In the next few days the chaos of changing communications infrastructure is going to grip HWDSB. We are about to replace First Class (the email and conferencing software that has been utilized at the school board since I started working here 10 years ago). Regardless of the amount of planning and work that goes into something like this, replacing a 10-year-old platform is no easy task. We tried once previously, with an older version of SharePoint that never really took hold, leaving us in two different spaces for a lot of our work. This should mark the beginning of a consolidation of those spaces. I won’t go into the reasons we need to leave First Class. That’s a topic for an entirely separate post.
The first phase, which launches on Monday, includes provisioning every employee in the board, and every student from grades 4 to 12, with access to the new email system. In order to align our existing username directory with this new email system, we’ve had to change everyone’s email address within the board. Ironically, we are changing all the email addresses back to what they were before we adopted First Class. There was no way around this, but it does add an additional pain-point to the migration.
In the second phase we will be provisioning Team Sites to each school so that they can start to migrate from First Class over to SharePoint. These spaces cannot be created until all the users have been brought over, but I expect they will appear within a few days to a week of the initial launch.
We chose the Microsoft tools because of this collaboration platform. I know that some school boards have opted for Google’s suite of tools, but although they excel at collaborative document creation, their Groups functionality is limited, and considering their track-record with social networks (frankly with any of their tools) I would worry about adopting them as a standard. I still mourn the loss of Reader and Notebook: I would hate to see a tool we begin depending on as an organization get discontinued. I recognize that the Google vs Office 365 debate is a hot one, and that there are pros and cons on both sides. My current thinking is that Google+ isn’t a place where our Purchasing or HR departments are going to collaborate.
Of course, drawing that kind of line would be easy, where we adopt one standard and dump the rest; but in our quest to ensure that our students have access to all of the best tools and resources that they might need to succeed, we can’t bring ourselves to deny them access to all the things that Google (for example) does so well. Their collaborative document creation software is far superior to Microsoft’s Office Online offering, especially if you are attempting to have multiple users accessing the document in real-time (something I promoted often in my class).
So we aren’t going to turn our Google Apps for HWDSB installation off. Instead we are going to push its use, along with Desire2Learn and the HWDSB Commons WordPress blogging platform, as key components of the Student Portal: a space we are calling The Hub. We certainly recognize that this means there will be a number of different tools that our users can access, but we feel it’s more important to provide a rich toolkit of the best options available, rather than attempt fine dining with a spork.
- Outlook for email gives us the enterprise level control we need to provision accounts and manage users
- Desire2Learn is quickly becoming the Single Sign On entry point for all of our other tools, and provides students with access to the Virtual Learning Environment provided by the Ministry of Education to all K12 boards, and the tool that is used to deliver curriculum at most of the other Ontario post secondary institutions
- There would be a mutiny if we took away Google Apps. It has been available at HWDSB for almost 6 years now. We gave it a big push last year. Its “app” offering is superior (although at the time of this writing MS has just released iOS versions of Word, Powerpoint and Excel). It powers the Chromebook, which we are seeing emerge as an affordable substitute for the expensive PCs we’ve historically provisioned at schools. Not providing access to this tool would lead to teachers having to delve back into getting students to sign up for the commercial version, which brings with it a whole other host of issues
- If you want to blog, WordPress is the gold standard in blogging platforms. The HWDSB Commons allows our students and teachers to blog in a safe space, and the open source nature of the platform allows us to quickly respond to the needs of the community with tweaks and customizations to make the platform strong. It also provides a Social Network layer that allows students to practice good digital citizenship skills on a board platform
When you give everyone a box full of power tools, you need to do a lot more to ensure they use them correctly. “What goes where” is going to be a popular line for the foreseeable future. What we hope will emerge is two separate portals: one customized to serve the needs of the system in more operational items, providing a space for staff to staff collaboration; and one that meets the needs of the learners in our system. This may cause a bit of strife on the outset, but I think it would be far more detrimental to our students to pretend that the needs of the Finance department match the needs of a Grade 6 classroom, and adopting one tool for everything.
Thank you for your patience as we build out these tools. Thank you for being open to learning. I’m sure in the next few weeks there will be many times when we will have “in First Class I could…” discussions. Having been using the new platform for the past few months, I truly believe that it is the right move.