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Governance 365

Image credit: Sagano Bamboo Forest by Alex Chen - licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Governance 365

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Eylan EzekielEylan Ezekiel is a parent governor at Larkrise Primary School in East Oxford. He is also an experienced teacher and educational technology consultant. In this guest article – re-posted from its original publication entitled Larkrise 365 on his blog – he describes the steps his governing body has taken to use a school-based technology to improve its communication and work with the school. You can follow Eylan on Twitter at @eylanezekiel.

Our governing body has started using Office 365 to improve collaboration and improve the way we work with school staff. Although we are right at the beginning of our journey,  we have started to find paths through the forest of our school communications, and the light is beginning to get through. Here is our story so far.

Larkrise Primary School is a smallish, maintained school in a diverse part of Oxford. There is more about our school on our website (awaiting a major refresh!). The governing body has a huge range of technical competence in the use of digital tools, though, crucially, we also have a willing and very able clerk!

None of us are/were 365 experts, and only one person uses it regularly for work. We have no extra support, no funds for training, and we could not find many stories of governing bodies doing this before!

Why do it?

The main driver for the Larkrise governors moving to Microsoft’s Office 365, for the work and administration of the governing body, was to draw together the work we were doing with staff (SLT) onto a common platform.

The SLT and office staff all use Microsoft Office on their desktops, and an initial foray into using Google Drive for governor work last year had meant that staff were having to shift between platforms to work with the governing body. Quite a few of the governors (including me) are Google fans, but this enthusiasm did not translate to everyone. Something had to give.

It was a simple matter of making a choice of forcing the school to move towards Google Apps for Education – and changing the school’s whole technology profile – or adapting and enhancing the way they used the powerful technology they already had.

Oh, and 365 is free and already set up to work. The 1TB of data for each user, plus the ability to access MS Office tools, was also kind of tempting.

As mentioned in earlier posts, we had already identified communication as an area for development, and we had tried to improve it through other aspects of school life (such as improving our use of Parentmail) but we kept hitting issues.

For example, we kept tripping over into ‘operational’ instructions – e.g. “Change this“,”Do that” – in responding to issues, without considering the impact on staff. Considering the different working times (as governors, most of our responses were coming across at night, when SLT were meant to be resting!), so our emails landed like bombs into the inboxes of tired staff without much prioritisation.We wanted to stay ‘strategic’ and allow SLT to find solutions to management issues. We needed a way to cue up and organise feedback and ideas – into a Trello like system, rather than overwhelm SLT with requests and suggestions.

It is also a matter of safety. By giving all governors our own accounts on the school system, we can keep all emails about school matters confidential and within the domain. It also modelled to the staff how serious we were (as governors) about personal emails not being used for school business and professionalising their use of IT systems.

What happened?

All governors were given a login to 365 (with varying success in getting going) and, to begin with, chairs of committees and SLT experimented with how to use it. As none of the governors or staff have had proper training in using 365 effectively, we knew that this shift was going to be a matter of learning together, through making mistakes! And boy, did we make a few!

Step One- Moving folders from Google Drive into 365

Google Takeout made the first part of this pretty easy (thanks to Doug Belshaw for the pointer!). I had an archive of all the folders, but no clear idea how to organise them in 365. I placed them in SharePoint, and started to organise them there. Mistake #1!

Step Two – Setting up Groups.

We started playing with Groups in 365, and set one up for all the workstream that had been going on in the governing body, to try to organise and draw people in. Some were private, some were open. Worst of all, files in the SharePoint folders were not accessible from the Groups. At all! It was infuriating. Mistake #2!!

Step Three – Emails

Moving from emailing from our personal emails took a while, and as we explored what 365 could do, we tried posting to ‘Conversations’, comments to docs, and responding to threads in OneNote notebooks. This created a lot of notifications, the biggest impact being on the headteacher, who hadn’t explored how to change settings for this aspect of the system. Mistake #3!!!

Where are we now?

Group focus

We have decided, after a few months of experimentation, to focus our work around 3 Groups. The governors have one for the Full Governing Body (FGB), for Accounting for Resources, and for Performance and Outcomes committees.  That’s it.

Collaborative docs

We are starting collaborating through one simple feature in having a place for all our documents online, within each group: to comment and edit via the cloud.

Building up from committee meeting pre-reading towards drawing some of the ‘back and forth’ out of the face-to-face sessions and into comment threads in docs: we hope to make much better use of our meetings to hold the school to account, develop the strategic aspects of our work, and get home home on time more often after governor meetings.

Although there is a lot more we could be doing (and a few of us are quietly experimenting with the Planner – an almost direct copy of Trello) we felt this was the lowest common denominator for everyone to be able to make use of a familiar system in a new way; that would have the maximum impact on the working practices of both the governing body and staff.

No surprises

As the committee meetings roll around next term, we will build up agenda using the collaborative docs and social features, perhaps via the Planner. Crucially, SLT will be able to see what we are interested in before the meeting, so that they can prepare. We’ll have time to interrogate the data, and SLT can plan to take feedback on when it suits them, and not be overwhelmed by notifications.

That’s all folks

As I type this post on my lovely Chromebook, I still find myself surprised at how we have come to use 365 rather than Google. There have been lots of moments that I am amazed that I am working in the Microsoft ecosystem again. However, it is really important to remember how varied the skill levels are in the school and governing body, so even getting everyone on one system is a huge step in the right direction.

We are not yet using Office 365 in an exemplary way… in fact, I think we are probably missing lots of tricks. That said, I’m proud to say that we are clear in why we are using it, what problems we want to fix and how we will know if we are getting it right. We are working and learning hand-in-hand with the SLT and there is (at the moment) a lot of positive feedback to encourage us.

We’d welcome any suggestions, advice and free training (hey, if you don’t ask…) as we continue our journey. Please get in touch or comment below.

I will update on how we are doing later in 2017 – but for now, to governors, teachers and parents… have a great break! We all deserve it.

Image credit: Sagano Bamboo Forest by Alex Chen – licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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