Guest post from freelance writer, Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft Education blogs.

On the final Saturday of BETT 2012, I found myself among old friends on the Capita stand. Having followed the SIMS story since the earliest days, I thought I’d kept up with most of what they’ve been doing over the years. I have to say, though, that I hadn’t taken enough notice of their cloud-hosted SharePoint powered management learning environment, ‘Openhive’, which was added to Capita’s portfolio when they acquired Synetrix in 2009.

This year, though, my attention was grabbed by the fact that ‘OpenHive’ was moved to the main Capita stand, and it was made possible to see its possibilities aligned with all the developments emerging in the SIMS management information system.

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There’s a lot going for ‘Openhive’. It’s modular, which means it can be tailored to a school’s needs and budget, and it uses ‘Silverlight’ to produce an attractive and easy user interface. The result is a resource that’s highly flexible.

One school might choose simply to use the Openhive Portal, providing a customised and school branded single sign on front end for all the school’s ICT services. Another, though, might go for a complete ISP service, with mail, parental reporting, video and instant messaging. Or, of course, any step in between (The interplay between ‘Openhive’ and the mass of data held by SIMS, is of obvious importance here).

This flexibility is important. So often, teachers and school leaders have been thrown off-balance by the arrival of a complicated VLE, sometimes imposed from above. As a result, it’s often suggested that schools should consider retreating to a simple starting point, looking to using bespoke web tools as and when they were needed. At the same time, though, the enormous potential of SharePoint for collaboration, communication and content handling has been obvious, particularly to that intrepid band of teachers and network managers who have succeeded in harnessing SharePoint to the needs of their schools.

Not everyone wants to do that, though, or has the necessary skills. That’s why the development of commercial SharePoint based environments such as Learning Possibilities’ LP+4, Civica’s ‘CloudBase” and Capita’s “Openhive” itself, are so important, each developed with the emphasis on how students, teachers, leaders and parents engage with school work.

They do, though, need to be carefully approached and adopted. That’s why James Cross, eLearning Consultant with ‘Civica’, describing how they introduce ‘CloudBase’ to schools says,

“We go into school, really get to know the staff, and essentially become an extra member of staff.”

The “Openhive” approach is the same. Keith Jones, Capita’s Openhive Programme Manager, describing the level of support that’s provided for adopters, says,

“We say to schools, ‘You can’t buy a VLE in June and expect it to be in action by September. It takes a while to understand it and all staff and others, including governors, have to be involved.”

The point he makes, and it’s a crucial one for all school ICT projects, is that the adoption process should consist of making the product work for the school, and not be about changing school processes and policies to fit the product.

There’s so much going on now as partner businesses and developers pick up Microsoft software, such as SQL Server, SharePoint 2010, Live@edu and Office 365, and tailor them to the needs of learners. At the same time there’s the rapid advance of Cloud technology and the ‘School in a Box’ concept. It all makes for plenty to watch out for and report on in the coming year.