SharePoint. Useful or useless for corporate learning?

Thought leader interview with Danny De Witte, an IT and Learning expert in Belgium

Danny De WitteDanny, what is your background?

I started at Elsevier Training (part of the Reed Elsevier group), where we did some early work on PC learning. Then I was one of the co-founders of U&I Learning, which was one of the first Belgian e-learning companies, and I worked there for 12 years. About 2 years ago I joined Xylos, I wanted to broaden my work and one of the systems I wanted to work with was SharePoint.

Is your main interest learning or IT or both?

It’s a bit of both. I started as a system engineer a long time ago, but I became interested in learning. Now I specialize in using technology to enhance the learning for end-users of my customers.

How did you first get involved with SharePoint?

My first contact with SharePoint (2003 version)was at U&I Learning. We needed to implement an internal knowledge platform and SharePoint was the tool we used. Now at Xylos, we are a Microsoft partner, and I have the opportunity to work with SharePoint specialists. We use and implement SharePoint a lot and I have been able to get much more involved with it.

How widely used is SharePoint in Belgium?

Not as widely used as in some countries. Most companies are still running SharePoint 2007 but a lot of companies are installing or migrating to SharePoint 2010. Usually the driver is as a document management application or to replace a file server. That’s the first step that customers use it for.

We would like to see our customers also use SharePoint for learning purposes. This is happening slowly. We do have some implementations that use the SharePoint Learning Kit for instance.

Do you find the SharePoint Learning Kit to be effective?

I often refer to it as “My first steps in learning” for a customer. The only thing they want to do at the beginning is to make a course available and have some tracking on it (who has done it and when). Tracking at the course level is not a basic functionality of SharePoint, so we have to have something that does the tracking for the customer. And the SharePoint Learning Kit can do this and give a very basic, quick report for a few courses.

What kinds of customers are using SharePoint for learning in Belgium?

They are companies in various industries. For instance, we have one in the Chemical sector, they already have SharePoint 2007 and they want to make one or two courses available to everyone. Another company, a worldwide company, is also using SharePoint 2007. And they say, we want to train our sales people, we have new products which are being launched very quickly, we want to put the learning for a new product online.

Did you use any kind of assessments?

For one customer, we built a course using Captivate and Presenter, and there was a small assessment at the end of the course.

What do you think of the future potential of SharePoint for use in learning?

I think it’s huge. We have the new version 2010, it has lots of possibilities, meaning that you have the social part in it now. You have additional metadata functionality. You can create a community, you can add an expert search, you can define expertise, and all these things. If you build it correctly, you can have a mixture of formal and informal learning. What we promote to our customers is “If you use already SharePoint, then all the knowledge within your company is already available via SharePoint. Let’s link these documents, these PowerPoint, whatever they are to a community site where you can have your employees discussing these specific topics.”

We often give the example of information about specific topic like Project Management. You have a site that holds documentation about your PM approach, you can add some learning parts, and you can really build your community based on existing content that is already available.

I also see a lot of value in connecting an LMS (learning management system) with SharePoint. We have an agreement with e2train where we use their LMS. We put our content in it, because the customer wants to know who visits the content and how much time they spend there, and then we build web parts that get the content from the LMS and display it in SharePoint. So the company gets the tracking from the LMS, but the employee has a single portal to access learning.

So the LMS runs on top of SharePoint?

No, it’s a separate system. We run them side by side. We’ve built some web parts which identify the user and gets some content from the LMS and displays it in SharePoint.

So users don’t need to login to the LMS, they go to a specific site in SharePoint and if there is a course in the LMS for the topic they are interested in, the course material is displayed in a web part on that site, so it’s all context driven.

I’ve heard of other companies using SharePoint as a portal into a Learning Management System. Do you think this works well?

Well it depends on the company – what do you really want to know about the learning of the end-user?

If I log in to a course ten times, or if I spend ten hours on a course, that doesn’t mean anything. It just says that I have logged into the course ten times and spent ten hours on it, it doesn’t measure my learning. So if you don’t need that information, you really don’t need a learning management system. You could say, here is the course; take the course, and afterwards do an assessment.

The main reason to have the LMS is for reporting, I call it for “funding purposes”. Here in Belgium, you are able to get some funding from the government if you have a certain number of educational days within the company. Sometimes I talk to a customer and say that if someone visits a course for two hours, it doesn’t say anything about their learning. Did they learn something? We don’t know – the only way to tell is by testing the person – using an assessment.

What do you typically recommend to customers?

Most importantly you have to listen to the customer’s needs!

