Post originally featured on the SharePoint and Assessment Blog from Questionmark.

Thought leader interview with Ray Fleming of Microsoft Australia about SharePoint’s place and future in Education.

Ray Fleming (Microsoft)Ray, what do you do at Microsoft?

I’ve worked in education IT for 25 years, and for the last 5 years, I’ve been with Microsoft. I used to be Education Marketing Manager in Microsoft in the UK, but 6 months ago I moved to Australia where I’m working at Microsoft on new strategic opportunities with our partners.

Where do you see SharePoint being used in Education?

It’s very widely used in schools, colleges and universities right around the world, because it brings many web services together into one place – and because learning is all about making connections and collaboration, SharePoint has been widely adopted to help that. In the UK, over 80% of universities are using SharePoint. Some of them use it as a strategic platform, connected to their collaboration systems and they use it as their main portal. Others are starting by using it as a tactical project, almost like using a shared drive, they just happen to use SharePoint instead. There is a similar pattern here in Australia – most universities are using SharePoint, most of the State funded schools are using SharePoint but there’s a huge variety – some see it as a strategic platform, others as just one more service they provide.

What good practice advice would you give people about using SharePoint in Education?

Here are three really important things I’ve come across in the last 5-6 years:

  1. Start with a particular project in mind. Don’t start with “We’re going to put a SharePoint up” and take the attitude of “build it and they will come”. Because an empty SharePoint is an empty SharePoint – in the same way that an empty piece of paper is! You need to have a use case in mind and build for that use case, because that gets people to use it – and then start thinking of other things. So as an IT manager, if you deliver a project to manage the workflow around your new policy document, that’s great – for example 5 people are going to review a document and then we’re going to check it in and it will go live. Someone will then ask during the process, can we also use it to create lesson plans or our curriculum for next year? That’s great because then you’ve got users hooked on wanting to solve a problem and you can then use SharePoint to solve it. Be very focused about the use case, rather than starting with the platform.
  2. The second thing I’d say is to think about the design. SharePoint can look amazingly different depending on who gets their hands on it. It’s still very important to users that it looks good, and it’s got to be high up the priority list. There are some amazing SharePoint sites, see my list of top 10 Australian education websites built on SharePoint (see for instance the Gordon Institute below).
  3. Gordon Institute of TAFE The one that I refer to more often than not is Twynham School Sixth Form College in the UK, which has got some amazing graphics and interactivity. A College like this recruits from a number of different schools in their area, competing against other colleges. And the reason I know it’s good is that my daughter who was 14 at the time, the minute she looked at the site, said that’s the school I want to go to. And that’s the job it should be doing!
  4. The third tip is about user education. SharePoint isn’t the kind of system that you’re going to get value from just by building it and letting people use it, Giving enough training to let people understand the true potential is important. I found that myself, I almost stumbled upon the wiki functionality and out of the back of it built a fantastic knowledge base. But if I hadn’t come across the feature, who would have sat down and told me I could achieve this? Often with SharePoint there is more than one way to “skin a cat”, and training can help you with the best way. User adoption training is critical, not just at the point you introduce it but on-going.

What is your advice to people advocating SharePoint within their institution? How do you make the case for SharePoint?

Ultimately that conversation comes down to the breadth and depth of what you can do in SharePoint. What tends to happen in a web 2.0 world is that a particular teacher will say “I want to do this, so I’m going to put students in a web app in order to do function X”. Then they want to do a learning exercise and that’s a different web app. What you very quickly get is a snowball of different websites being used for different things.

When you look at the underlying functions, you often find that functionality does exist in SharePoint. And the benefit of doing it in SharePoint is that it sits in your existing IT infrastructure; your users are all there, your security is all set up. If a member of staff leaves the school, they automatically leave all of the systems, but if you’re doing things on different websites that isn’t going to happen. So not only do you have all the capabilities of wikis and blogging and assessments and workflow and document storage – but you also have corporate security that means it matches up to your system and your duty of care to students.

The key to help Education understand SharePoint is to take it from that very generic “yes it can do lots of things” down to specific scenarios like: “you need your students to work together on a project and they need to be able to communicate, store files and work on files collaboratively; here is how to do this in SharePoint.”

So not “with SharePoint, you can create lists and flow diagrams” but “you can get students to go through a particular test and record their answers”. Being able to discuss a scenario makes SharePoint more real.

How do you see the application of SharePoint to deliver and report on tests, quizzes and exams?

It’s an area of great untapped potential. If you look at the teaching process, on-going assessment of students is critical to checking understanding and that the student is ready to go onto the next level of the work. Today a huge amount of that revolves around paper. A typical high school in the UK will use a million to a million and a half sheets of paper a year, and yet they’ve got a SharePoint sitting there that could save them huge amounts of effort; not just the cost of paper, but the costs of preparing the tests and getting them duplicated and to the right classroom at the right time and then marking the tests – all of this could be avoided with SharePoint.

There is a real opportunity to optimize one of the key aspects of the learning process, formative assessment, to be sure students are progressing in their learning. So my view, and one of the reasons I follow your SharePoint and Assessments blog, is this seems a big area of untapped potential – it’s core to the learning process. Get it right, you make teachers lives much easier and improve the learning process for individual students.

How much of an impact do you think Office 365 will make?

In the worldwide context, the move to the Cloud in education has been faster than many other segments of industry. I think a key driver for use of Office 365 will be for institutions to move staff collaboration to enable the same level of collaboration that students use every day. I saw some statistics yesterday that says over 85% of the use of the Deakin University LMS takes place outside of the University. So there is a huge logic for putting things into the Cloud, as your users are out on the Internet – not necessarily in the institution when using your systems.

How do you see SharePoint interacting with other learning platforms?

There are LMSs and learning gateways that are embedded completely within SharePoint. In further and higher education, there are a lot of dedicated LMSs like Blackboard and Moodle, and SharePoint is seen as another system, rather than being part of the core LMS.

I think that’s changing. What’s happening worldwide in Education is that people are starting to understand the capability of SharePoint as a platform. For example I’ve been involved in discussions today with SharePoint being used to surface all business intelligence information – getting data displayed and available to people – staff, students and parents – through a SharePoint. This is opening people’s eyes that they can do more with one platform, they can’t just think of SharePoint as an LMS, or a document storage system or a collaboration system but actually it has a potential to do more.

Historically it’s been difficult to describe what SharePoint is, because SharePoint can do so many things. We’ve avoided pigeon holing SharePoint in one particular box, but that’s also led to customers not fully understanding what’s possible, because the answer is always “Yes, you can do that with SharePoint; now what is it you want to do?” as opposed to a learning-specific system where someone can be very clear that it does some things. SharePoint can do those things, but it can also do other things.

Where do things go from here?

We are starting to see the end of the idea of the big monolithic learning management system where you buy one system that does everything. What we’re going to see going forward is best of breed solutions – best of breed assessment engine, best of breed collaboration engine, best of breed content delivery system, lecture capture system, online course delivery. We’ve been building bigger and bigger central LMSs to do more of these things in one system. What we’re going to see is a fragmentation of this, and people are going to be asking – what is the platform we can put all of these on?

And that’s where SharePoint is going to come into its own. If you put Moodle on top of SharePoint, you get better document management, you get better security, you get backup, you can edit documents live rather than having to take them offline to edit them. The same is true of adding an assessment system like Questionmark on top, it links in with everything else you’ve got going. So I think we’re going to see less and less of a single LMS and more and more of interconnected components that make a great learning experience for students.

You can follow Ray Fleming on Twitter at @RayFleming or see his blog at http://blogs.msdn.com/b/education/.