What uses are UK Universities making of SharePoint 2007?

Over the past month I have been looking at what those UK Universities that are using SharePoint are saying about their implementations, either on their own websites, in presentations to conferences, or in mailing list postings. This is part of the literature review for Northumbria University’s Eduserv funded research project on the usage of Microsoft SharePoint by UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

At this stage in the research we are are simply looking at what HEIs are prepared to say in public about their implementations. We have not yet attempted to pick up people’s reflections (critical or positive) on SharePoint – that will come with the next stage of the research, a telephone questionnaire of a sample of UK HEIs, which my colleague Gavin Siggers has just commenced.

You can see links to all the resources that I have found useful on this Delicious site . So far I have looked at 17 HEIs.

In this post I’ll run over the main features of SharePoint 2007, and then look at the specific ways in which the HEIs that I have looked at have used them.

The nature of SharePoint as an information system

SharePoint is a collaborative system, based around sites that can be viewed and interacted with through a web browser.

SharePoint provides three main types of site:

Team sites

Team sites are intended to enable groups of colleagues to work together and share documents and information. Many HEIs have implemented SharePoint as a replacement for, or supplement to, shared network drives.

Compared with shared drives, team sites are:

  • more flexible (site owners can determine who within the HEI can have access to the team site, and what they can do within the site, without having to refer to an IT administrator)
  • more powerful in terms of the collaboration functionality that they provide (including discussion boards, task lists, shared calendars, document management features such as version control and metadata)

The flip side of this increased flexibility and power is that they are more complex for individuals and teams to learn and to administer.

My Sites

My Sites provide an individual with their own personal SharePoint site. By default a My Site contains two pages:

  • a personal page (My Home)- this part of the My Site is private to the individual. It allows individuals to manage their own documents, tasks etc, and to manage their subscriptions to information from elsewhere in SharePoint. An individual can allow selected colleagues to view particular parts of their private page, for example to collaborate on a document.
  • a public page (My Profile) – this part of the MySite is accessible to everyone. It enables the individual to describe themselves and provide such information as they wish to make generally available to colleagues (for example contact details, skills and experience, role and job title). Individuals may also use it to maintain a blog accessible by the rest of the institution.

Some of the HEIs that have implemented SharePoint have chosen to roll out My Sites to staff and students. Other HEIs have either not implemented My Sites at all or restricted them to staff.

Publishing sites

Publishing sites are intended to be generally accessible via the world wide web, or accessible to the whole organisation. They enable SharePoint to be used to power an organisation’s external website, and/or its intranet. The templates on which publishing sites are based can be customised to enable the organisation to establish their desired branding, look and feel.

In the UK HE sector some of the most ambitious SharePoint implementations involve the use of SharePoint by an HEI to provide staff and/or students with a portal, which connects them to key information systems within the institution.

SharePoint web parts

SharePoint enables site owners to utilise a wide variety of collaborative tools within the three types of site described above. These tools take the form of web parts which can be placed on a page within the site. SharePoint provides a wide variety of web parts including:

  • libraries for the storage of resources (document libraries, picture libraries, slide libraries, form libaries). Document libraries are the most common – they can be used to store documents, capture metadata about documents and to impose version control on documents.
  • lists for the storage and display of data. Lists take many different forms, including calendars, contact lists, discussion boards, task lists, and announcements

In addition to the default library and list web parts provided by SharePoint, organisations are able to define their own web parts, to perform specific functions required by the organisation. Once a web part is defined for one SharePoint site the code can be saved and then uploaded and redeployed either elsewhere. A saved web part could be deployed by the same organisation elsewhere in their SharePoint implementation, or by another organisation in an entirely different SharePoint implementation.

The ability to deploy web parts is one of the reasons why an ecosystem has arisen around SharePoint, with developers and vendors creating web parts and plug-ins for re-use or sale.

Additional SharePoint functionality

SharePoint 2007 also comes with functionality for:

  • Workflows
  • Wikis and blogs
  • Enterprise search: the ability to set up connectors from SharePoint to other systems to enable people to search across several different organizational systems from within SharePoint
  • Business Data Catalogue: ability to draw in data from other systems and display it within SharePoint
  • Business intelligence: ability to use data from SharePoint and from other systems to report on Key Performance indicators and to present performance management dashboards

The spectrum of SharePoint implementations

SharePoint implementations in HEIs can be grouped according to how central SharePoint is to information management and communication in that institution. A spectrum of implementation types can be identified:

  • On one end of the spectrum there are implementations which involve the provision of team sites to those teams or groups that want them.
  • In the middle of the spectrum are implementations which in addition to providing team sites, involve the planned use of SharePoint to support specific functions and achieve specific benefits
  • On the other end of the spectrum there are implementations which in addition to the provision of team sites, involve the use of SharePoint as a portal, connected to the other key information systems in the institution, aiming to provide staff and/or students with one place to access the key information systems and key collaborative tools and spaces that that they need.

