As part of my return to blogging this week I wanted to talk about one of the genuinely big trends in SharePoint. This is the rise in use of SharePoint as a school website. Although this trend and change in thinking still has a way to go more and more schools are seeing that SharePoint can create a beautiful website and be a powerful way to communicate with stakeholders. In the last 6 weeks alone I have taken 22 requests for SharePoint websites from schools who are using SharePoint as a Learning Platform.
Many of you will also be familiar with our 6th Form website which can be see below as an example of a beautiful SharePoint website.
At the same point when I was speaking to a school in London last week who were asking for us to host SharePoint for them they were surprised when I suggested they use SharePoint for their website and even said, ‘have you ever seen a nice looking SharePoint site!’.
To rectify this I thought I would provide some links and an update on our work. Firstly one of my favourite sites for finding examples of good SharePoint websites is Top SharePoint Sites which now has 1,224 examples of SharePoint being used as a website.
As well as this I wanted to show you one of the sites we are just finishing for a school which again catches the eye.
If you are interested in using SharePoint to host your main school or 6th Form website and would like some help please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and I can provide you with further details.
In this final session on SharePoint websites I have used an extract from a paper I did with Chris Mckinley, one of our developers. This looks at how SharePoint lists are used to create Prospectus and Open Morning bookin and the 6th Form Application process.
The request prospectus page and the book an open morning page are custom SharePoint lists. The prospectus request form sends the data to then list then takes them to the pdf download. The page itself was created using the site actions menu. A layout was select with a content region on the left and a webpart zone on the right. This allows the text to me modified quickly from the browser. The form the end user fills out was created as an xslt data view in sharepoint designer and then exported as a webpart. Unlike the latest news where the whole page was created in sharepoint designer and rendered one list the approach of creating a form webpart was used to enable easy editing of the text on the left of the page.
The book an open morning page is very similar to the prospectus request page. One extra feature is the inclusion of a lookup column in the custom list. The field looks up date values from another list. This allows easy management of the dates as more can be added by admin staff simply by adding items to a list. The other way to do this would be to use a choice data type for the list but this approach would require the lists column settings to be modified each time a new data is added, editing the lists setting is something we wanted admin staff to avoid. Adding an item to a second list is a much easier and safer way of managing things.
We also use the SharePoint Alerts feature on the lists to notify the 6th form office staff that someone has expressed an interest in the 6th Form. This integration with Exchange 2007 means that the information is presented quickly to the relevant people without the need to constantly check another admin page for new content. By emailing out the alerts rather than relying on one member of staff to check an admin page gives us some human fault tolerance. If prospectus requests were only added to a list and the staff member dealing with the list was long term absent then data could be added to the list and not auctioned. With email alerts, an absent staff member would usually have mail redirected to a colleague, instantly bring the colleagues attention to the data in the list enabling it to be dealt with immediately.
Open morning back end
The application form opens in a new window. The application form is a custom SharePoint list containing many of the useful column types such as rich text areas for personal statements as well as date formatting to ensure reliability of data. There are also lookup fields with other lists such as the ‘Current School’, again allowing for admin staff to maintain the lookup data. The ‘Ethnic Origin’ column reads data directly from our MIS, this enables the dropdown list to be dynamic and contain only valid data. The application form was built in sharepoint designer and many of the fields could be simply dropped in. The ethnic origin field, as mentioned above, reads directly from our MIS. This is done by an SQL connection on the field to our MIS server where the data is pulled across. The data is pulled across using a stored procedure running as a specific user with very low privileges, just enough to read the required data, this ensures that the database connection cannot be used for malicious traffic.
We chose the approach of reading this data from another database because the MIS system automatically keeps the list of ethnic origins and the identifier codes up-to-data, something that would be impossible to manage with other sharepoint lists or lookup values. If the person filling out the form is a current Twynham student then we ask for their computer login number. This will then allow us to tie the person into our existing systems for viewing pupil data, this is done during the interview process.
Creating school websites with SharePoint part 4. Creating subject portfolios and student rich media.
In the last session we finished with a shot of the courses carousel which is shown below and can be seen live here
When students select a subject from the carousel they are taken to the subject home page which consists of a brief introduction, more detailed course information and a video which are all shown below. These videos were taken for every subject showing a year 13 student giving an overview of the course and explanation the Twynham 6th Form experience.
The subject home page
The subject course information page
The subject student feedback page
Creating school websites with SharePoint part 3. Creating beautiful ‘non-sharepointy’ looking sites.
One of the real challenges with SharePoint is how do you make it look beautiful like many normal websites? This is an area we wanted to develop and the decision to make a new, more visual and edgy site to engage older teenagers in June 2009 gave us an opportunity. As with our main site the 6th form site was designed by an external agency but this time there was a greater focus on working with our existing A-level students to find out what would appeal to them. The results are shown below and the site can be found at www.twynham6thform.com
The site is far from traditional with a top and bottom navigation with a large central zone for high quality visual images. These images rotate in a loop covering the key areas shown in the bottom navigation. The top navigation is largely administrative, allowing students to book open mornings, request prospectuses and most importantly apply to the sixth form.
The main engine of the 6th Form website is the subject areas which allow students to make decisions on their A-level choices. The start of the process is the carousel shown below which displays the subject list visually.
Perhaps the most powerful argument for schools who have SharePoint as a Learning Platform to move their website over is the benefits of cost and time. Using SharePoint to produce websites means that key areas such as latest news can be updated without any technical skill. The image bellows shows a simple interface for adding text and images which is as easy as adding to a word document.
When this is completed the latest news appears instantly on the page. This role has recently moved over to the Headteachers PA instead of a member of staff from the IT team which ensures that valuable technical expertise is not used on administrative tasks. In addition to latest news, job vacancies can be added in minutes without waiting for a response from the technical team.
During 2008 and 2009 we have moved beyond the creation of internal Learning Gateways to the creation of external anonymous access websites. The first project was our main school website which was being redesigned in the summer of 2008. Moving the site into our SharePoint set up was a big challenge but the benefits for many schools are clear as they can save in hosting costs. More importantly moving websites into SharePoint allows them to be updated by chosen end users without the need for developers. As soon as the design was completed by an external team our SharePoint team set about creating master pages to produce the website which can be seen below.
The main changes to the website design were aimed to create a much more visual site with a greater use of images. At the same time, with the creation of gateway and in particular the Parent Gateway it was possible to slim the overall content of the site out and move this to the internal gateways. The key change within the school was to move from seeing the website as a place for all information to seeing the website as an extension of our prospectus for future parents and students.
In addition to this the site is the key point of entry to the internal gateways. Staff, students and parents click on their relevant site and are taken to a login page which takes them directly to their personalised page. The website can be found at www.twynhamschool.com
The student zone contains a video tour from current year 7 students for year 6 students to get a feel for what life at Twynham School is like.
Key processes for the school including the admissions process are all made available to parents through the website.