SharePoint, File Explorer and the Great File Server debate.

May 24, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: SharePoint 

When SharePoint became a huge product back in 2007 there was a wide variety of debates about moving file server content to SharePoint and the benefits this would bring. This is a topic which perhaps affects educational establishments more than any other. Do any other institutions undergo a 100% turnover in users over 5-7 years as schools and colleges do with students? In almost all schools these users will have access to their own personal ‘Home Drive’ and perhaps a number of file shares which contain resources shared by teachers. The question is when SharePoint comes along in a school should you get rid of Home Drives and file shares?

The argument for getting rid of file shares

File shares are typically areas where resources are either made available to a large number of users to consume or are full of documents which users collaborate on. In other words they are made for SharePoint! In an ideal world when rolling out a SharePoint deployment you will create a timeline to decommission file shares and replace them when SharePoint sites. File shares are often heavily cluttered and can be impossible to navigate. At Twynham when we rolled out SharePoint we made all our file shares ‘read-only’ for a year after before we switched them off. This was an important decision as it avoided the panic of users being under the threat of losing file shares and simply dumping the content (which in some cases is old, out of date and unused) into SharePoint without thought. When people have time to decommission parts of their file shares they can carefully look through and identify what they want to keep and resources which can be removed.

The argument for keeping Home Drives

If it makes sense to get rid of our file shares does it not also make sense to get rid of your Home Drives which are on a file server? At Twynham we considered decommissioning our file server with all the Home Drives on and putting the content on staff and student My Sites. Fortunately the technical guys in the team pointed out that this would be unwise. The amount of storage we were using in terms of a file server for Home Drives was 10TB. This storage was relatively cheap but moving it over to SharePoint would immediately put it on sql and have a considerable impact on performance. The main question is therefore why would you put your Home Drives on SharePoint? All of these resources are used by individuals and are not shared by other users. Given the relative costs of file servers compared to SAN storage it makes sense to leave Home Drives on the file server and save a lot of money on your deployment.

The challenge with keeping Home Drives

Having made the decision to move file shares over to SharePoint but keep Home Drives on a dedicated file server what problems were we still faced with? As schools adopt SharePoint users increasingly want access to resources anytime and anywhere. This can create a problem with Home Drives which are often not easily or conveniently exposed outside of schools so that users can access them from home. Even where schools make their Home Drives available the fact that they do not connect with SharePoint means that you lose that ‘one stop shop’ which is a big advantage of SharePoint. At Twynham we quickly realised that there would be an ideal scenario where file shares were decommissioned with resources moved to SharePoint and Home Drives would be maintained on a dedicated file server but we needed to make these available through SharePoint.
SharePoint File Explorer and Home Drives
SharePoint File Explorer was built with the challenges outlined above in mind. It is a web part which identifies the logged in user and surfaces their Home Drive so that they can add and remove resources and edit documents on the fly. The video below is a walk through which most effectively shows how File Explorer works.

If you would like to try a demo account for File Explorer yourself you can sign up at www.sharepointforschools.co.uk

Dear Tom.. The things we think and do not say.. Thoughts on the populist appeal of deriding data.

January 22, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: SharePoint 

I sit here at my laptop starting to write a response to a blog post I have just read in the full awareness that I am about to commit a form of professional twitter/blog based faux pas. On Sunday I woke to find no fewer than 3 separate emails from 3 colleagues (2 of whom were from my own school)passing on a blog post about the use of data in schools and the wider educational system. To get 20+ RTs on twitter about something which is interesting is far from unusual but to get three emails within a few hours about one blog post is fairly rare for me and this clearly added to my sense of interest.