Note that the spectrum simply indicates the extent to which the HEI has decided to base its information management strategy around SharePoint, it does not imply that any position on the spectrum is better than any other (or that being on the spectrum in the first place is better than using systems other than SharePoint!)

SharePoint implementions in UK HEIs

Use of SharePoint for team collaboration

By far the most common usage of SharePoint in UK HEIs is for team collaboration, with SharePoint team sites replacing shared drives as the main area in which people in work groups collaborate on documents and share information with each other.

In most of these implementations it is left up to each team or department to decide whether or not they wish to have a SharePoint team site, and to apply to the IT department to get one. This makes an interesting contrast with the standard implementation method for enterprise content management systems (ECM) and electronic document and records management systems (EDRMS), where an organisation decides centrally to roll out the system to all parts of the organisation, or designates which particular parts of the organisation will receive the system.

See the following examples of HEI websites providing information to staff describing the features of SharePoint team sites and the process for getting such a site:

  • UCL’s guide for staff on how to set up and use SharePoint teamsites
  • Aberystwyth University’s form for staff to apply for a SharePoint team site for their Department/committee/project or external collaboration group
  • Liverpool John Moores University’s set of pages on their SharePoint implementation (When a group wants a team site Computing and Information Services promise to discuss their requirements, train them up in how to administer it, and then create a site tailored to their needs)

Uses of SharePoint to support specific areas or functions

Some HEIs have identified specific areas or functions to which SharePoint has brought (or is expected to bring) benefits. These areas include the usage of SharePoint for:

  • Research: Several HEIs have identified supporting research teams as a driver for rolling out SharePoint team sites. The key functionality here is the ability to provide access to SharePoint team sites to people outside the institution (crucial when an HEI is collaborating with researchers at another instituion or in the commercial sector).
    Kingston University’s then head of technical services had this to say when interviewed ”The recent use of Sharepoint 3.0 to illustrate how team sites can extend beyond the traditional boundaries of our enterprise for research activities is now influencing the collaborative models that some business environments have so far not solved. A good example would be the work we have done with research sites in Sharepoint 3.0 and how that is being used as a collaborative think tank for a section of the UK aerospace industry to look at a UK wide collaborative platform for a tender process for defence” [SharePoint 2007 is the third version of SharePoint].
    Oxford University are targeting their implementation of SharePoint team sites at ”Up to fifteen hundred Research Groups, University Committees, and University Clubs”
  • Student adminstration: Most institutions have their own student administration database (SITS is the market leader). SharePoint’s strength is in collaboration rather than the management of data and hence it will not challenge that dominance.   There are some examples of HEIs using SharePoint to act as a portal into systems like SITS. Microsoft have written a case study of how Napier University piloted the use of the SharePoint business data catalogue to enable students to view and to update information held about them in SITS. There are also instances of SharePoint being adapted for aspects of student administration that are not covered by the main student database (as in this University of the West of England (UWE) case study of the use of team sites, together with workflows, for managing their student residences)
  • Teaching and learning: Microsoft is badging SharePoint as a virtual learning environment (VLE) and has released a free set of open source code to add in specific VLE functionality to SharePoint.  There is evidence that SharePoint is seriously being considered as a VLE, but the amount of customization required compared to a specialist VLE system has been cited as a disadvantage.  So far SharePoint has failed to dent the market dominance of specialist VLE systems such as Blackboard and Moodle. At this point in time SharePoint is more often thought of as a portal into a specialist VLE than as a VLE in its own right. (see my previous blogpost on this topic)
  • Social computing: SharePoint comes with wikis and blogs. Some HEIs have used SharePoint as their main wiki and blog provider (although in this capacity SharePoint faces stiff competition from free, web hosted rivals). Some institutions have also provided staff and/or students with a My Site page .  This is how UWE describes their My site facility in their Guide to IT services: ”One SharePoint based application available to all staff is UWEmysite, which is a knowledge tool, allowing staff to share information about themselves, their interests and areas of expertise. It is also a powerful people finder.”
  • Workflow and process improvement Simple workfows can be set up within SharePoint.  More sophisticated workflows can be set up through the use of electronic forms created in Infopath 2007 (another Microsoft product) and deployed in SharePoint (Pete Gilbert of UWE explains how he goes about doing that here). Several HEIs are using SharePoint to automate particular processes around their institution. This example is Aberdeen University’s announcement that they will  use SharePoint for electronic approval workflow of all SENAS forms from initial submission to final approval by the Academic Standards Committee.
  • Business intelligence Microsoft have recently made their PerformancePoint Server product available as part of SharePoint 2007. SharePoint has the ability to pull data from various different line of business systems and combine that data in dashboards to monitor key performance indicators.  Microsoft have written a case study of Northumbria University’s use of Performance Point for business intelligence.

