Established more than a century ago, Presbyterian Ladies’ College and Scotch College (“PLCSC”) are partner schools in Perth’s Western suburbs. In addition to their tradition of excellence in academic, arts, and sporting pursuits, the schools have demonstrated leadership in technology and innovation designed to equip students for career roles of the future. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to adopt a remote learning model with just days’ notice, new Microsoft features were rolled out within a week. Following best practice, the schools then undertook a Modern Classroom Assessment to ensure strong governance was in place.
When significant changes are made to an IT environment, it is typically the culmination of months of planning and preparation. In March 2020, when schools including Presbyterian Ladies’ College and Scotch College were given less than a week’s notice before transitioning to remote learning, there followed a time like no other. Director of Information and Learning Technology, Anna Hu, who has overall responsibility for technology in both schools, said that her teams pulled off an extraordinary accomplishment.
“We had to manage the rapid deployment of additional Microsoft 365 capabilities to over 800 staff and 2,500 students. During that week, we got Microsoft Teams rolled out for lessons and video conferencing from year 12 down to year four, with Cisco Webex for the younger groups. We were pushing out new remote malware protection on devices, because while they were at school, they would check in daily on our network for updates and support is available from the technical teams, but this was not the case at home. We had to ensure that staff could answer their phones when at home, so we deployed Cisco Jabber to administrative staff but, used Microsoft Teams for all other calls and meetings” explained Hu.
“Not everyone had good internet and as we are also a boarding school, we faced some challenges supporting students in remote locations, although the NBN’s provision of unmetered internet did help considerably in many cases. When we went live, it all worked.”
While the initial focus was on ensuring that students could join lessons and interact with teachers securely, the challenge didn’t end there. Fortunately, lockdowns and remote learning did not last long in Western Australia, thanks to a low number of COVID-19 cases. Still, the schools retained the new Microsoft 365 features, not only to prepare for any future lockdown periods but also because they add considerable value to students.
“We still use Microsoft Teams in classrooms, and we use Microsoft Exchange Online for email. We also left chats on, and students use this daily to collaborate on projects. We needed to make sure that what we had deployed had the right configurations in place correctly and employed the most appropriate security settings, as well as giving us the best impact for the technology we’d introduced,” outlined Hu.
“We take the responsibility of handling sensitive data and protecting students online incredibly seriously.”
After rolling out new features and services in Microsoft 365 to enable remote learning, the Information and Learning Technology (“ILT”) team identified a need to develop a strategy that comprehensively addressed governance and data protection.
The required outcomes were to: provide recommendations to improve the college’s investment in Microsoft 365; develop a roadmap to implement information management and governance methods; and finally strengthen protection of sensitive data.
The need to review strategy around governance was raised in a regular meeting between Presbyterian Ladies’ College and Scotch College (“PLCSC”) and their Data#3 account manager. As the colleges’ Microsoft licensing provider through Australian Independent Schools of WA (“AISWA”), Data#3 had a comprehensive understanding of the Microsoft environment, so it made sense to work with their consulting division and wholly owned subsidiary, Business Aspect.
Soon before the COVID-19 impact, the schools had addressed a licensing challenge related to their shared tenancy across two schools. The two schools transport students between campuses for specialist classes in the senior grades, allowing them to offer a wealth of study options, so the ability to work seamlessly between locations was valued. Hu turned to the Data#3 team for help, and the “stressful joint tenant issue” was soon resolved. When the discussion turned to governance after the schools’ COVID-19-driven changes, this earlier experience made it easy to decide where to turn for advice.
“Data#3 has been working with us for a number of years on our Microsoft licensing projects, and we knew our account manager has such a strong relationship with Microsoft’s education team, so the decision was quite straightforward. That relationship had crossover into the Modern Classroom report, so we went with Data#3’s consulting team at Business Aspect,” said Hu.
Hu manages an IT team and a curriculum team in each of the two schools and she worked with these specialists to establish what they expected to achieve with the assessment.
“I have very competent teams who are all keen readers of technology, so we brought together an amalgamation of our ideas across the four groups. When we combined that with someone with expert knowledge in the Microsoft space, we were in a position to build an actionable report. I like reports to be actionable, so if we have a review done, I wanted to know what are the recommendations, how do we put them in place and how urgent they are.”
The Business Aspect Modern Classroom Assessment began with discovery conversations and consultants asked many questions about exactly how the school used technology. Key staff were interviewed, and consultants conducted workshops to gather further information. This process quickly and effectively gathered the information needed about the schools’ governance requirements. The intelligence generated was used to build a roadmap of activities for management improvement and also documented any immediate actions.
Among those actions was the movement of fixed, on-premises drives onto Microsoft SharePoint, a process the many other schools have now embarked on, as well as a number of backup recommendations that have been followed. Students were moved onto OneDrive, giving them an easier way to work securely from multiple locations and devices and to collaborate effortlessly with peers and teachers.
“The report had impact. It was very useful, and it helped to get all four teams on the same page. It clarified our thinking around our backup situation and defined how best to meet our legislative and compliance requirements. Our decisions have been made easier and we are better prepared for the future.”
The clarity the report delivered also gave the schools confidence to choose which recommendations to adopt and when to take a different path. Hu’s groups chose not to put the creation of Microsoft Teams classes in the hands of IT, but instead to provide additional training so that teachers can self-manage this popular tool, within established protocols and backed with plenty of support when needed. The curriculum teams are perhaps unique in their comprehensive program to work with teachers to improve use of technology in the classroom and Hu said that academic staff have been “very happy” to take control of day-to-day actions.
Improved governance around data protection and security have been some of the highlights of the project. A quick win was the enforcement of regular password changes for students, a simple measure that pays off with improved online safety. Using available tools, the schools have been able to monitor technology use more effectively, working closely with school leaders to resolve any issues. This was put to the test when a student used school credentials for a number of online accounts, causing one to be compromised. Hu’s team was able to quickly identify the problem, in which the student’s avatar was changed to an unsuitable image and take rapid action, this process has now been automated so compromised accounts are locked immediately.
“Recommendations included turning on communications compliance and adjusting some security settings, which we have done. We used to get so many alerts to deal with about compromised acts, but since we implemented password change protocols, they have all but stopped, which has been a big positive of this report. These security measures are in place to keep students and systems safe and make sure they’re not exploited,” outlined Hu.
It was the right choice for us, as it validated our direction and helped us to make quicker decisions with a higher impact. The report gave us a template to work from and where we must balance the needs of two teams. It helped to have a neutral party to discuss our situation and create a roadmap from an unbiased perspective”Anna Hu, Director of Information and Learning Technology, Presbyterian Ladies College and Scotch College
As might be expected from schools with a strong focus on student outcomes, education has been a key element of following the report’s recommendations.
“We are implementing a digital intelligence program prompted by the report through our student wellbeing staff. The issue of permissions aligns with our consent education and even our year ones are taught to ask permission before taking someone’s picture,” commented Hu.
For other schools considering exploring governance issues through a Modern Classroom Assessment, Hu’s recommendation was to be absolutely clear about expectations. Given the many conflicting budget priorities in school IT departments, any investment should be made when there is a real prospect of actionable recommendations.
“Business Aspect were very knowledgeable, especially about backups and their recommendations came with consideration to timing and priority order,” said Hu.
“It was the right choice for us, as it validated our direction and helped us to make quicker decisions with a higher impact. The report gave us a template to work from and where we must balance the needs of two teams. It helped to have a neutral party to discuss our situation and create a roadmap from an unbiased perspective.”
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