of it. However, we didn’t think the provision for access by pupils and staff was good enough,"
What was needed, Toby knew, was anytime, anywhere availability:
"Two and a half years ago we saw that we could achieve that with a VLE, but that would be expensive, and we felt that the days of the VLE were numbered. We believed we could achieve the same ends in other ways at less cost."
The answer, plainly lay with the Cloud. With a comprehensive and largely cloud-based infrastructure in place, any future developments, including decisions around IT in the new school, would become easier to manage.
"We looked at a number of potential providers,’ says Toby. ‘But we quickly decided on Office 365, not least because we are a primarily Microsoft environment. Teachers and pupils are familiar with Office and its associated platforms."
In 2015, Microsoft Partner ‘Hable’ came on board, engaged at first to advise on the school’s ‘Bring your own device’ (BYOD) policy. However, as Toby explains, Hable also supported the implementation of an Office 365 tailored learning resource.
"We quickly realized that prior to developing a BYOD policy and structure, it was more important to offer pupils in particular a reason for bringing their own device. If they couldn’t easily access documents and files on the school’s network, what real value would they gain from brining in their own laptop or tablet? Following extensive discussions with Hable we settled on the idea of two major Office 365 SharePoint- based network areas, a shared one for staff and students and also a staff-only drive. This mirrors our current provision, but would crucially allow all access from wherever they are, at whatever time."
Rather than implement the two areas from the start, Toby and his colleagues decided to proceed with the staff/student shared drive as a pilot, developed together with Microsoft cloud specialists Hable:
"Hable built the structure,’ says Toby. ‘We identified and moved all the data we wanted to be in the Cloud."
The shared area went live in January 2016, and what the school currently has, explains Toby, is a branded SharePoint portal providing students and staff with anytime access to resources.
"It’s simple to navigate, reliable, with familiar Microsoft look and feel. We split it by department and then by year group. We will use it as the only way pupils can reach the shared resources."
Toby, who clearly has a good picture of how the new environment is being received and used, reports that staff are generally comfortable working with the Cloud environment, not least because the unreliability of the legacy system had already pushed a number of them into using products like ‘DropBox’.
‘Hable have been excellent with us,’ he says. ‘They helped us with training, which went down well, and we now have an excellent Office 365 platform which is easy to use. And with the licensing agreement we have pupils downloading Office for free, which they have really taken advantage of.’
Looking forward; saving costs
Part of Toby Seth’s leadership remit is to think strategically, and it’s clear that this step into Cloud with Office 365 is intended to be just a beginning. As he says:
"There are lots of things we will be able to do. At the moment we have only scratched the surface. Some staff have started to use One Note and OneDrive. Collaborative learning is beginning in some areas and eventually everyone will be using Office 365 to its full potential. We are also excited about the introduction of other apps such as Delve, Sway and the Video storage area, and will investigate their use over the coming months."
Other benefits are already apparent – virtually unlimited Cloud storage is a cost saver and although some on-premise server capacity will be retained, the move to a new building will be considerably easier in terms of IT provision. The need to move servers, or acquire new ones will be drastically reduced, and planning the IT environment in the new school will be relatively free from physical restrictions. Toby continues:
“We conservatively estimate that the project will have saved £50k. This is due to reduced need for storage space and the removal of our previous remote access solution. What this doesn’t include is the savings passed on to parents and staff who have been able to download the Office suite for free ever since the school moved to Office365. With nearly 1/3 of pupils and staff having taken advantage of this offer, this has been real success."
The ease of access to Office 365 also makes the school’s BYOD policy flexible and manageable, and opens up a wide choice of school-owned devices suitable for the infant-to-sixth-form age range.
Staying ahead of the curve with the Cloud
What we learn from the King’s School strategic approach is that by understanding the potential of the Cloud in general, and Microsoft Cloud in particular, it becomes possible to plan confidently for a future where the only real certainty is that there will be change. So often we have seen technology decisions underlined by the rate and/or direction of progress, leaving expensive systems under-used or sidelined. Office 365, though, is not that kind of vulnerable, ‘once and for all’ solution, because it constantly grows and responds, anticipating change and enabling users to stay ahead.
Microsoft partners like Hable play an essential in helping schools make the most of Office 365 – which is available to schools free of charge – and then help them adapt and learn when new components are added. You can find them on twitter @HableUK or online at www.hable.co.uk