ChatGPT and IT Services

I recently wrote an article for the ANME on ChatGPT and on the benefits but also risks.   You can read this here.   My view is that AI models like ChatGPT are going to become all the more common and also more and more accurate, and therefore we need to explore them and identify how they might be positively used within education.   Seeking to block their use is, in my opinion, guaranteed to fail.   

Following my post, I saw a reply on twitter to the article with ChatGPTs view on AI and education.  You can see this here.    It picked up a couple of points which I hadnt included in my piece and I note that some of my piece actually included content generated by ChatGPT itself.    It wasn’t obvious that ChatGPT had a hand in both pieces which suggests it wont be easy to identify where ChatGPT is used.

All this got me thinking about how ChatGPT might benefit IT Services and the IT teams particularly in schools.   As such I gave some quick thoughts as to possible uses cases, which I have outlined below:

User guides and Help

ChatGPT can be used to create a knowledge base of information that can be easily accessed by IT staff and other school personnel including simple user and help guides.  This seems like the most obvious and easiest use of ChatGPT;  I have already tried asking it some questions in relation to iPad related issues and its responses were clear and accurate.

Creating software and other solutions

Where schools are creating their own internal software solutions including website solutions, ChatGPT can help with the basic code building blocks, thereby speeding up development.   It will still require human input to finalise the projects and add that bit of creativity and flair however ChatGPT can get us part of the way there, thereby saving time and resources.

Policies, processes and procedure documentation

Writing policy and process documentation can quite often be a long and laborious job but ChatGPT and other AI language models can quickly put together a basic document which human staff can then refine and customise to fit the school.

Chatbots

ChatGPT can be used to create a chatbot that can interact with students and staff, answering questions and providing information.   This therefore allows IT support staff to focus on more complex issues or more strategic tasks.

Language Translation

Where schools include non-English speaking students ChatGPT can be used to assist IT support staff in communicating with non-English speaking students and families by providing translations in real-time.

Process automation

A number of the above relate to process automation where ChatGPT is used to automate common support tasks, such as answering frequently asked questions, troubleshooting basic technical issues, and providing instructions for software and hardware.   There are likely other areas where simple processes can be automated through the ChatGPT or other AI Language models.

Conclusion

I think one of the key conclusions I arrive at from my thinking is not related to the benefit of using ChatGPT, or other AI language models, in itself, but for the potential for ChatGPT and a human user to work together.   This hybrid approach of AI and human is, in my view, the way forward as both complement each other.  The AI solution can easily do the basic and repeatable parts of a task, such as creating a user guide, while the human can bring that flair and creativity to make such guides engaging, accessible and usable.    It isnt a case of ChatGPT or humans, or ChatGPT replacing humans.

I suspect there are many other applications of ChatGPT within an IT Support or IT Services capacity which are yet to be realised and I look forward to finding out more in terms of how AI Language Models can enable IT staff to deliver, enhance and even redefine the services provided to users in schools and colleges, and to the communities they serve.

These are interesting times!

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VR and lesson self-review

Have been experimenting with ideas for the use of VR kit in schools for a while now.  So far, my focus has been on some uses in Art, uses in Design Technology plus also in History and Geography.   The other day however I thought of another possible application focussed on pedagogy and self-review.

In terms of pedagogy, one of the most powerful tools in terms of supporting improvement has always been that of peer or self-review.  Now I am not talking high pressure lesson observation here, I am talking constructive low threat observations where colleagues sit in and watch each other teach then discuss.   I remember spending time as an IT teacher watching a colleague teach History, and I remember taking much away from his approach, which was very different to mine at the time.

The challenge here however has always been that of inviting someone in to watch your lesson.   For some this can feel somewhat daunting.   It is also important to acknowledge that we are all individuals so just because someone else prefers an approach to teaching, behaviour management, etc, doesn’t necessarily mean it is right for you.  

While working with teachers some years ago this brought me to the use of video footage where a camera was placed in the room, under agreement with the teacher and then they could watch the footage back and conduct a self-review.     This largely got over the issue of reluctance or nervousness in relation to having someone else in the classroom observing.   It wasn’t however a perfect solution as video footage is the limited view it presents.   It can be focussed on the front of the room, if there is one, but that misses out the edges of the class or it could be a wide angle, but then loses the detail.    Two camera setups would help address this however result in additional cost plus setup requirements as well as the potential need to edit the footage together for review.