Do you already have something in place? What do you want to achieve? Do you want to build communities? Do you want to facilitate “informal learning”? Do you want to have formalized learning?

For instance, I was at a customer a few months ago who said they wanted communities of practice for learning. They thought they might need an LMS, but I told them they didn’t need an LMS, SharePoint can do it

So sometimes people think they need an LMS but don’t?

Yes. People often think that if they want to start learning within the company, they need a learning management system. And that’s not always the case. A LMS as the words say will manage your learning, and in a large company where you have lots of courseware going from e-learning to classroom training to documents and other stuff, well then, to cover the management, workflow and the reporting needs, a LMS is very handy. If you don’t need all this, then you could choose something else like SharePoint.

What would be your advice to someone looking at doing informal learning using SharePoint?

First of all, they have to use the latest version, SharePoint 2010. SharePoint 2007 is fine, but there are lots of improvements in the latest version. I would suggest they start with a knowledge site on a specific topic, where they can bundle all the information that’s available and activate the services they require.

You don’t need custom software to get started. Under normal circumstances, we use out of the box SharePoint. We strongly recommend to start using the MySite functionalities. Encourage people to fill in their profile completely with their expertise, things they are interested about, how to contact them etc. The implementation of SharePoint, the MySites functionality and Lync could be, when correctly implemented, a very powerful learning tool.

What about Office 365?

We’re looking at this. We think it would be very powerful for customers to start with Office 365, using SharePoint for learning in the cloud, say with 20-30 users. Then if they like it, they can move the whole company to the cloud or install SharePoint On Premise. However we need to be sure that everything what we put in the cloud can easily be transferred to  On Premise if needed. For the moment, this is a concern.

How do you see the future?

I think lots of companies will start to use SharePoint or other community-content system for learning.

For SharePoint to be really useful, it would be nice if we could have some additional tracking within SharePoint where we can see who clicked on what, what was the contribution of users on topics/forums so you can rate or award people based on the contributions they do.

I think we are not there yet, we still have a long way to go. But things are moving in the right direction.

Thank you Danny. How can people contact you?

I’m on Twitter at @paravolve. And I work at Xylos – www.xylos.com. We have expertise in SharePoint and learning. If someone wants a SharePoint and learning solution, we can help them make it happen.

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Seven ways to stay up-to-date on SharePoint and Assessments

Gold nugget

How do you find the key nuggets of information gold you need amongst all the verbiage on the Internet?

Here are some of the ways I stay up to date on SharePoint and Assessments, you can adapt many of these to your specific interests.

  1. elIf you’re interested in e-learning, the site elearninglearning.com aggregates over 100 e-learning blogs (including this one) and has just introduced a personalizaton service which allows you to get a daily or weekly email alerting you to key-words used in the blog entries. For example you could personalize your email to include the topic “SharePoint” and then you’d get a daily or weekly email on SharePoint related e-learning blog entries.

  2. alertsGoogle Alerts is another great service – you just go to www.google.com/alerts and put in your search query, for example “SharePoint Assessments” and your email address, you’ll get an email with links any day that Google indexes something that covers your query. 

     

  3. bambooFor specifically SharePoint information, I find Bamboo’s SharePoint Daily a very useful daily email. Its editor Chris Dooley tracks the news and blogosphere keenly and you won’t miss much in the SharePoint world if you follow this. 

  4. qmAssessment news is more diverse, but a couple of good places to look at are the  e-assessment association and Questionmark’s blog.

     

  5. linkedinThere are several LinkedIn groups that focus on SharePoint and also some that focus on assessment, higher education or certification. And you can get daily or weekly updates on these. Some promotion and discussion as well as news, but worthwhile.

     

  6. twitA strong way to stay in touch is Twitter, though it requires some time investment. I follow a few hundred people on Twitter and check it a few times a day. This keeps me in touch with developments and people round the world. You can follow me on Twitter at @johnkleeman.

     

  7. Last but hopefully not least, keep an eye on this blog. You can follow this blog by using the RSS button at the top right of the screen.

I hope this helps you stay up-to-date!

Posted in Commentary, Community | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How SharePoint and Assessments helped the Tooth Fairies one Christmas – a holiday tale

Did you know the Fairies use SharePoint? Here’s a story about how SharePoint and Assessments came in handy one Christmas.

The Chief Tooth Fairy?Only the very best Fairies who leave Fairy University are appointed as Tooth Fairies. Tooth Fairies visit all the little children in the world and collect their discarded baby teeth and leave behind some money. Back when the world was small, it was easy for the Chief Tooth Fairy to keep track of all the children on paper cards, but now there are so many people in the world, she’s deployed SharePoint.

