As part of my recent work for Habañero I am doing a project that revolves around leveraging Microsoft tools to improve the education of students. I have to say that so far its been some of the most stimulating work intellectually and most personally rewarding that I have been involved in. I mean how often do you get a chance to create or have input into so fundamental as the education of kids!
From a purely non platform perspective it seems that there are amazing advances being made within education to incorporate technology at all levels, within the classroom, to encourage engagement with parents and students, to improve school efficiencies and to support teachers self learning.
When I finished high school 15 years ago (god that seems like a long time) in 1996, it was only the beginning of the internet and I don't remember any teachers using technology tools to aid in learning, apart from using old Apple Mac's and word processors.
Seems like the world is such a different place now and its really fascinating how quickly times have changed and the disconnect in the tech saviness between students and teachers. Mind you this is no fault of the teachers, the lack of funding for education makes it nearly impossible to move quickly and keep up with the latest trends. Aging infrastructure, lack of training resources and the scale of running a school district with 100,000 - 400,000 teachers and students hold complexities that it is nearly impossible to imagine.
But there is hope! From the brief time that I have worked with staff it has been amazing to see their eyes gleam at functionality that we often take for granted. The teacher that was amazed that SharePoint could search within documents for example, or that it is a web based platform so that it will work on students personally owned devices, or the teacher that bought a whole bunch of Ipod touches that engaged students to learn maths and make a markable difference in their maths achievement scores. The truth is there is so much potential here and while I am definitely no expert on the matter here is what I have learnt so far.
Microsoft offer many options
Say what you will about Microsoft and their massive profits, they are simply amazing when it comes to education. Not including such philanthropic endeavors such as the Gates Foundation, there is great discounts for educational facilities to use the Microsoft suite of products.
In addition to this there are many online options that can help schools and districts. For instance live@edu is an online hosted solution for educators that offers such tools such as Office Live Workspace, Outlook 2010 OWA, Windows Live SkyDrive and other tools.
A district can have all of their students with 10GB mailboxes, 25GB SkyDrive spaces, using Outlook 2010 hosted, keep their school email address, federated with an internal AD instance and using Microsoft's ILM tools for free!!
If you imagine the cost and complexity of hosting 300,000 mailboxes for students you can see why this is so amazing, and there has been some really large school districts that have already made the move, saving huge amounts of money. Now when we look at hosted versions of Office, Exchange, OCS and other tools, all at very reduced costs to schools I imagine that there will be a huge move to the cloud for schools. Put simply Microsoft will subsidize software to something like 80% but hardware vendors don't have this possibility so it makes financial sense for cash strapped schools.
Craft an appropriate Solution
There is so much that can be done with SharePoint but one thing that we are beginning to realize is that you have to choose what is going to make the most impact to students. In that guise we have a number of guiding principles that we are trying to follow:
- Anything we do must make a marked difference in the educational outcome of kids using it
- We must understand the classroom and craft a solution that flows with how classroom flows
- It must be user friendly and be intuitive to get teacher buy in
- The solution should appeal to the majority of teachers, but be easy enough to use by those that are frightened by technology, yet flexible enough for the mavericks to expand on
Why SharePoint and Unified Communications
So why is SharePoint becoming so popular and in particular why will SharePoint 2010 be potentially a powerful force in the educational sector? Here are my thoughts:
- A unified platform for Teachers, Students and Administrators: Essentially the SharePoint platform can solve a range of issues from back end school business processes, to report cards, to virtual classrooms, to personal learning networks to providing a rich search solution. This one platform , with all the cost savings that platform consolidation offers, can be the technological hub of a student, teacher, parent, administrator, classroom and district.
- Viable Cloud Solution: The Educational space is categorized by two features that are ideal for Cloud based environments; A spike to activity around specific dates and the sheer scale of users. From a hardware perspective this creates issues in that you have to buy hardware to deal with these spikes in traffic, regardless if you will use this hardware on a day to day basis.
Cloud based solutions can accommodate spikes in user activity easily and handle an almost infinite amount of users. This is great in the Educational space as a Cloud solution can become extremely viable from both a cost and usability perspective.
- Social Features that translate directly into education outcomes: I love the idea of virtual classrooms, personal learning networks for teachers and parent engagement all being available through SharePoint. The Social features on the new 2010 platform such as tagging, wiki's, blogs, ratings and MySites all seek to engage users. In education its the engagement of the teacher, student or parent that is key. Using SharePoint as a platform for engagement makes perfect sense to me.
- Can be designed with end users in mind: An Educational solution is markedly different to a business solution. With SharePoint being a platform, providing the ability to customize almost anything, we can create a solution on a business platform that will work within the educational space.
- Unified Communications: A huge issue in Education is finding the time to meet face to face. The Unified Communications suite can be leveraged for many purposes within the Educational space. Instant messaging between students, teachers or online help from teachers to students. Live Meetings between district officials, cost savings in email traffic, encouraging collaboration between groups from different schools. All of this and much more can be
I know that there are teachers out there that are interested in this area. If you want to find out more I have been following the twitter tags of #edchat and #edrethink. But please get in touch with me if you are a teacher, student or school and want to discuss this.
- Microsoft In Education : Lots of great information here about various Microsoft tools and their use within Education.
- SharePoint in Education: Great blog by Mike Herrity about how he has used SharePoint within their school. Sorry Mike but I have been stealing some of your ideas :)
- 21 Apps: Andrew Woodward who is highly respected is also doing some SharePoint education work, check it out!
- UK Schools Blog: Really good ideas from the Microsoft UK Education Team
- Mark Dunkel's Blog: Another site from a SharePoint US Education Specialist that has some great information.
- The SharePoint School: A great case study!
- Live@edu talk at Tech-Ed 2010: Great video showing some of the possibilities that the live@edu platform can provide.