So where does VR come in?

My thought therefore is the use of a 360-degree camera to take the video with the camera sat in the centre of the room as much as is possible.    The footage can then be either viewed on a PC, using VLC for example which allows you to pan around, or better still uploaded to a VR headset such as the Oculus Quest 2, where the teacher can then sit virtually in their own lesson and look around as the lesson progresses.  Basicallly this allows the teacher to put themselves back in the lesson but from the viewpoint of a student, dependent on the location of the camera, but able to look around the room as needed.    Looking at Hattie’s Visible Learning research (see more here) “video review of lessons” has a high effect size of 0.88 and that would have been based on standard video camera based footage so my hope would be that 360-degree based footage would be equally effective if not more.

Limitations/Challenges

So cost is an issue here as you need the camera however the VR headset is an optional although nice to have.   The next issue is the fact that having a camera in the room may encourage students to play up to the camera, however I think this can be managed and if usage became common students would grow accustomed and therefore eventually ignore the cameras presence.

And when using the little Theta 360 camera I am currently looking to use the recording is limited to 25mins per recording which represents only a fragment rather than the full length of a lesson.

Conclusion

Now at this point this is only an idea which I am looking to experiment with.  My thinking is that anything that supports self-review of teaching and learning will have potential for significant impact.  Whether the VR element adds enough additional impact over the lower cost video solutions, I am unsure of, however I am equally unsure of the potential benefits of a more immersive lesson review experience.   

So, for now its onwards with the experimentation.

AI in schools

I recently read an article discussing how AI might be used in schools from 2025 onwards.   This seems like a reasonably logical bit of future prediction but on reflection I quickly came to identify some concerns.

Firstly, AI can cover a very broad range of activities.   Is it AI designed to interpret natural language such as your Alexa can identify and then respond to you verbal queries, or are we talking about a more general AI solution more akin to Commander Data in Star Trek?    There is quite a gulf between these two extremes, with the 2nd of them likely to be some time off before it is achievable.

If we therefore accept we are looking at using specific focussed AI solutions in schools by 2025 I think they have clearly got the year wrong as we are already doing it now, in 2022.    We have our spell checker and grammar checker in Word, we also now have our transcription tools in Teams and PowerPoint including the ability to offer real time, or near real time, translation of spoken content.  These are all AI or maybe machine learning based solutions being used in schools and colleges, being used by teachers today.   Not 3 years away in 2025, but today.

So, the headline seems on initial inspection to be quite aspirational and inspirational, for teachers to be using artificial intelligence in their classrooms in only 3 years time.   But a more detailed look and we find it isnt so inspirational as we are pretty much already there.   Maybe the headline hints to a greater use of AI or more advanced AIs being used more often and to greater effect but that’s not the way the headline comes across.   Maybe we will use more AI based platforms, such as learning platforms which direct students through personalised learning programmes, although I have some concerns about this too.  Or maybe there will be greater use of AI and machine learning in the setting and marking of both summative and formative assessments.

I suspect AI use in schools will grow between now and 2025.    I suspect it will grow to be more common in general so wont be a school centric thing, however I suspect that a teacher will still be a teacher and the key to teaching and learning, and the use of AI tools, like the current EdTech tools, will be skilled teachers to wield them as and when appropriate in crafting the best possible learning experience for their students.

Tech in education: Investment

One of the big challenges with technology in education is going to be investment.  For example, some schools are in inner city locations where access to internet infrastructure is easy.   Others however exist in rural locations where access to appropriate broadband internet is not easy, or in some cases, not possible to come by.    There will also be schools which have planned the replacement of network and server infrastructure on a regular basis where others have not.

Going forward, as there is little achieved in looking back on why things arent as developed as they could be, the key things in my view are:

  1. Investment

Looking generally across all schools and colleges it is reasonably clear that there is a need for investment.  There are schools which lack some of the basics where other schools are streets ahead.   But even across the board there is an opportunity to invest and drive things forward making sure our schools and colleges are set for the future.

