Developing SharePoint as a Learning Platform: Final Report

Maths Teacher Peter Williams, from The City of Leicester College, concludes his innovation project  – an exploration SharePoint (part of the Office 365 package) as an alternative to a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for the school.

You can find Peter’s previous project updates here:

Investigating SharePoint as a Learning Platform: Final Report

After spending a year exploring and developing SharePoint for our college I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. SharePoint is a huge collection of very flexible tools which can be applied in so many different ways, and as I have discovered more about it I have continually found new ideas being sparked.

My focus was to create a functional replacement for our old VLE, and to investigate the social networking features of SharePoint to see how they could be used in the classroom. The transfer of content from the old VLE was straightforward and relatively painless, and the social networking tools were quick and easy to access and use, so by all counts SharePoint has been a successful investment in time.

What follows are some reflections on the benefits and drawbacks to using SharePoint, along with a rough outline of some other potential applications for this very flexible system. This development work is very much on going, and I would expect that how we are using SharePoint in a couple of years’ time will look very different again!

Benefits

Integration

Integration has been by far the most obvious benefit of using SharePoint instead of a different VLE. When we transferred over to Office365 for our mail and user account system it was obviously going to be useful to leverage the other tools built into the system. Students don’t need to log in to multiple sites, remember different log in details, they can just navigate to SharePoint via their e-mail, a system they log in to regularly and are already familiar with.

Searching

Fully indexed and searchable documents have proven to be a huge bonus as well, and not one I was anticipating. Every file is automatically indexed when it’s uploaded, and office documents are internally indexed, so a search will bring up Word documents or PowerPoint files with the search terms within them. This is hugely useful, particularly for the personal document storage part of SharePoint, as it makes finding stuff very quick!

Flexibility

SharePoint is not a VLE, and that’s a good thing. It’s actually a document storage system designed for businesses, and it comes with a very robust set of tools which can be manipulated to create exactly what you want. You aren’t forced to do things someone else’s way, you can utilise all of the tools in SharePoint to make your learning platform do exactly what you want, in exactly the way you want to do it!

Sharing

A core feature of every part of SharePoint is that stuff needs to be easy to share. This means sharing resources, ideas, information and work with other people is quick and easy. It even means documents can be shared and edited at the same time by multiple different users. I have used this system to get small groups of students creating a single PowerPoint together at the same time on different computers. I have also used this to allow students to create a portfolio of work which I have access to. This was I can always see their most recent work and there are never duplicate copies of a file, so you are never looking at an old version of something.

Security

All of the document storage and social networking features are completely secure. No one outside of the college can have an account, and so no external interaction can happen through the social networking tools. Documents can be shared externally, but this is easy to control and is done per-document. With the exception of e-mail, all of the social networking tools are open forms of communication, so staff can monitor any interactions very easily.

Cost

SharePoint is completely free. The only cost this year has been the time I spent developing it, so it has saved our college thousands of pounds (annually).

Drawbacks

Of course no single system is perfect, and there are plenty of issues with SharePoint which are worth considering. These are the main issues I have encountered, some of which could be a major barrier for deciding to use SharePoint, others have just been annoyances.

Flexibility

If you choose to adopt dedicated VLE software, the initial structure of the VLE will already be in place. This can be a big benefit, particularly if that structure roughly matches what you want to do, and you want to get it up and running fairly quickly. The openness of SharePoint meant that I did have to spend a considerable amount of time early in the year working on the organisation and structure of the content, rather than actually adding content in to be used. Sometimes what you want is a rigid system to just fit into, rather than a blank slate!

Technical Expertise

Prior to teaching I spent some time as a freelance software developer, focused on web applications. Because of this background I was able to tweak and change things in SharePoint which were not trivial! There is a lot you can do without needing more than basic computer skills, but there are also some aspects of SharePoint which required some much more involved work and thinking. There are ways around this, either simply avoid that level of tweaking and adjustment, or look to a third party to do the more technical work for you, but then you either lose the flexibility, or have to spend some money.

Reliability

The core of SharePoint is solid as a rock, and we have had no issues at all. There are however some ongoing issues with OneDrive for Business (the personal document storage system in SharePoint). These are confined to users who have been using the desktop synchronisation app with OneDrive, the web based stuff has all worked perfectly from the start. This has caused some frustration though, so use with caution.

Conclusions

I have been very pleased with the results of the development project, and the feedback from staff and students has been overwhelmingly positive. This is a tool which we are continuing to develop across the college, with a number of other subject areas expressing interest in creating their own sections for learning resources. It has also been nice to see other members of staff think creatively about ways they could use SharePoint, beyond just giving students access to revision material.

Last term I had the opportunity to give a presentation to our college leadership team on the work that had been done so far on SharePoint, and put forward some suggestions for potential future developments. Here is a slightly condensed version of the list of suggestions (in no particular order):

  • Maps of the school to help students find their way around (particularly for year 7 and new arrivals)
  • List of key staff in the college for students to be aware of, and how to contact them
  • Daily menu from the cafeteria and zone
  • Timetable of extra-curricular activities
  • Student can see details of their rewards and behaviour points for the year
  • Careers information for different subjects
  • Options information for year 9 and 11 students making choices
  • Current notices and announcements
  • Upcoming key events (i.e. fundraising activities, non-uniform day,…)
  • Personalised exam timetable
  • Student friendly schemes of learning outlines for all subjects
  • Student homework diary, showing clearly homework set and due dates
  • Lesson timetable (could integrate with homework diary, and include lesson materials from teacher)
  • Ability to submit homework online, or mark as completed on paper to track their current tasks
  • Discussion board for a class to chat about their subject, asking for help and sharing ideas with peers and their teacher
  • Independent learning resources for different subjects
  • A central place for exam revision material which is easy to find
  • Place for learning support team to access lesson materials when students are not in class
  • Every user has a personal blog by default, could be used as a learning journal for subjects
  • Safe and secure social networking for quick communication and sharing of information between all members of the college
  • Students can access grade collection data for each subject
  • Parents can access grade collection data for their children
  • Parents can access attendance and rewards and behaviour information
  • Portal for parents to easily communicate with teaching staff
  • Collaborative work between students using OneDrive, including simultaneous document editing
  • OneDrive as an alternative to the network drives for students to store work, accessible from any internet ready device
  • Homework management system for staff to set homework tasks with due dates
  • Online hand-in system, with ability to mark and return work electronically
  • Clear tracking of which students have handed homework in, and which work has been marked and returned
  • Feedback and grade/level on homework can be recorded and viewed by student online
  • Upload material from lessons for students to review and revise from (or in advance of lessons for a “flipped classroom” approach)
  • “Paperless” lessons, no need to print out worksheets!
  • Staff friendly detailed schemes of learning stored centrally for all course teachers to access and update
  • Central document repository for teaching and learning resources (searchable and easier to organise than folders!)
  • Workflow processes for completing administrative tasks, particularly useful for tasks involving input from multiple members of staff
  • College calendar stored on SharePoint, searchable and filterable by even type
  • Room and asset bookings system
  • Policy documents can be stored centrally, including versioning information and automated systems for initiating policy reviews
  • Staff noticeboard / announcements
  • Document store for archived information such as briefing minutes
  • Connected to school network drives for staff and students to access resources from a web device
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