Investigating SharePoint as a Learning Environment: Research Phase

Back in December we announced the beginning of 11 new BSF ICT School Innovation Projects. One of these projects, an individual award, is based at The City of Leicester College and will be carried out by Peter Williams, a mathematics teacher. Peter is investigating the use of SharePoint (part of the Office 365 package) as an alternative Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for the school. Below is a summary of his progress so far:

What is SharePoint Online (a.k.a. Office365)

By way of a little background information to set the scene, The City of Leicester College has been using Fronter as a VLE for a few years, and it is widely accepted across the college that it’s a bit rubbish. On the whole only the maths faculty actually makes use of it, and for the most part that use is restricted to A-level content and exam revision materials for GCSE students.

When we moved our system over to Office365 and I discovered the potential of Office365, I was rather excited. It’s an integrated system which all students will already be using, and even better, it’s specifically designed for collaborative work. That sounded like a really good starting point for a more practical learning environment. So for the past month I have been looking at the system in more detail, asking lots of questions and desperately trying to find other schools that are actually using this as an educational tool with their students.

What I have discovered is that first of all the system is a little too new for me to find live working systems within another school. Office365 itself only launched in 2011, and the free education package only became available last year. This is a very new system, so anyone working on developing the use of Office365 is treading new ground.

That being said, I have found out lots of useful information to guide my development work, and have made some useful links with other professionals who are also developing the use of Office365 within schools, both teachers and otherwise.

What Office365 can offer

  • All aspects of Office365 are secure and can be access restricted to logged in users only. This allows schools to give students access to all of the following tools without the worries about e-safety within public domain content.
  • Personal blogging platform available for every user, including the ability to “follow” another user’s blog. Huge potential here for staff and students to create web content through the year as part of their courses.
  • “Twitter-like” newsfeed system, interconnected with all other parts of Office365. Provides a very simple way of communicating quick snippets of information to students, and directing them to relevant content elsewhere in Office365.
  • SkyDrive Pro cloud based file storage, which includes the ability to share and collaboratively work on files with other users. Particularly interesting in terms of assigning and collecting students work digitally.
  • Sites system which allows very easy building of rich web content. Of particular interest here is the straightforward integration of rich media, and the wiki-like page editing, making it simple for anyone to add and change content.
  • Web applications which run in browser without any need to install software, these are outlook, word, excel and powerpoint. They all work well on most tablet devices as well as on any computer running a modern web browser. This means files can be opened edited and saved to SkyDrive Pro without ever needing to download them!

The negatives

I have also found that there are a few things I had hoped I could do with Office365 which I cannot. Some of them are simply not possible, and some I cannot do because our system is managed by a third party as part of BSF, and so I do not have administrative access to set certain things up. The most significant problem is that without administrative access it is very difficult to set up content which is only available to a limited group of users. This is possible, but unless user groups are set up by an administrator it must be done on an individual user basis, which is time consuming and not practical to maintain.

The other more technical issue which is a little frustrating is that Office365 does not support SCORM packages (a web standard for e-learning content), which means some resources we currently own will not transfer into Office365 without considerable work. It also means when we look to purchase new content for the learning environment, I will need to integrate it into the system myself manually instead of simply using the SCORM standards to add it quickly. This is something I have contacted Microsoft about directly, and am hoping that they will consider including in the future.

What happens next

Now that I have done some leg work in understanding the scope and content of Office365, it’s time to start planning out and developing the use of the system within school. There are two main things I am going to be focusing on in the short term, both of which have short term benefits but plenty of scope for long term development.

Firstly, all of our old content from Fronter needs to be made available to students again fairly quickly. This is particularly a priority as we have a great deal of A-level course content, and a lot of GCSE exam revision content which is used regularly within the maths department. I am now in a position to plan and build a structure for keeping all of this content within the Sites section of Office365. The aim is to develop a structure which is clear and makes it easy to find content. All of our content already exists and was in a well-defined structure previously; however Fronter relied on access to content being restricted to specific students to make it easy to navigate, and I do not have the ability to limit access to content within Office365.

All of our existing VLE content will be rolled out in Office365 by the end of the year, but this will be a gradual process of adding new content throughout the year as and when it is needed so that my workload is manageable!

Secondly, I have already begun to experiment with the social features of Office365. I will be developing the use of some of these tools within the classroom over the next term. My intention is to explore the different tools alongside some of my students and select 2 of them to develop and use in a more focused way throughout the year. I want to focus on just a couple of the tools so that I can effectively develop a framework for using them which can be easily shared, rather than spreading myself too thin and trying to look at all of the content of Office365 at the same time.

At the moment I feel one of the most useful tools to develop is SkyDrive Pro, ensuring that my students are familiar with how to create and edit files through the web apps. I want to make sure my students are confident in using Office365 to access files shared with them by myself (such as homework or independent learning tasks), and are also able to share their own work with me. The second tool I focus on will depend on feedback from students as I spend some time over the next half term introducing them to the other aspects of Office365.

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