  • Sustainability

And this is critical.  Investment cannot be seen as a one-shot deal.   We cant simply invest in devices or infrastructure in the next year and consider it job done.   Any investment must include planning and provision for the replacement of devices and infrastructure, plus the ongoing upgrade as based on the changing needs at the time.   I remember laptops for teachers and the benefits it brought, followed by the issues presented when the centralised funding wasn’t there when the devices came to need replacing.  We cannot repeat this, so any plans must be longer term plans.

  • Support and training

We also need to acknowledge that the technology has to work, and in meeting this requirement there needs to be adequate support.   IT Services teams in schools and colleges need to be put in place to ensure that the technology works on a day to day basis plus need to be there to resolve issues when things go wrong.    And in line with the need for technology to simply work, the teaching staff using the technology need to have the relevant skills and experience to know how and also when to use it.   This is about ensuring training is provided but also that opportunities exist for the continual professional learning and sharing required to make the best us of ever-changing technology solutions.

Conclusion

To get all schools and colleges to the same point, where they all can realise the same potential in the use of technology is a major piece of work.   Schools are at various stages on this journey.    As such the best approach for all is not to seek to make this potentially significant jump but instead to focus on the smaller steps, the little changes in practice and tech use, in the short term, which form part of what will be a big journey over the longer timeline.    Let’s start now, do what we can, collaborate, share and petition those who can support us to ensure all schools can improve in their potential to use technology in teaching and learning.

EdTech beyond the lockdowns

I thought, following my recent panel discussion at the Schools an Academies Show in London I would write a short post on my thoughts on the 3 key questions posed as part of the session.

Delivering the curriculum beyond the physical classroom: how can schools effectively implement hybrid learning plans?

Some schools have been doing this for some time, using the flipped classroom for example.    The issue is it needs to work for your school, your context, staff, and students.   It needs to work for your hardware and infrastructure, etc, so just because an approach worked in other schools doesn’t mean you can simply pick up that solution and replicate it in your school.    So, for me it’s about experimenting a little, and taking it slow.   A large part of effective hybrid learning, is the same as traditional face to face learning, and about building up effective learning habits and routines, but this takes time;  We need to allow for this time.   Use what has been learnt over lockdown as to what worked and didn’t work in your school and go from there.   But yes, look at other schools and what appears to work, but pick carefully at the elements of their practice that you wish to implement, and then give these approaches time to embed before seeking to advance further.   And make sure to engage the teachers, students and parents in planning.

Do we finally have enough proof of the pedagogical efficacy of EdTech?

Given the variety of uses of edtech, edtech products, planned outcomes (e.g. academic, or soft skills, global awareness, etc), staff skills, equipment level, student tech skills, etc it is difficult to assess general efficacy accurately.   As I wrote in my last post, it is a bit like assessing the efficacy of a bunch of hand tools, including some hammers, screwdrivers, hand drills and saws.   Their efficacy depends very much on what they are being used for (e.g., using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail) and the skill level of the user, that of a DIY’er or an expert craftsperson.  As such I am not sure what value there is in the question, given the large number of variables involved.   I also note that the more variables involved the greater the likelihood of high levels of variation in results from different research studies plus a tendency for the generalised results to regress towards the mean, and a likely insignificant impact being suggested.   I therefore believe we need to look at a different question, and whether EdTech has the potential to bring about positive improvements or impact in teaching and learning.   Her I believe we already have proof that when used well, it can have a positive impact.   We also have proof that without it learning during a pandemic wouldn’t have been possible, or not to the extent that was achieved.   And we can see we now live in an increasing technological world.   So, if the core of the original question is do we have evidence to support the continued use and required investment in Edtech, I would say yes.

How can leaders empower educators to discover the potential of technology in teaching?