I eagerly pulled up the blog post from a well-liked and respected fellow colleague on twitter who writes brilliantly in an entertaining and lucid style which makes for an engaging read. Tom Bennett’s article ‘The Bones Have Spoken: Is Value-Added Crystal Bollocks?’ which can be found on his excellent blog The Behaviour Guru has clearly resonated well with many in the education community who are sick and fed up with the apparent over and misuse of data within schools and the educational system. The problem I suffer having read the article 5 times now over 4 hours is that it did not resonate with me. I found the article riddled with, in my opinion, a number of pedagogical and statistical flaws which I feel do more harm than good in the debate about how and why we use data within schools. It is in this context that the faux pas I am about to commit is to be critical of a fellow colleagues writing knowing that this is one of those things we think and do not say.

Here are a few of my issues with the article (with quotes from the article clearly shown) which I put to Tom Bennett in the friendly spirit of open discourse.

1. ‘Stand easy citizens- schools will be exhibiting their Contextual Value Added scores from now on, not unlike a baboon, presenting its ghastly floral undercarriage’. This is almost the exact opposite of what is happening. The new government has retired CVA from this current set of results which will be published this week. Whatever my own views of the new Government’s endless and bewildering range of proclamations and ‘Claudio Ranieri style’ tinkerman approach (trust me my own views are caustic of Gove and his buffoons) it surely makes sense to make the main focus of your argument something which you understand. Sifting through twitter feeds MG Harris questions you, asserting that she thought CVA was being abolished and the conversation is shown below.

An expansion of the link above is http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contextual_value_addedand you use this to confirm the prominence of CVA. Whilst I do not know how many other sources you have used for your understanding of CVA I would hope it is not just Wikipedia. I am a big fan of Wikipedia and don’t buy into the whole ‘it’s inaccurate’ arguments which people trot out but as an Historian I am also a fan of using a range of sources. An instant Google search such as http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6086535 would have confirmed that CVA had been abolished as MG Harris asserts.

2. I know this sound awfully rude but the whole article lacks any coherent understanding of the term CVA. The title of the article includes the words ‘value added’ which is an entirely different measure than CVA and is one of the measures the government will be keeping but with some adjustment. Furthermore, in the next paragraph you state that, ‘ my CVA is, thankfully, bulletproof, fireproof, and susceptible only to Kryptonite, and I only say that so you don’t think I’m a bitter victim of its diabolic engines.’  The key issue here is individual teachers, students, classes and even school leaders and Headteachers don’t have a CVA. A school was given a CVA as a measure of performance but individual teachers and groups don’t have a CVA. The whole article seems to confuse wide ranging measures of performance and reflection which for me is the heart of the issue.

3.  ‘In many ways picking a fight with predictions is an easy task, because I’m attacking the belief that we can tell what is going to happen about things that have not happened yet.’ One would think that ‘attacking predictions’ is indeed an easy task but again the incoherence of the argument is apparent. CVA is not a prediction it is one attempt to retrospectively measure performance. You do not know what your CVA needs to be and whether you will hit it with predictions as the measure is always adjusted. You can simply use it as a tool to see how well a cohort and subset within that cohort performed relative to other educational institutions using a Government measure. When you speak of predictions  you are perhaps talking of FFT estimates or some other system which you reference within the article. The problem is you jump from measure to measure so frequently acting as if all the terms are interchangeable when this is in no way the case.

 4. ‘What am FFT? They’re an organisation that sell data’ I am assuming that the use of am as the second word is actually are but have not doctored your own words. My issue here is the insinuation that the whole purpose of using data is a means of institutions making money as if it is all a big capitalist hoax. I may of course have misinterpreted this as you do not directly say it but I believe many people will form the opinion that you are making this populist assertion. A link on the Fischer Family Trust site http://www.fischertrust.org/about.aspx shows that they are actually, ‘an independent, non-profit organisation which is mainly involved in undertaking and supporting projects addressing the development of education in the UK.’ Whilst I am not aware of their funding mechanism given this context they do not have shareholders or a need for profit. The Government may fund them as they would any organisation (again I do not know how they are maintained) but I think it is unfair to suggest they ‘sell data’.