Usage of SharePoint as an intranet/portal, and/or as a web content management system

Napier University and Coventry University have each made a significant strategic committment to using SharePoint. They are both using SharePoint:

  • to power their external website
  • as a staff portal
  • as a student portal
  • to provide team collaboration spaces

Coventry University’s presentation to the Portal 2009 conference provides a detailed description of the University’s strategy to put SharePoint at the heart of the University’s information systems.

Heriot Watt University are using SharePoint to power their intranet (see Frank MacDonald’s presentation to Scottish Web folk dated April 2009).

The University of Gloucestershire have issued a Development plan for the university web site(s) using SharePoint in which they state:

It is envisaged that Sharepoint will ultimately be used to deliver a range of web services. These services will include; a public marketing web site aimed at recruiting students and selling University services, a public information site which will focus on supporting faculty and department specific marketing, an internal site that will include a digital repository, personalised student and staff information portals, Blogs, and Wikis.

SharePoint versus Blackboard and Moodle: the battle for the Virtual Learning Environment market in UK Higher Education

I am currently working on a Northumbria University research project into the usage of SharePoint in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).  The research is funded by Eduserv.

The first stage of the project has been a literature review.   A Google search for occurences of the word ‘SharePoint’ on sites within the domain ‘.ac.uk’  threw up many descriptions of how particular HEIs are using SharePoint.  University IT departments often provide information for staff and students regarding their information systems on the University’s publicly accessible website.

The search indicates that two common uses of SharePoint by UK HEIs are to:

  • provide their teams or departments with SharePoint collaboration sites (team sites) so that they can use them for document managament and collaboration in place of, or as a supplement to, their network shared drive OR
  • use SharePoint as a portal powering their website/intranet and connecting up to internal systems

These are similar to the uses that organisations in other sectors of the economy make of SharePoint.

Some of the most interesting debates in the literature concern the use of SharePoint in a role specific to the world of education, namely its use as a virtual learning environment (VLE).

Microsoft’s attempt to break into the VLE market

Virtual Learning Environments are the primary way in which HEIs manage teaching and learning.

Virtual Learning Environments typically provide learners with

  • access to key resources such as lecture schedules, reading lists, lecture slidepacks, assignment details, news and announcements
  • facilities to collaborate and connect with fellow learners, and with lecturers
  • a personalised space to keep a record of their own work and learning

The market for VLE software is bigger than simply HEIs, it also comprises schools and further education colleges.

In the UK the VLE market is dominated by two specialist VLE systems:

  • Blackboard (a proprietary system)
  • Moodle (an open source system)

With SharePoint 2007 Microsoft are making an explicit move into the VLE market. They are likely to find this a hard market to crack into it.   No enterprise system vendor has yet managed to break into this market.   Most HEIs already have a VLE in place.

In October 2008 Dominic Watts, Microsoft UK’s Higher Education Business manager, posted a blogpost Using SharePoint as a VLE.  In it Watts states that Universities could use SharePoint as their VLE either by using out of the box functionality or by customisation.

The post itself does not elaborate on using SharePoint’s out of the box functionality, but this is likely to mean:

  • using SharePoint team sites as collaborative areas for staff and students around course modules. This would provide facilities such as SharePoint calendars, discussion boards, announcement lists, wikis and blogs, and would enable the use of document libraries to store resources such as reading lists and slidepacks
  • giving each student an individual SharePoint ‘my site’ through which to organise and record their own work, and to communicate with fellow students and lecturers.