This is about sharing and the organisational culture in my view.  Establishing opportunities for people to share ideas and what worked as well as seeking support on what didn’t.   It is also about encouraging sharing beyond the school using the various sources out there such as Apple Distinguished educators or Microsoft innovative educator experts.   For me twitter is often the go to place and I have heard it described as “the best staffroom in the world”.    So the sharing gets the ideas as to things to try, and then they need to be put into practice and this is where culture and climate come into play.   The climate of the school has to be warm and supportive, and the culture open, thereby empowering people to try things in the knowledge that, they may not work as planned, but where they don’t this simply serves as a learning experience to be shared to help the collective teaching and student body move forward.   In all my years working in education, and using EdTech, or simply technology in education, I have tried lots of different approaches, apps and other tools, with some working well and some not so well.  The key has been I have been lucky to work in schools and colleges which were supportive of these attempts, the potential for them to bring about improvements, but also the acceptance that some might not work.    Now obviously this isnt about throwing out a new app for all students in a school to use and running the risk of a negative experience for all students, but more about piloting and trialling with small groups where, should things don’t work, it is easy to discontinue the trial and recovery or address any negative impact.    Looking back to the question, the key words are discovery and empower;   This requires experimentation, people to feel valued and supported to innovate, the need to share so experiences are collective across staff/students rather than limited to a given teacher or class, plus there needs to be acceptance that the discovery made might simply be that a given tool or approach doesn’t work for your students.

Conclusion

I think the pandemic has both shown the importance of technology in education, plus has helped move schools and colleges forward, driven by the immediate need of the pandemic.    Now the pandemic is (hopefully) receding, we now need to build the intrinsic need and want to continue the development of the use of technology in schools.    It also needs to be something not just put in place now, but something sustainable in the longer term, so a simple purchase of infrastructure and devices in the coming months or year is insufficient if it isnt backed up with a plan for ongoing upgrade and replacement into the future.     I suspect we now stand at the point where the rubber band may be stretched, encouraging a tendency for us to start to rebound back to the “way things were before the pandemic”, so it is now, more than ever, important that we push forward.

Coursework moderation, exam bodies and technology

One of the big advantages of productivity suites like Google Workspaces for Education or Office 365 is the ability to easily share and collaborate.   This is great within schools, allowing students and staff to share and work together on documents and projects, however I also believe it starts to provide some other benefits for education in general, such as in relation to coursework moderation and exam bodies.

I have long believed the exam boards have lagged a bit behind in terms of technology use.   I remember being a visiting moderator for a vocational IT qualification some 15yrs ago and being presented by mountains of print outs.   I was visiting schools across England to carry out moderation activities relating to the evidence students had created in working with technology tools such as website development tools, spreadsheets, email clients, etc, yet it was all being printed out for me to look at.   I dread to think, on reflection, how many trees were cut down in the process.     It was around this time that I decided as a teacher of the same vocational qualification that I wouldn’t repeat this mistake, so I worked with our network manager to come up with a way to structure student evidence such that it was easy to extract and burn onto a CD (remember this was 15yrs ago!) which could be handed to the visiting moderator, rather than trying to bury them under mountains of paper.  Through the CD the moderator would have access to all student evidence in a structured and easily navigable form as opposed to a pile of A4 folders of printed evidence.

Office 365 and Google both allow for the easy sharing of digital evidence, which solves the above issue which I had previously solved with a CD, some network setup and a few batch files.    Recently working with one department who were using OneNote to store student evidence, we made use of the Parental Link functionality (See instructions here) to share the content with a moderator.    In some other areas we are using SharePoint for example to share video evidence of student work.   Now some planning does need to go into this, as some schools will have external sharing turned off in relation to data protection, however with a bit of thought and configuration, a solution can be found. 

This all highlights for me the need for exam boards to catch up.   Why arent exam boards providing more guidance to schools in terms of easily sharing digital student evidence with moderators?  Why is it being left to schools and their moderators?   Given most schools will now have either Microsoft’s or Googles suite in place, now is the time to drive things forward.   And it is about time, as looking back, I was trying to go paperless 15yrs ago, prior to the bandwidth and sharing tools which now greatly enable this to easily occur.