5. ‘It’s de-professionalises the whole role of the teacher. Excuse me? You want to say what one of my students is probably going to get this year….and you haven’t even met them? The statement above is exactly how I or any professional would feel if it were true. My issue here is that I think at the heart of the problems with our use of data is the insane way many schools have used it, throwing away any pedagogical underpinning in order to create quick and easy targets. Nobody who produced this data ever suggested it be used to create de-facto targets or suggested the role of the teacher is not the most crucial factor in understanding their potential within any given subject and examination. Having met Mike Treadaway who is Director of Research for the Fischer Family Trust I confronted him 3 years ago about the way in which their data was being boiled down into instant target setting systems by the vast majority of schools. It is fair to say he was horrified and the terminology you later refer to on the use of FFT data as estimates and not predictions/targets largely stems from that conversation. The simple fact is that we only have our self to blame as educators and school leaders if we create a mechanistic, ill-conceived and downright stupid approach to understanding data in the way that most schools have. Whilst it is easy to attack Governments and Quangos the answer to this problem lies much closer to home.

6. ‘You know what my expectation of my children is? An A. For everyone. That’s the target I set myself, and if I don’t get it, well, I try again next year.’ I think you speak for all of us in that as teachers we passionately aspire for children to achieve the best they can in every aspect of school life. At the same time the idea that telling a student with very weak literacy skills and a delayed reading age that a D is discouraging is another piece of educational madness that we have brought upon ourselves. How the hell did we get to a place where an examination that grades A*-G is only really valuable if everyone attains at grades A*-C? I undertake lots of formal and informal examinations of my capability in my professional and personal life. In some I excel, in others my performance is perhaps middling and in others I recognise I have major weaknesses. That this is the case is called real life and applies as much to students as any of us.

The idea that telling every student they are all capable of getting an A is genuinely laudable and in some I ways do this myself when I tell students that on a given question all students are capable of scoring an A*. This however is not without its own challenges and is not, in my view, the panacea to estimates. When students are highly motivated by an inspirational teacher who tells them they can achieve anything there is genuine value but surely this is often tempered by the despondency which greets the same student who scores a D in their mock exam and does not understand what went wrong. If this student started Secondary School with a reading age of 7 Years and was below the level for KS2 English Tests it may be an incredible outcome that they made progress to get to a D in a final examination. For me the value in estimates comes from giving a sense of the possible and in the hands of educators can be used skilfully to motivate and inspire and when used in a crass manner it has the power to demotivates and makes the child feel they are just part of a big machine. Again the choice and opportunity lies with us as educators and schools leaders and our lack of understanding lies at the heart of misuse when it comes to the notion of target setting. 

7. ‘Here’s a thing: what does it even mean to ‘aim for a C, or a B’? Have you ever seen a kid revise, and try to get a B?’ Maybe we work in different ways or understand children differently but I have seen a student improve over the course of two years during a GCSE. You assert in your analogy that a student just runs and does not have a target in mind when they do this. What happens if they want to start competing for their school and need to make a certain time to enter a specific competition. Would they not run, find out their current time and then ask their teacher, ‘how can I go faster’. If the teacher explains that they need to use their arms better when running and shows them how to do this to try and cut half a second of their time is this not a valuable exercise. It is a target after all and one which the child may appreciate when they achieve a goal they really wanted to. After all I am sure we both recognise that they are on their Xbox of PlayStation constantly setting themselves targets (perhaps both realistic and not) every day of the week. For me aiming for something is not evil or impossible. It can be motivating or demotivating. This in turn depends on context and that is the craft of the teacher. Some students I meet just want to ‘try their best’ and that is fine with me whereas others look at chances graphs, smile and say, ‘I want to try for a really difficult target of an A sir’. At the risk of sound repetitious, the information is not the problem here, it is the methodology many use.

As I said earlier, I hope that this response will in some way be seen as a useful discussion between us both and the various educators who may chip in. After all I am sure we both have the same desire for students to love learning and achieve everything they want. I like you believe there is a chronic issue with the use of data. At the same time I believe the use of data itself can be inherently valuable in the right context. When used poorly and in a damaging way I genuinely believe we only have ourselves to blame.