There had been a difficult meeting of the North Pole Council to approve SharePoint, when the Chief Reindeer found an article which claimed that SharePoint is Crack and Microsoft is the Pusher – did this mean that SharePoint was from the dark side? The Reindeer was keen for the Fairies to join Santa in using SAP (check out Forbes magazine who leaked Santa’s use to us mortals). But the Chief Tooth Fairy’s favourite god-daughter had been to a SharePoint Saturday and came back so enthusiastic that she’d set up a trial site in the Clouds around the North Pole, and they’d tried it and liked it. We can always do a Duet with you, she said to Santa if we need to connect.

So one December, the Chief Tooth Fairy pulled her cloak round her (even for Fairies, it gets cold in December at the North Pole), sipped her cocoa and looked at the screen in front of her. What could this new SharePointy thing tell her about why tooth production was down?

Euro coinHmm. There were lots of complaints from children in the system, here was one from an American child:  “Dear Fairy, I put my tooth under my pillow and when I woke up there was a funny coin with the letters EURO on it, what can I do with this?” She knew she had to do something, but what?

She called in her god-daughter and asked her to make SharePoint tell them what was going on. Five dashboards, four KPIs, three SharePoint Dailies, two workflows and a cartridge change and tree web part later, they worked out the problem. Lots of fairies didn’t know about different currencies, and leaving an English child a dollar or an Australian child a pound wasn’t making them very happy.

The Chief Tooth Fairy knew she needed to send some Fairies back to Fairy University for more training, but she couldn’t send them all as they were needed for duty – how to find out which ones? Christmas is a busy time for tooth fairies, with all the sticky food catching teeth.

Her god-daughter had a brainwave. I’ve seen this program Questionmark, which fits into SharePoint and allows you to give quizzes and tests. We put in some questions, ask the tooth fairies to fill it in, and the ones who don’t know what to do, we send back for training.

And this is what they did. When each Tooth Fairy came back from a mission, they took a test. And lots of Fairies went back for training, but only the ones who needed it.

So now the children of the world are back to normal service, thanks to SharePoint and Assessments.

 

I hope you enjoyed this story, check back here in 2012 for more real-world news about SharePoint and Assessments.

Posted in SharePoint in the Cloud, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

How SharePoint is helping change the way we blog

Headshot JulieJulie Delazyn is a social media expert and journalist, she has turned the Questionmark blog (http://blog.questionmark.com) into one of the most widely read blogs in assessment. Here are her views on how SharePoint is helping change the way we blog:

 

Social media and social networks have become interlaced with the way we share information as companies, as marketers and even as people.  While we come from a culture of sharing news through more formal networks such as the media, we have slowly gone into blogging as a way to share information anywhere and at any time sans the traditional gatekeeper or editor.  It has given people a chance to become experts in their field by sharing information online and growing a readership that, if enthused, will retweet and Facebook your thoughts and articles.

This, when you stop to think about it, is revolutionary.  Anyone anywhere can write their opinion on any subject under the straightforward notion of blogging.  This isn’t a journalist hiding behind a byline to push an opinion.  This is a person: a CEO, a fitness coach or even a fashion editor, all with their own expertise and their own opinions.

SharePoint is taking this revolution to the next level.  By offering an interactive platform for easy blogging within SharePoint, one is now reverted back to a place where one’s blog no longer feels like a lonely island floating in the World Wide Web, but a fixture in a place shared by many with a common ground.  Much like a sports magazine may publish the opinion of a famous football coach, a blog in SharePoint appropriately houses a contextual opinion that belongs there, making it easier to be seen, read and shared.

Like blogging with WordPress or Blogger, a blog within SharePoint is easy enough to set up.  You can pick a theme and a look and customize your blog with lists and categories. If you are a coding junkie, you can do a lot more. But with already established collaboration functions, blogging within SharePoint means working in a web-based collaborative environment, and if your organization uses SharePoint, then this becomes the natural place to blog. Whereas WordPress, Blogger or any other blog site is set up so that you are swiftly blogging on the internet, SharePoint creates a natural environment for blogging within an organization. This is the key difference.  Whether you begin blogging straight from Word, or stumble upon an article you’d like to embed in an entry, this collaborative environment makes it easy to integrate and jump from one application to another by using the already interactive tools at your disposal.  This is how we are now interacting and learning from each other, as is explained in the 70+20+10 model, and the ease in which we can incorporate these functions is important to the way we learn from one another.

