Every school, college or university has to make the decision between Microsoft and Google. It’s not an easy call to make. If you ask around, you’ll probably be able to find supporters of both solutions.
We recently caught up with Neil McQueen, Head of Technical Services at Fareham College. Fareham is an Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ rated college that has managed to remain fully operational and stick to its normal timetable despite the lockdown.
“That’s all thanks to using Teams and being so heavily involved with Office365 in terms of our setup,” Neil explains. “Our emails, intranet and governor portals were running through Sharepoint, so moving over to everyone working through it was a process we were already planning.”
We caught up with Neil to discuss how Microsoft has helped Fareham’s teachers and students and the advice he has for other IT managers.
Choosing a learning platform is a big commitment. It’s a decision which no school or college would want to try and reverse, so it’s important to be systematic in how you evaluate your options.
“With any system design that I do there are three factors that we look at. One is security, one is accessibility and the third is capability. The Microsoft solution hits all three of them.”
One of the challenges that Fareham had faced in the past was students not being able to run applications required for their work on their own devices. Fareham wanted a solution that would offer students and teachers as much flexibility as possible.
“You can run Microsoft software on any device. They’ve done a huge amount of work to ensure that things like Office 365 can be run on any device regardless of manufacturer. The Microsoft solution made the most sense because it is very versatile and adaptable.”
Another consideration was adoption. They wanted a platform that users would feel some familiarity with straight out of the box, instead of having to learn from scratch.
“People will adapt to and adopt what they feel most comfortable with. Most people have been using Microsoft products for a long time and the experience is consistent across applications. I believe people adapt to that faster. It was the most logical choice in terms of adoption rate.”
Implementing and managing a blended learning platform is challenging, even for seasoned IT professionals. Neil and the team were able to benefit from the massive range of support material Microsoft provides for administrators.
“In terms of the IT team, the main thing that has made it successful is access to resources. I’ve never come across a system that’s so open to giving you the guidance you need to implement and manage it.”
“There are loads of guides and wizards to help you get up and running quickly. Alongside that, you’ve got guides for making sure that your data is safe and secure. As an IT professional and as a manager leading a team, that level of support is unheard of, especially for free.”
While remote learning might feel unfamiliar to teachers, a lot of the behaviours will feel very familiar to students. Instant messaging, shooting videos and group hangouts are part of daily life for teenagers.
“The students have got on great with Teams. It’s a much more normal way for them to operate. Instant messaging has meant that they can have live interactions with teachers whenever they need it. So from the students’ perspective they feel properly supported. Some of them have actually been asking whether we can keep doing some of our classes in this way after social distancing ends.”
Teams has also been good at supporting student welfare. Live chats make it easier for teachers to speak to students one-on-one without having to physically track them down.
“One of the advantages of Teams is that you have a live view of whether someone is online and whether they’re free to have a chat. So you don’t have to find someone inside the college who’s off on their lunch break. You can drop them a quick message to see if they’re OK.”
“If we haven’t heard from a student in a couple of days we can do a quick and easy welfare check. There have been some really positive effects from that.”
As we mentioned earlier, most people are already familiar with Microsoft products. This makes the adoption process much smoother, because teachers feel more confident than they would if they were adapting to a totally new system.
“If you know Word, you know PowerPoint. If you know PowerPoint you know the others. In this sense, the adoption was very simple.”
But knowing how to use the applications is only one part of the process. Lecturers and teachers also have to learn how to deliver their lesson plans over the internet.
“A lot of our lecturers are used to reading the room to make sure that people understand and that they’re enjoying the lesson. That’s been one of the hardest curves, but it’s also something they’ve enjoyed learning. They’re having to learn skills which they didn’t think they’d need, but that will be beneficial. They’re having to learn different ways of presenting information.
“They’re loving things like shared whiteboards, where everyone can be more collaborative at the same time without stepping on each others’ toes. Some of them have found that some of their more complicated subjects are much easier in this environment than they would be with just one of them standing at the front of the class.”
The applications that students use at college are likely to be the same applications they use in their career, whether they’re learning specialist skills like graphic design or general skills like spreadsheets.
Learning how to use Word, PowerPoint and Excel may not be the focus of the course, but it is an important part of the learning experience.
“I believe that the products that we put in front of students must be industry standard and similar to what they’re going to use in the future.
“If you look at it from that angle, I think around 80% of universities use Office 365 and most businesses use Microsoft. The skills that students pick up when using this software are part of their education, in the same way that learning to use Adobe and not some other platform would be best for graphic design.”
As you've probably gathered, Neil is a big believer in Microsoft's platform for schools, colleges and universities. Before the conversation ended, we asked if he had any advice for others who were trying to decide between Microsoft and Google.
“In terms of the overall package that you look for, look for things that are going to support your network, your delivery, the adoption of your system and the adaptability of your staff and students. For me that’s the Microsoft solution hands down.”
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