Additionally, and looking a little broader, why are we still making so many students sit in large exam halls to complete paper-based examinations following 2 years where the pandemic has meant that students and teachers all over the world have been reliant on technology to collaborate, communicate and engage in learning.   Why arent we looking at how technology can facilitate exams?  Now I note some initial pilots are being trialled but to me it all feels a little late in the day.   Again, there is a need for things to be driven forward here, and I don’t sense the drive and urgency I would expect.  

I feel schools have driven forward their use of technology over the last few years, urged on by needs resulting from the pandemic.   This has been great to see and has left schools in a stronger positive in my eyes.   But why are some of the services which underpin our current education system, such as the exam bodies, not working harder to do the same.   My main concern is that these services may serve to drag schools back, losing some of the technology-based advances we have so recently made.

Moving online: Some thoughts

The pandemic has forced so much of our lives to move online.   Meetings moved to Zoom, Teams or Google Meet so we could meet online.   Lessons and teaching moved online.   General working moved online.   And so did Continual Professional Development, with educational conferences and summits all moving to a virtual rather than face to face experience.   But what were the implications, benefits and drawbacks?  And what are the implications for training in schools using video content?

Benefits

The first clear benefit in moving conferences online was simply the fact that it allowed conference events to continue even where it was no longer possible to meet face to face due to the pandemic.    The last face to face conference I attended was Digifest 2020, in March, just before the 1st lockdown came into force in the UK, but since then I have attended a number of events all online.     It wasnt until the other week that I returned to a face-to-face event.   If the events hadnt moved online I would have missed out on the learning opportunities I have received through online events.

Access to events may also be a benefit in that virtual events overcome geographical boundaries where attendance would be difficult and/or costly to overcome if events are face to face only.   As such, on reflection, I may have accessed a more diverse range of opportunities because of the move to online events than I would have otherwise accessed had events remaining as they were pre-pandemic.

Drawbacks and Challenges

Motivation is one of the key challenges in my view in relation to online events.    I registered for several events over the last year, with these happily taking up allocated space on my calendar, reminding me of their existence.  Yet, when time came for a few of these events, the immediately pressing work I had to do meant that I didn’t always attend.   All I needed to do was click a link and maybe just listen in, or flick in and out of the event, but I didn’t even do this.   Had these been face to face events, this wouldn’t have happened.   I may have had to book travel or book accommodation; I may have arranged to meet people, or I may have planned activities in and around the event for before or after.   Basically, I would have had intrinsic motivation to ensure I attended to avoid financial or opportunity losses, beyond the loss of the learning opportunities presented by the event.   This intrinsic motivation just doesn’t exist to the same extent with online events.    I suspect event organisers will have plenty of data to show the drop off rate or non-attendance rate for online events is significantly higher than that for face-to-face events.

Video based training in schools

One of the key challenges for conferences is engagement.   We may create awareness or training materials but how do we ensure that teachers or other staff actually engage with the content, and watch it?    Having the content isnt enough if it isnt being watched or if it isnt then resulting in changes in teaching or other behaviours.    Personally, I don’t have an answer to this other than to suggest the below:

  1. We need to make the cost of watching low, by keeping content short and simple.   If the cost is high, it is likely staff will always prioritise other work which is immediately to hand over training materials which may have an unknown future benefit.
  2. We need to vary the content or style of materials such that they do not become boring or predictable.    Where content is always the same or presented in the same way it quickly becomes boring and predictable and therefore disengages users.
  3. We need to seek ways to engage users and make watching content worthwhile and interesting.  This could for example be through extrinsic motivation associated with prizes, electronic badges or department-based competition.
  4. We need to build in opportunities for collaboration and discussion beyond the content materials.   Content has a greater opportunity of sticking if it is internalised and discussing and debating with others is likely to be one of the best ways of helping this happen.

Conclusions

I suspect online events and online based training is very much here to stay.   If we consider it as simply another tool, I think this is a good thing, but I think we need to be careful of considering it as “the” tool.   I have long seen the enterprise world push staff towards online based training content, with staff complaining and then proceeding to find creative ways to complete the training without actually spending the relevant time or actually learning anything.   I have seen the same in some schools with data protection and even safeguarding training becoming an online tick box exercise rather than a valuable learning experience.

I am also a little concerned regarding the potentially high costs of developing lots of good training content only to receive limited engagement from busy staff.

