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?