While I look forward to seeing which kind of innovation this may open up in terms of blogging within a “dyi” open source context, I am more intrigued about the changes that will occur in the way we share our opinions and invite people to belong to our individual and growing clouds.   This is another way to share, another way to weave a web of opinion, followership and most importantly, innovation.

Posted in Commentary | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

How to use SharePoint to track annual competency tests: Part 2 – Elusive reminders

Like many others, I have to organize annual competence tests – everyone in my company has to pass a test once a year on data security. I use a SharePoint list to manage who has taken the test when, see the first part of this blog series for how the list is set up.

I find SharePoint much better than an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of who has taken a test – I get version tracking so I can check history, and I can easily make a SharePoint view of those who are due a test soon. But what I’d like to do is use SharePoint to send reminder emails. I would like SharePoint to remind employees when their test is due, and to remind me when tests are close to being overdue.

You’d think (or at least I thought) that this would be easy in SharePoint, but it isn’t.  Here is the story so far of my quest for SharePoint reminders.

Things that don’t work

  1. SharePoint alerts allow you to set yourself alerts when things change in SharePoint. My first thought was that you could just set up a view for list items where the date for the next test is near, and then set up an alert to run when items reach the view. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to work; alerts can be sent when someone changes an item in the view, not when something is added to the view. Plus alerts don’t seem to be possible on views that filter on calculated columns.alerts

2. SharePoint workflow lets you pause until a date, so you could in theory create a SharePoint Designer workflow which sits for a year and then sends an email, something like this:

Simple workflow, pause and then send email

However this won’t work for two reasons. Firstly a pause in a workflow is not I understand reliable for a period of a year, things get reset from time to time. And secondly if you adjust the date of the test for some reason, it won’t adjust the workflow, so it’s not fully reliable.

Things that might work

3. You may be able to set up two linked workflows, which between them can send a reminder.  I’m not sure if it will reliably work over year timescales, but see this Microsoft article Create a secondary workflow to get you started. There could also be a similar workflow route set on sending emails when tasks expire.

4. This route seems more promising, and is based on a smart idea from @WonderLaura documented at SharePoint911. Essentially SharePoint has Information Management Policy Settings which among other things allow you to start a workflow based on some criteria. This is designed for retention policies, but can be used for other things. For instance, the screenshot below should start a workflow for each list item when a reminder date is reached:

SharePoint screenshot

However I’ve set this up on Office 365 SharePoint Online, and it’s currently not working reliably for me. If I can get it to work, I’ll blog further.

So what does work?

5. You could always program a solution. If you have the ability to write custom code, then you can do it this way pretty easily (e.g. with a custom timer job).

6. There are several add-on products from commercial companies that let you send reminders. I’ve not tried these myself as we use Office 365 where these web parts won’t work, but they could be helpful if you have your own SharePoint installation. There are other products but two potential ones are:

 

Does anyone else know any other reliable way of doing this in SharePoint 2010 (especially in Office 365)? I’d love to know.

Posted in Compliance, How-To, SharePoint 2010 | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

What’s a SharePoint Saturday like?

It’s 6am in London on a Saturday morning, completely dark, no sign of dawn, the only sound I hear is an owl hooting. I’m off to SharePoint Saturday UK, set in the historic town of Nottingham (famous for persecuting Robin Hood, the outlaw noble who stole from the rich to give to the poor).

Robin Hood and friends at SharePoint Saturday UK

SharePoint Saturdays are community events, free to attend, paid for by low-key sponsors.

What is a SharePoint Saturday like?

Well there were 300 attendees, mostly SharePoint users and administrators, but with a few SharePoint grandees like Mark Miller and Todd Klindt. And someone who looks awfully like Robin Hood with Maid Marian and Friar Tuck in tow was there giving his approval to the event <g>.

East Midlands Conference Centre

I arrived at the venue, a high quality University conference centre in Nottingham, just at the end of Todd Klindt’s keynote.

How does a SharePoint Saturday compare to a formal conference? In a way, it’s similar, lots of high quality speakers, but the atmosphere is different, less focused and less commercial. It was relaxed: no-one had to be there, the sponsors/exhibitors were informal, people were giving of their time and knowledge from goodwill. And it was a day off for everyone – so no conference calls to go to or emails to answer. A day to learn, but also to have fun. Hearty thanks to the team who organized it.