I have a positive view regarding the potential, in an ideal world, of well-developed video and online training materials for use in schools.   I also have a realistic view to temper this, in relation to likely engagement given the busy lives of staff in schools.   Is mandating the number of hours content consumed per year per teacher a possible option?   Have seen this before, and I my view no, but let’s leave that one here for now.

For now online training and events are here to stay and for me, as long as they are part of a balanced programme of opportunities, also including face to face events, then I think this is a good thing.

Devices for all students

I recently read with interest the plan for the Scottish government to issue “devices for 700,000 children”.   My first reaction was a positive one in the potential impact this could have on learning for the children concerned.   Taken as a simple headline, issuing a device to every pupil in Scotland seems like a good thing.    I suppose that’s part of the reason it works as a headline as it conveys a simple positive message, although as with most headlines it fails to encapsulate the complexity.   But then I started think a little more deeply and this raised concerns.

Infrastructure (in schools)

The article mentioned they would be “considering how to deliver consistent digital infrastructure” across schools.   This was my first concern.    Students might all have devices, but they wouldn’t necessarily have access to reliable infrastructure in schools to allow them to access online resources and services.   They also wouldn’t have access to allow them to keep the devices up to date with operating systems and other updates.     The article mentioned “an internet connection” where required, however without an internet connection I would see devices as limited and potentially a security risk. So limited use in the short term, and a sustainability issue in medium term.

Infrastructure (at home)

Even if school infrastructure is eventually supplied, devices will spend a significant amount of time at home and therefore ideally we would want students to be able to access resources and services while there.   This would also be critical in any situation where online learning is required, such as snow days or pandemics.    The challenge here is that not all students are likely to have internet access at home. Provision of internet at home didnt appear to be mentioned

IT Support

700,000 additional devices in Scottish schools;   This makes me wonder what additional resourcing will be put in place within IT teams to support all of these devices and the increased usage which school infrastructure and technology solutions will see should this project be successful.   It is also worth noting, as with the beginning of any new academic year, the introductory period will be the busiest, so if this project is to be successful there will likely be a massive need for IT support immediately following any rollout.

Pedagogy and confidence

Probably one of my biggest concerns is that this project feels like it may focus too much on devices and not enough on the support and training in relation to how devices and the apps they allow access to might be successfully used in teaching and learning.   We have already seen examples of a focus on devices without the training and support, and the resultant lack of impact when compared with cost;  The Interactive whiteboard is but one example.

Sustainability

There is also the issue of sustainability and the long term.   I experienced this years ago with the laptops for teachers scheme.  It is great for the government to fund or supply devices now, however will they commit to continuing the funding or supply of devices in the future, when the devices become worn or obsolete.    Assuming they will likely look at tablet or laptop devices, I would suggest this will be in around 3 or 4 years of use before needing replacement, although it might be possible to push this out to 5 years. After this additional funding will then be required to mount a renewal/replacement scheme.

A single solution

I am also concerned that this centrally driven approach will likely result in all schools getting the same device, albeit with some variation based on the ages of students catered to within the school.   This fails to take into account the local context of individual schools, staff interest, experience and skills, students viewpoints and preferences, parents, etc.   I increasingly believe the wider you try to deploy a singular solution the more likely it will be unsuccessful due to increasing variance in the context and people, students, staff and parents, involved. I think looking for solutions at a local level is more likely to work over trying to apply a single consistent solution.

Conclusion

It is important to acknowledge this is a good attempt at enabling technology in schools.   It needs to be lauded as such as at least there is clear evidence of an attempt being made by the Scottish government.   The same cant be said for other countries or regions. My concern is it seems to fall into the common trap of focussing on devices without considering the other factors which are needed for a successful educational technology project.    That said, I very much hope I am wrong.

Create a PowerAutomate based on a Shared Form

Only recently found out how to do this however it makes a significant difference allowing me to now create PowerAutomate (previously Flow) automations but based on a Form created by someone else but shared with me.

To do this you need to first identify the FormID for the form.   To do this, just look at the sharing link for the form.  This is the link which someone looking to complete the form would fill out, not the link which may have been shared with you to edit the form.