In terms of customisation Microsoft are making a SharePoint Learning Kit freely available via Codeplex that extends SharePoint to provide VLE functionality.

The possibility of using SharePoint as a VLE gives HEIs an interesting choice to make. Do they go for a specialist VLE provider, or do they go for SharePoint and look for synergies with SharePoint’s use elsewhere in the institution?

Examples of usage and non-usage of SharePoint as a VLE

In the US Washington State University is using explored the use of SharePoint as their VLE.  Their Centre for Learning, Teaching and Technology wrote a blogpost giving the following four reasons for adopting SharePoint as a learning environment for students, in preference to Blackboard (the market leading specialist VLE):

students are learning skills in SharePoint that they can later use in work contexts, where Blackboard skills are not useful outside the school context

As [the] university adopts SharePoint for a variety of administrative purposes, there becomes a larger group of SharePoint experts who can provide support to both faculty and students using SharePoint as a learning platform.

SharePoint has a concept for exporting sites and elements of sites (libraries, web parts, surveys, etc) as .STP files and then re-importing these into other sites or adding them to templates for users to choose.

SharePoint’s architecture enables other linkages and mashups. It is a source and consumer of RSS, will support embedding of other Web 2.0 resources in its pages, and can capture email and originate email alerts.

The blogpost also mentioned the flexibility of SharePoint document libraries, and SharePoint’s fine grained access control.

[Update: Nils Petersen of WSU has left a comment to this post informing me that WSU explored the use of SharePoint , but it was never centrally implemented, and that WSU are now implementing Angel as its centrally supported learning environment]

In contrast Utrecht University chose Blackboard as their VLE, rather than SharePoint, even thought they are using SharePoint for their website, intranet and had plans to use it for team sites.   Keith Russell wrote a blogpost in which he gave the following rationale for Utrecht’s rejection of SharePoint as a VLE:

Blackboard offers all the required functionalities out-of-the-box, whereas using Sharepoint would require a lot of programming and customising. This would not only make it a very expensive option in the short term, but also requires upkeep and adaptations in the longer term. Sharepoint was also considered less suitable due to the steep learning curve for staff. This is related to the fact that it is not purpose-built for teaching and learning and does not fit in the ‘classroom metaphor’

SharePoint’s current position within the UK VLE market

In their  2008 Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning for higher education in the UK UCISA notes a consolidation in the market:

Blackboard continues as the most used enterprise or institutional VLE. However, when also including VLEs that are used more locally, e.g. within departments, then Moodle is most used with a rapid rise since 2005. Overall, there is a vastly reduced range of VLEs in use since 2005.

The same UCISA survey commented

SharePoint was identified as the leading institutionally developed [VLE] platform.

However SharePoint still trailed well behind Blackboard and Moodle with only 5 HEIs using it as their main VLE (7% of UCISA’s sample).

Microsoft is keeping its options open with regards to the usage of SharePoint in relation to teaching and learning. As well as promoting SharePoint as a VLE in its own right, they also sell SharePoint as an enterprise portal that can provide access to the VLE and any other HEI information system. As early as May 2007 Microsoft’s Higher Education blog announced that web parts had been developed that enabled information from the Moodle VLE to be displayed within SharePoint.

More HEIs are using SharePoint as a corporate portal, or as a general enterprise document management and collaboration system, than are using SharePoint as a VLE. HEIs such as the University of the West of England, Coventry University, and the University of Oxford have large SharePoint implementations in place or planned. However each of them are sticking with their specialist VLEs.

Debates among information professionals

JISC provides a network of Regional Support Committees to provide UK further and higher education institutions with help in relation to information technology. Many of the Regional Support Committees facilitate a Moodle User Group, a Blackboard User Group and a SharePoint forum. The minutes of the Scottish SharePoint Forum, Held on 16 June 2008, includes the following list of the questions discussed in a round table session at the end of the meeting. The list is dominated by questions concerning the relationship between SharePoint and specialist VLEs:

Is there an overlap between the functionality of VLEs and SharePoint or do they serve different purposes?

Does content need to be in a single place (i.e. the VLE, SharePoint or elsewhere)? Does this matter if the end user can be directed to services via a single interface (and single sign-on)?

Single sign-on is essential for providing seamless access to services for students

What content should be provided for students? Are we giving them what they need or are we simply being led by the tools that are available?

VLEs are effective tools for distance learning, but are they being used widely by other students?