Best wishes

Mike

SharePoint Resource Booking System- video demo

June 29, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: SharePoint, SharePoint 2010 

Having used the SharePoint Resource Booking System at Twynham School for a year now I thought it was time to share this excellent solution. This product has been built by external developers but with Twynham School giving input on the functional needs for a resource booking system that could be used in education. In truth we saw it as a more narrow SharePoint Room Booking System which we would use for booking ICT rooms. It soon became clear that we could use it for a wide variety of resources including hardware, meeting rooms and even mini buses.

Our pevious system was like many used in education to book rooms and resources. Teachers would look online at a spreadsheet of rooms and availability and would then email a request to an administrator who would then update the spreadsheet. This is very tiresome for staff and it can take several hours to confirm if your room is booked. What we needed was a no hassle high speed way to find available rooms and resources and instantly book them. I have put a video demonstration together showing how we use the SharePoint Resource Booking System which can be seen below.

Best watched in HD for clarity

If you would like to have a play with the SharePoint Resource Booking System I am pleased to say a ‘Live Lab’ personal demo is available. Just head along to www.sharepointforschools.co.uk and set up a demo site where you can check out the functionality of the system.

I have also been given a discount code for any readers who may be interested in purchasing the SharePoint Resource Booking System. Just email the code ‘spedu’ to the email admin@sharepointforschools.co.uk and you can get £200 or $300 of the cost of the solution.

The Personal Learning Environment. Moving beyond the VLE and SharePoint Learning Platform.

Over the last decade we have seen an enormous growth in use of technology within education. From the use of laptops and digital projectors to smartboards and VLE’s all of which have been aimed at improving learning. As a relatively new teacher I was shown my first ever VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) in early 2004, a moodle system which we began to use at my second school. We often joked that as teachers we sat spellbound by a flash animation as the presenter seemed to promise us that the system would cure all educational problems and perhaps world famine at the same time. Previous blog posts have covered the features of a VLE and if you are unfamiliar with them you can catch up here and see the diagram below.

Since this time I have moved on to a third school and was involved in the original development of the SharePoint Learning Platform which has developed a significant reputation at Twynham School. You will notice the change in terminology and Tony Parkin once commented to me that over a number of years from 2007 the term VLE fell off the ICT Register tag cloud as the term Learning Platform rose to the top. Why did the idea of the VLE lose popularity? The original vision of a system which could assign track and grade assessment has proven largely elusive beyond predominantly simple ‘multiple choice’ and’true/false’ style questions to identify understanding. As a result educators have created a vision for a Learning Platform which contains a VLE but at the same time carries a wider range of other learning attributes which centre around the platform. The diagram showing a SharePoint Learning Platform can be seen below and has more detail about it is in the blog post here.

Amidst all this development and millions of pounds of investment within schools a key question is increasingly being asked. What has the impact been on learning? In the case of Twynham School we have certainly seen a positive impact through the Learning Platform. Students describe the availability of resources in an ‘anytime, anywhere’ environment as a real benefit to learning and especially revision. Our SharePoint 2010 Learning Platform also contains a rich range of features from streaming media and podcasting to rewards systems, performance tracking and integrated learning modules. Our work with the Learning Platform over the last 4 years has undoubtedly added value to our school community and supported learners with resources, input and guidance. Despite this over the last 18 months there has been an increasing view that it is time for us to move beyond this current work and begin a new adaptation of our online learning model with a renewed focus.