The FormID is the characters following the ID= part of the URL, the section redacted below:

Now in Power Automate, create a new flow with a Form submission as a trigger.

Using the FormID combo list, you will see all of your forms but not those shared with you.   As such select the option at the bottom for Enter Custom Value.

Now paste the FormID characters from earlier into the FormID box.

You can now build the rest of your PowerAutomate as required, based on the responses to the Form which has been shared with you.

Eggs in one Microsoft/Google basket?

At the start of the week an issue arose which appeared to impact on a number of schools, in relation to syncing of OneNote on iPads or where using the Win 10 OneNote app.    This got me to thinking, should we be concerned where we are increasingly having all our technology eggs in one basket, being either the Microsoft Office 365 or Google Workspace for Education baskets.

Benefits

First, I think it’s important to acknowledge the benefits of having your eggs in one basket.    Taking Office 365, which is the solution my school uses, one of the key benefits is integration.    Each of the apps integrates well with the others, be this using Outlook to setup Teams meetings or setting up a Microsoft Form based quiz, as an assignment in Teams.   As each of the apps are part of the same wider platform, they generally play well together.   As soon as you start to look at number of different apps from different vendors, integration and interoperability very quickly become problems.

User interface is another significant benefit.   Each of the Office 365 apps, as part of the wider platform, has a reasonably common user interface.    This makes it that bit easier for users, both staff and students, to gain familiarity and confidence in using each app and the overall platform.   Again, as soon as we look to different vendors, we find ourselves with different user interfaces across different apps, and therefore an increased learning curve for staff and students.

Security is also worth remembering.   As a single unified platform, I consider it easier, but not necessarily easy, to secure Office 365 versus similarly securing a number of platforms from different vendors, with integrations and potentially third party integrators involved.

Drawbacks

The key draw back is the single point of failure.   When it doesn’t work the impact is huge.   Now in the recent case it was only OneNote which experienced an issue so staff and students could still make use of Teams, OneDrive, email, etc.   This is a lesser issue.   Had the issue related to the Office 365 platform as a whole then all apps within the platform would therefore be affected.    Thankfully, given the size of Microsoft, they have backups and resiliencies in place to reduce the likelihood of such an issue, however statistically over a longitudinal period the likelihood of such an incident eventually reaches 100%.    I would however suggest the exact same is the case where using multiple vendors to supply your solutions, however given the complexity of different systems and the resultant integrations required I would suggest the time period in this case before probability reaches 100% is much less, therefore representing a more significant risk.

It is also worth noting that where we are referring to SaaS (Software as a Service) there is also a risk that the vendor might choose to change the service such that it no longer meets our needs or may even discontinue the service.   In both these cases we find ourselves in the difficult situation of needing to find an alternative and needing to migrate potentially massive amounts of data. With Google and Microsofts productivity suites I would say the risk here is minor, however the possibility that an individual app within the wider platform may change or be discontinued is a more likely occurrence.

Conclusion

I don’t believe there is a perfect solution.   If you wanted to protect against a single point of failure, and having all your eggs in one basket, you would use more than one system, possibly using Microsoft as primary with Google as a secondary solution.    The issue here is that of resources and that of users.    Managing two platforms, keeping one ready to use if needed, and ensuring staff are ready to use the alternative platform will take at least twice as much in the way of IT support resources.   I would also suggest it is highly unlikely you could train users up to be able to be capable across two platforms. I think even trying to do this would impact on users confidence across both platforms. And this is without mentioning potential cost and financial implications.

Alternatively using different vendors for your video calls, emails, collaboration, etc and splitting up the functionality of your solutions is equally unlikely to work due to usability but also due to complexity and resultant fragility of combined systems, with each vendor focussed on their platform and not on others, or on the integrations you may have between platforms.

In Microsoft we trust

This brings me back to an acceptance that the benefits of having all my eggs in one basket, a Microsoft basket in this case, provides more benefits than risks.    It offers easier management, usability and security.

That said, it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of insurance and to have the basics of Google in place just in case;  Yes it may not be ready to go, so may take some time to setup, but at least having it around means it is there should the worst ever happen.

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