Here are some of the sessions I attended:

How we did it: Collaboration at a European Central Bank
A great story to start the day was how Symon Garfield (Twitter: @symon_garfield) of ICS helped a large Central Bank implement SharePoint for collaboration. They had 6 siloed divisions and installed SharePoint to allow teams across the divisions to collaborate. For instance one division had 75,000 spreadsheets previously only accessible from a file store. He gave useful advice on how to cross the adoption chasm, for instance make a sandpit area people can play in. For the first 6 months, adoption was a bit disappointing, but after people saw their peers being successful, adoption shot up after 9 months and it’s now hugely successful. The system also helps social learning.

SharePoint Application Showcase from the Salvation Army
From one of the richest organizations to one of the more needy, Chirag Patel (Twitter: @techchirag) talked about the SharePoint applications he’s helped the Salvation Army make. He tries to limits himself to 3 days work to get a site or application up and running, but has made some great-looking and valuable systems. One of those he showed was using SharePoint for course management within the Salvation Army – for sharing course documents, reducing emails and for managing submitted assignments using workflow. This application looks useful for others to know about, and I hope to describe it more in a follow-up piece.

To Host or Not to Host – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Decisions
Mark Miller (Twitter: @eusp) is the man behind the website www.nothingbutsharepoint.com where a few of this site’s interviews have been syndicated. He now works as Senior Storyteller (!) at fpweb.net, the SharePoint hosting providers and having just flown in from Hong Kong this morning gave an entertaining talk on SharePoint hosting options – the good, the bad and the ugly.

He made the point that nothing is ideal in all respects, but that On Premise deployment of SharePoint is very expensive in infrastructure and time. Moving SharePoint to the Cloud saves a lot of money. And ran through the advantages and disadvantages he saw of the various Cloud methods

  • Office 365 – good for up to 150-200 people, then he suggests expensive (see here for my review of SharePoint Online in Office 365)
  • Using generic cloud providers – good value and reliable for the infrastructure, but not expert in supporting SharePoint.
  • Specialist providers like fpweb.net – manage SharePoint well and a good choice for many, he suggests.

Mark Miller's presentation

 
Alan Richards on using SharePoint 2010 for efficiency in a school
A typical school uses 1.5 million sheets of paper a year, and Alan (Twitter: @arichards_Saruk) runs ICT for a consortium of schools in Essex and gave a great live demo of using SharePoint to make things more efficient using no-code solutions like forms and workflow.

The coolest thing he demonstrated was that all homework at his school is now managed via SharePoint. Students don’t have a homework diary, it’s all online. Students and parents can login and see what homework the student has got – all with standard SharePoint and workflow, no code. This is the most popular application he’s ever deployed, everyone likes it – students, parents and teachers. (I wish my kids schools had this!)

Alan has promised me an interview for this blog, so watch this space for more.

I also attended a good session by Matt Hughes (Twitter @mattmoo2) on branding SharePoint and met many people including actually meeting face to face Dave Coleman (Twitter: @davecoleman146) who I’ve interviewed for this blog but not met in person before – seems a real gentleman. And sorry to all I did not mention.

If you get a chance to go to a SharePoint Saturday, go! I learned a lot, met some great people and thoroughly enjoyed it.

And what would the real Robin Hood have thought? Perhaps in the knowledge age, we don’t need to steal from the rich; the rich can share information with the poor and we can all get richer?

Posted in Commentary, Community | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

SharePoint adopted faster than any other application I’ve ever seen!

Thought leader interview with Ed Kelty, CIO of Rio Salado College in Arizona, USA

Ed, who are Rio Salado College and what is your role?

Rio Salado College is the largest online public community college in the nation with nearly 47,000 students online with a total of nearly 70,000 students.

I’m the CIO and Vice President of Information Services at Rio Salado College. I oversee all aspects of technology in this institution.

What do you use SharePoint for?

We have three different installations of SharePoint.

One of these is Rio Learn, our distance learning application that we partnered with Microsoft to build back in 2004. This handles our 47,000 online students. We are currently working on version 8 of RioLearn, making substantial enhancements. That’s a large installation of SharePoint.

We also use SharePoint for our public facing website www.riosalado.edu and its CMS functions. If you go to the site, you probably wouldn’t realize that it is a SharePoint site, as our marketing department has heavily customized it. They let others in the college edit the content, and then validate it through workflows before publishing.

www.riosalado.com screenshot

Lastly, we use SharePoint for an Employee Portal for our approximately 2,000 employees and faculty. This is the one installation of SharePoint which is most generic. It supports every department and every aspect of our college; not only for repositories and announcements and distribution of information, but we’ve also started building applications with workflows.

How is your hardware organized?