Having spent considerable time on this line of thinking a blog post popped up on the radar late last week which helped clarify our thinking. The post from big think reflected on the 2011 K-12 Horizon report and challenged the level of percieved progress we have made with our use of technology and its impact on learning. In the second half of the post it identifies something we know to be true: most of the investment in technology made in education has been in the area of ‘replicative technologies’. These are commonly technology tools which are teacher centric and replace traditional educational practice. The list of replicative technologies in the blog post is worth repeating here as it does bring the context into stark focus:

Replicative Technologies: from 'Big Think'

In the case of our Learning Platform we can certainly see elements of replicative behaviour as paper resources move to the file share and then to the subject gateways of the SharePoint Learning Platform. So is this all doom and gloom? As the post goes on to say the move to replicative technologies is an understandable first step for educators who move educational practice to technology in a way which is most familiar to them. The key challenge for us all at this moment is best summed up at the end of the post. In it the author rightly asserts that, ‘ The question is whether educator adoption of replicative technologies eventually will lead to more transformative, student-centered uses of digital learning tools or whether the current wave of educator tool usage simply will be replaced by whatever is the next generation of replicative technologies’.

Refelcting on these ideas it is clear to see that the best practive we currently identify by those at the cutting edge of technology use within education has one key attribute in common: it is student centric. It is for this reason that we should all ensure our VLE’s, MLE’s Learning Platforms, Learning Gateways and whatever it is we want to call them increasingly become one thing. A personal learning environment where students can add, edit, tag, comment, search, share and review their learning. This is surely the reason behind our use of technology within education: to promote independance and interdependance amongst learners and instant interaction and feedback with students and teachers to ensure we are engaging in meaningful learning.

A blueprint for outstanding learning

June 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Twynham School 

A Twynham School we are currently undertaking a review of the quality of learning within our school community. A key focus and surely our central purpose, is to ensure we increase the amount of outstanding learning which students are engaged in. I think this objective is far more important than a broader focus on outstanding lessons which can sometimes lose sharp focus on learning and concentrate too much on the quality of teaching. Although the two should be very heavily linked it is also the case that high quality teaching does not always ensure outstanding learning.

This debate within our school has involved a great deal of discussion around on one simple question: ‘what are the features of the learning process which enable outstanding learning’. In essence we are trying to articulate a blueprint for outstanding learning. As we continue along this discussion within our school it is heartening to see a recent report by The Sutton Trust which looks at the aspects of school life which most impact performance. This document potentially controversially concludes that reduced class sizes,use of technology and the use of teaching assistants have a relatively negligible impact on student performance. Given that all three of these factors are a significant cost to schools it should give us all some cause for reflection.

So what does the research from Durham University conclude has the greatest impact on performance? The key factors are summed up perfectly by the blog Pencilandpapertest:

It is encouraging to see researched evidence which resonates so well with what any good teacher would conclude about the blueprint for outstanding learning. The second point also aligns with a recent blog post I wrote which showed the work Dan Myer has been doing by developing thinking within Maths. All of this is not revolutionary but at the same time the process of educators openly articulating and refining a blueprint for outstanding learning is crucial. From the perspective of our own school community it is pleasing to see the conclusions we have drawn over the last three months are identical to the findings in the Sutton Trust Report.

My Site customization for the end user. SharePoint 2010 feature sneak peak.

June 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: SharePoint 2010, Twynham School 

One of the exciting SharePoint 2010 projects we are planning to show at our ‘Creating an effective and highly developed Learning Gateway’ webinar is a customization of My Site we have recently completed. Working with a large school district which serves 150,000 users we were asked to take a look at how My Site within SharePoint 2010 could be more user centric. The was a particularly exciting SharePoint development as the District accepted our idea of allowing staff and student to be able to select skins using a themer within My Site. To do this we built on some of the ideas of our own student council at Twynham School who described their vision of changing between colours and skins in the same way as you can on the BBC website.

This planning led to the commissioning of a series of designs and then we set about adding a theme selector to My Site within SharePoint 2010. The image below shows a sneak peak of the finished work with a simple pink skin and the theme selector open and then a more vibrant purple skin.

 

During our webinar on 6th July at 2pm EDT/7pm BST we will walk through the whole process of creating this fully customised My Site with in SharePoint 2010. You can sign up to the event at https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/670107128

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