Dave is a Microsoft MVP and has been working with SharePoint in education for nearly a decade. I talked to him about why people choose SharePoint as a learning platform in schools, colleges and universities.
Dave, what is your background in SharePoint?
I’ve been using SharePoint in Twynham School in the UK since 2003. So we’re quite mature with the platform. I played around previously with SharePoint 2001 as well. That was unusual, shall we say!
Do you work for the school or for an independent company?
I actually work in the school, I’m employed by the school, but we have a SharePoint consultancy business inside the school. So we go out to counties, school districts in the US, individual schools and colleges as well as amalgamation of schools. We consult with them what they need and put it in from the ground up, so right from installing a server, setting up SQL, configuring SharePoint – you name it, we do it. I’m busy!
Do you think SharePoint is viable as a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment)?
I prefer the term learning platform. “VLE” is quite an old term now, and if you were to ask five people in a room what VLE is, you’ll probably get 5 different answers. It could be Moodle , it could be Blackboard, and it could be SharePoint with the SharePoint Learning Kit on. SharePoint is a good managed learning platform; students can seek their resources and find them easily. The other good thing about SharePoint is the pricing, it’s reasonably cheap, it’s not give-it-away but it’s reasonably cheap. For schools, it’s a no-brainer decision … and colleges and universities it’s seriously worth considering.
What is the key advantage of SharePoint for a school or college?
Not only the price, but also the flexibility of the platform as well. So that’s really the key driver. For example we have SharePoint as our managed learning platform, our learning platform but also as our website as well.
SharePoint is also very supportable. One of the issues that I would say with Moodle is that very commonly if you put it in a secondary school environment, it always tends to be run by one guy or one lady. If they leave, you’ve got nothing. But with SharePoint, if the person supporting it leaves, you can put someone else in. Or you can find support from elsewhere. This ease of support is another key driver – we know that Microsoft will support SharePoint into the future.
Do you see increasing interest in colleges and universities in SharePoint?
Ray Fleming of Microsoft has been blogging interestingly about the dissatisfaction with existing Higher Education learning management platforms. And we’re currently talking with two universities about deploying SharePoint – taking out their installation of Blackboard and replacing with SharePoint. So yes, I’m seeing some real experience of universities moving to SharePoint. One of our projects is with Bournemouth Arts University (see here for more information). As well as replacing Blackboard with SharePoint, one of the key things is that they have an extranet, an intranet and a website, and what we’ll end up doing is amalgamate them all into one platform. From a management point of view, it makes it a lot simpler. SharePoint offers huge flexibility.
How much adoption do you see of the SharePoint Learning Kit?
The actual adoption has been quite small in our experience. Microsoft do make it available as a community resource. We’re agnostic on it, where we come from is we tend to try to be as agnostic as possible. I’m a great supporter of SharePoint for what it does. But as a learning platform, if anyone wants to deploy Moodle or another system next to SharePoint, that’s fine. One of the projects we’re doing at the moment is actually putting in locally hosted WordPress in conjunction with SharePoint. The blogging capabilities of WordPress are actually far superior to those of SharePoint. From our perspective, we’re not putting anything down anyone’s throat.
If a university or college is looking for a long term learning platform, do you think SharePoint is a viable option?
Absolutely, we get contacts from universities and colleges all over the world, asking the same question. SharePoint is a very, very flexible and viable option. You can use it as a CRM, as a content management system, to host your website, to host department sites, you can do that; it’s so flexible. That is one of the key drivers for the success of SharePoint, its flexibility.
Do you think Office 365 will impact on how widely SharePoint is used?
There are some limitations at the moment. If you host your own servers, you can install your own web parts. But on Office 365, you can’t put on anything that involves complex code. As a document repository system, I think 365 has legs. But for a full education system, the limitation on installing your own web parts is going to limit it for some users.
How do people put assessments inside SharePoint?
In a school environment, pupils are assessed continually throughout their school career. We expose that data through SharePoint, and SharePoint is really useful for this. It’s also possible to deliver assessments within SharePoint – you can use the SharePoint Learning Kit, you could make it available as a document that people download and email it back, or you can use add-on programs.
Questionmark (www.questionmark.com) provide software for tests and quizzes online that fits into SharePoint.
That’s good information to know from our perspective
Do you see a growing trend that people are going to deploy SharePoint in place of other learning platforms?
What I can tell you is that SharePoint implementations are getting bigger. We’re working on one at the moment that has 150,000 seats (a SharePoint project for Bucks County Council). And also we’re starting to talk to another organization with 500,000 students in their area who want a learning platform for all schools in their area.
We are starting to see universities and colleges being interested. Maybe there is an impact as kids start to experience SharePoint and then go to colleges and universities and wonder why the student-facing capabilities they are used to aren’t there? SharePoint use is definitely growing.
What advice would you give to someone in education on getting started with SharePoint?
The best advice I’d give anyone is that there’s a free product called SharePoint Foundation. Download this, put it on a computer, doesn’t have to be a server and use it. See if you like it, expose it to a few of your colleagues. There are no licensing costs; apart from the cost of Windows, SharePoint Foundation is free. And try small scale and build up. Do not leap in at the deep end, start small and work up. Expose it to a few of your colleagues, and not the ones you’d know would work with it, but expose it to some of the ones who you know will be cynical about a managed learning environment. And get feedback and then make your decision from that point.
Do you think SharePoint 2010 is making a difference with its improved user interface?
Absolutely. And having cut-down versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and One Note available with SharePoint makes a big difference too. So you click a Word document in SharePoint and it opens up in the browser and you can edit it. That’s got to be a winner.
You’ve got to be careful about being too much of a SharePoint enthusiast, for instance WordPress is better for blogging, so we try to be agnostic. But for many educational needs, it’s a very appropriate system.
You can follow Dave on twitter at davecoleman146 or see his blog at sharepointedutech.com. The names of products including “SharePoint”, “Blackboard” and “Moodle” are trademarks of their respective owners.