We have multiple databases running in the back end. We have front end web servers. We also have independent servers for the search feature. It’s a relatively large farm. The database servers are all physical devices, but the rest of the servers are mostly virtual, running on our very large VMware farm.

You’ve been a pretty early adopter of SharePoint. What are the main strengths of it?

When we rolled out SharePoint in 2003-2004, we told everyone that they would receive 30-60 minutes of training and a SharePoint book, and if you need help, give us a call.

I’ve been working in Education and technology for over 25 years and SharePoint is the application that is most widely adopted by our end-users: faster than any other application I’ve ever seen. Every department in the college has adopted it. They’ve developed anything from simple team sites for data storage and announcements, to tracking applications for content development for our courses.

That’s one of its major strengths. In simple terms, it’s very easy to use, but it’s got a lot of power for someone who wants to go deeper.

And what about weaknesses?

It’s not so much a weakness, but one of the issues we had with SharePoint is that we didn’t realize the level of flexibility and the power it had to develop different things … and we didn’t initially have a process in place to help govern what went where. And so our SharePoint sites, especially on our Employee Portal went crazy. There are team sites everywhere.

We didn’t realize how quickly it would be adopted and how widespread it would go. In the last few years, we’ve been more organized about things – navigation and database storage and that sort of thing, but in the beginning, we didn’t have a clue how to best configure the system.

What advice would you give to other colleges, universities and educational organizations if they are deploying SharePoint?

I’d do research on best practices, on both the front and the back end. There are some very clear best practices that Microsoft has put together to describe how you should design and build your databases depending on how big you perceive your environment will be. On the back end, just follow best practices like making sure your site collections don’t get too large and break your search server on a separate server, things like that.

On the front end, it’s really just common sense. For example, on our Employee Portal, we have a tab which says “Departments.” We didn’t control that. We just said that if you want something, let us know. It ended up that the “Departments” list didn’t align with the actual departments – some teams in departments created a site, some departments created a primary site and then sub-sites (which is what I would suggest is most appropriate), sometimes things were created not for a department but for a cross-functional team. So just trying to lay out your path or design from a user-interface is something I’d recommend.

There is a great deal of content on the web, and many institutions like our own have gone through it. Educators help other educators and there are plenty of people to sit down and talk to.

What are the business benefits of SharePoint?

Accessibility for our employees is a big issue. Our employees can access their content wherever they are. We have multiple locations throughout Maricopa County in Arizona – and this county is larger than some states in the U.S.! So having the ability to sit down at any desk or at your home to access files makes things a lot easier.

The other key issue is to put more power in the hands of our faculty and staff – so they can be more productive with their time. If they need to set up a workgroup for example, they can do that on the fly. We’ve turned our entire project management process into team sites; action items, minutes from meetings, to do lists, and project timelines are all integrated with SharePoint. You can look at all the projects going on at anytime and see where they are at. There are a lot of efficiencies to end-users from SharePoint.

In terms of assessments, how do you run them at Rio Salado?

We don’t use any of the in-built SharePoint assessment tools, for instance the survey tool. We built a custom web part that hooks into Questionmark, the software Rio Salado College uses for most of our assessments. One interface is an assignment list, where students can click on a link which signs them in seamlessly and see what assessments are part of the course, and depending on the course designer, they can see all or some of their assessments. Another is the web part which only shows the assessments that they are supposed to see at that point in time, more like a sequential list where you have to finish one before moving on to the next one. Building this web part was relatively straightforward.

On the back-end, we also take the results of assessments and populate a custom web part Grade Book we’ve created. This pushes the scores into RioLearn, where we display the grades.

We do use the “out of the box” SharePoint web parts for certain activities. We use document libraries for students to upload assignments into and also use threaded discussions for feedback and interaction with small group discussions which is graded.

Can students log in and see their scores?

Yes. Students can see their grades almost immediately unless it is something like an essay that needs to be graded by the instructor.

One of the things people sometimes worry about SharePoint is that they need a lot of developers to use it effectively. How large a team do you have?

Depending on your deployment, you may not need any developers. Our Employee Portal doesn’t have any. I have only one team member who’s learned SharePoint and SharePoint Designer, and he’s implemented several workflow processes, but he doesn’t do any programming. Our marketing team oversees our entire website with more than 1000 pages on it. Only on occasion do we need to pull in a developer to assist them with special initiatives.

RioLearn on the other hand is a fairly customized application, with many custom web parts. We have a team of .NET developers working on that. It really depends on what you plan on doing with SharePoint.

What are some of the new capabilities in SharePoint you are using?

We have moved some of our installations to SharePoint 2010 and are in the process of moving all of the others. We’re really excited about some of the new features in SharePoint 2010 – for instance the ability to cross site collections to share data is easier than in SharePoint 2007.

The integration with PerformancePoint (Microsoft’s Scorecard application) is having a big impact. We can pretty easily take SharePoint lists, Excel worksheets, SQL analytics and tie this all together to create score cards. We’re just starting to experiment with our data warehouse and we seem to be able to create score cards and dashboards pretty easily. So far I’m very impressed, and from an educational standpoint, it’s not that expensive.

Being able to build dashboards is a big win. In education we are all asked to show how we contribute to completion statistics, job performance after graduation and retention rates. Using a score card makes that very easy to see and drill into.

Last month, we deployed Microsoft Project Server 2010, which looks very promising. It takes us beyond our original project sites in SharePoint to where it’s actually integrated with project management software. We’re just experimenting with this right now.

In terms of the corporate decision to use SharePoint, how good a decision do you think that was?

Using SharePoint was an excellent decision. We wouldn’t be using it so much if it wasn’t! It’s been well-adopted, and supported the needs of our institution.

How do you see the future with SharePoint?

If it keeps going the way it is, not only can we start developing more complicated applications in SharePoint, but it is also likely to be the link or front-end interface to other systems, making it easier for our customers to access information. I see a lot of third party applications being integrated with SharePoint – social media integration is an example and more third party apps are being developed all the time. It seems that SharePoint can be used to aggregate data from different kinds of systems together and integrate them into a clean customer interface adapted specifically for their needs.

Posted in Community, Interview, SharePoint 2010 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

SharePoint in Office 365: the Good, the Bad, the Brilliant and the Ugly

What is Office 365 SharePoint Online like when you use it for real? And what potential application does it have for helping in learning?

Office 365 logoMy company has been using Office 365 in anger for a month or so now, here is a review of the SharePoint component from a general business user perspective with a bias to using it for learning. Do things work well (the “Good”), how much of a problem are the documented weaknesses (the “Bad”), what makes a real difference (the “Brilliant”) and what is unexpected (the “Ugly”)?

Some small print: The opinions in this review are mine and do not reflect the views of my employer; note also that we are using the E3 package, and the features of Office 365 do vary by package.

The Good

Most of the good points come from standard SharePoint:

  • Make site and pages easily. It’s a few minutes work to create a site to store documents on or allow people to collaborate on. You do it all within the UI, and then people can access it, learn from it or collaborate in it.
  • Set up lists to track things. For example, I run our annual data security competency tests in my company, and use a SharePoint list to track when people are due for a test (see here for more on this).
  • Search. SharePoint 2010 has a great search engine, and the searching within Office 365 seems fast and easy, you can often find what you are looking for.
  • Security. If you have confidential data or material you want to hide from learners, it’s easy to do so.
  • Workflow is available without coding. It’s easy to add workflow to a list, you just click on one of the ribbon options and you can open up SharePoint Designer to do this. For instance send an email when someone is allocated a task or when someone submits an assignment, send an email or assign a task to a grader.

Workflow menu options in ribbon

Assessment within Office 365

  • All the rest of SharePoint is there too. There is an awful lot to explore, for instance there are over 75 web parts to choose from including Excel and Visio web access .
  • The other parts of Office 365 are pretty useful too! Lync is a great improvement on Windows Live Messenger on Live Meeting. Having someone host Exchange for you is a boon, and the various Office applications fit in well with SharePoint Online.

The Bad

There are lots of standard SharePoint 2010 capabilities which are not possible in SharePoint Online. Here are the three I find painful.

  • You can’t use Windows Live Writer to write blogs for SharePoint Office 365. You either have to use the inbuilt SharePoint UI or else if you want to write offline, you can use Word. Word is okay for blogging, but I miss some of the capabilities of Windows Live Writer, especially the ways it will make thumbnails of images for you and other ways to manage pictures in blogs.
  • Email enabled lists and libraries aren’t permitted. There are all sorts of applications for this as a way of getting in data from outside. See for instance Pushing results into SharePoint from an Assessment System using Email, but this is not permitted in Office 365.
  • Third party add-in programs are very restricted. Indeed almost all of those currently available won’t work due to the restrictions. Watch out for this to change, as a lot of vendors are busily writing applications that will fit within what Microsoft allow, but for the moment, it’s a restriction.

The Brilliant

Do any kind of search on the web for SharePoint and you will find articles on SharePoint farm organization, setting up search indexing, how to set up SQL Server to run SharePoint and other technical articles on setting up SharePoint.  There are thousands of complex articles out there explaining how to install and configure SharePoint effectively.

The great thing about SharePoint Online is that you don’t need to know any setup stuff – Microsoft does it for you!

Yes, I’ll repeat that. The great thing about SharePoint Online is that you don’t need to know any setup stuff – Microsoft does it for you!

If you want to set up a site for a learning project, you wouldn’t want all the hassle of setting up SharePoint on servers, but now you can just pay some money and do it in the Cloud.

And the Ugly

There are a few things which Microsoft don’t document well and which are painful.

  • Migration is painful. If you have an existing SharePoint site, moving it to Office 365 is a lot less nice than you’d like. Microsoft don’t provide their own tools to do this, there are external tools which we used, which help, but it takes a long time and the migration isn’t perfect. We still have a lot of URLs within our wiki which point to documents on our old SharePoint site which we have to fix laboriously.
  • You are limited in the number of email recipients you can send to. Although more an Exchange feature than a SharePoint one, there is a limit to the number of email recipients that you can send from a single mailbox; this is 500 a day on the more basic Office 365 packages and 1500 a day for enterprises. So if you want to make an announcement or send out a newsletter, you are limited to the number of people you can send it to. [Update Nov 8th: one useful workaround to this is that each distribution group in the group address list counts as just a single recipient.]
  • Lists, libraries and wikis with more than 5,000 entries don’t seem to work properly. In theory, SharePoint Online can have millions of entries in a list or library, but in practice in the current release, if you have more than 5,000 you don’t seem to be able to use the library (e.g. cannot set permissions). For instance, we have a wiki library which has close to 5,000 pages and we are having to manage it and delete old pages to ensure we don’t step over the limit. Not a problem for small users, but a problem if you grow. [Update Nov 8th: if you split your library into folders, you can have libraries with more than 5,000 documents, but there is an issue that managing permissions directly in the UI seems blocked once you exceed the 5,000 limit.]List view threshold
  • You can’t open PDFs, you have to download them before opening. Apparently due to security concerns, if you have PDFs that you want people to open on your site, they can’t click and open them directly, you have to save them on your local computer first and then view, you get a dialog like the below:

Do you want to save the PDF?

Like many others, we use PDF files extensively and this is a pain.  I can’t believe it’ll be long before Microsoft change this … here’s hoping anyway.

One of the great things about a software service like Office 365 is that it can be updated at the server end and I’m sure we’ll see improvements from service updates.

If you currently run SharePoint On Premise and don’t have a lot of third party web parts, then moving to SharePoint Online seems very viable, but prepare for some effort to do the migration. If you’re looking to run a learning project online, then take a look at Office 365, particularly with assessments, it may be a viable route to set up an effective site quickly.

Feel free to comment below if you have any corrections or your own comments on SharePoint Online.

Posted in Commentary, SharePoint in the Cloud | Tagged , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Measuring Social Learning in SharePoint with Assessments

Here are the slides from my presentation at the European SharePoint Conference in Berlin last week. The key message is that the way we learn in the workplace is changing rapidly with the 70+20+10 model of learning, and that SharePoint (with assessments) is a key enabler for formal and informal learning in the workplace.
To see some notes on each slide, you can also view the presentation directly in SlideShare.
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Call assessments from Office 365, authenticating via Active Directory

Integrating with SharePoint Online, the Office 365 version of SharePoint, can be challenging as Microsoft have prevented most server-to-server communication. But SharePoint Online does support Active Directory (AD) authentication using Integrated Windows Authentication, so if your assessment software also supports AD, you have an easy and safe way of authenticating your assessment taker.

Flow chart showing log into SharePoint, Authenticate via AD, call assessment as iframe, authenticate via AD

As shown in the diagram above:

  1. A user logs into SharePoint Online using AD.
  2. A page in SharePoint calls the assessment using the Page Viewer Web Part
  3. The assessment software also authenticates in AD so the assessment-taker is authenticated in the same way as the SharePoint user.

This relies on SharePoint and the assessment software both connecting to the same Active Directory – the authentication is not passed from SharePoint to the assessment, but both systems check at the same source.

Does it work in practice? Yes – see below a screenshot of me logging into an Office 365 site and being presented with a list of assessments to take that are scheduled to me in Questionmark Perception. The red arrows indicate that both systems have logged me in via Active Directory / Integrated Windows Authentication.

Screenshot of logging into Questionmark software from SharePoint, both systems using Active Directory

This will work calling many kinds of programs from SharePoint Online, not just assessments.

Posted in How-To, SharePoint in the Cloud | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments