Since I started working in Technology and Education back in 2004 I can think of two major events that have helped in jumping technology in the classroom to the next level in Australia. The first one was the Digital Education Revolution (DER), launched in late 2008 it gave schools funds to buy computers so they could achieve a form of 1:1 for the students.

The second major event has just happened, really only started. The novel coronavirus-19 (COVID-19) suddenly forced schools around the globe to change to a remote learning platform, and in a lot of cases, the time to build this system was mere days, not weeks or even months. At least with the DER schools had months to organize and roll out their platforms, yes it was plagued with issues though there was still time to plan.

Though with COVID-19 schools were thrown in the deep end, changing how they teach almost overnight. Damon Cooper, Central Coast Grammar School’s Director of Teaching and Learning summed it up in a post on LinkedIn in.

What happened in schools on Monday 23 March 2020 was extraordinary: a greater change in schooling in one day than in any other year in history. On Monday morning we were told by the Premier that schools would remain open, but parents were encouraged to keep students at home and that teachers would deliver the same curriculum to every child.

In 24 hours, teachers in every school in the state – with no bump in funding, no special release and little warning – transitioned to remote learning for all students. And they did it while looking after over 800,000 anxious children.

This is a fundamental paradigm shift in teaching, learning and student wellbeing. What we did on Monday would have been unimaginable just hours before. But on Monday it was what needed to be done for the children… so it was done. And it was done extraordinarily well.

Congratulations to every teacher: this is the silent nobility of our profession, and we have never been more worthy of our calling than this week.

But we didn’t do it alone: we achieved this with our IT, operations, administration and support colleagues, with parents and with students. We did it together.

And like all schools CCGS was no different, we had to roll out a remote learning option for our staff and students to ensure that their learning was not impacted. Thankfully the ICT Steering Committee at CCGS had already been looking into remote learning option and had reviewed our options. The main ones reviewed;

  • Microsoft Teams
  • Google Meets
  • Zoom
  • Adobe
  • Big Blue Button

CCGS decided to rollout Microsoft Teams, I’m not going to delve into all the different platforms as anyone with Google can figure out the differences between the platforms, and a remote learning platform shouldn’t be picked just because of what another school is using. They need to pick the platform that fits their model, for example, if you are a Google School, then you wouldn’t pick Microsoft Teams. And CCGS uses Office365, so Microsoft Teams was our best choice.

Quickly why we choice Teams?

  • The policies in teams allowed us to make the difference between staff and students.
  • With ADFS setup for Office365, it made using teams very easy.
  • We had noticed that Microsoft Office updates had pushed out Microsoft Teams to everyone whether we wanted it to or not.
  • I already knew that staff were using the chat function in Teams so were familiar with the application.
  • Finally… our Identity Management system is already known to work with Teams.

We rolled out Identity1 in January as our Identity Management Solution, and thankfully it made our task of rolling out Microsoft Teams a million times easier. Identity1 for us was originally brought in to improve our security, we used to have the age-old issue of someone needing higher permissions for a week or month, those extra permissions are forgotten and someone has higher access for longer than they were meant to.

Identity management solutions are designed with the concept of a ‘Source of truth’. And most solutions look to their HR System for that source of truth, however, for us our Student Management System is our source of truth. And in this space Identity1 was a perfect fit. Its founder Andrew Merrick originally worked in schools so he knows how they work, and he has worked with Synergetic before and is incredibility knowledgable about it. Though his skills don’t stop at just Synergetic.

We set Identity1 up in the following manner, using Synergetic as our Source of Truth. From there it triggers actions against Active Directory, Office 365 and Microsoft Teams… with much more planned!

So when we decided to roll out Microsoft Teams, a quick call to Identity1 we were able to change out settings to start creating Microsoft Teams, and thanks to Identity1 it was able to read out Timetable settings in Synergetic. I cannot overstate how much time this saved us! Without Identity1 it would have taken us days if not longer to fully setup Microsoft Teams.

So for each class in our timetable, a corresponding Teams group was created with the teacher as an Owner and the students as a Member. And to make it even better, each night the automatic script in Identity1 reviews any changes to the timetable whether that be a new class, old class or just a student moving from one class to another and makes the desired changes. We also added an exception to the script, if you add a kids ID to that exception it will exclude the kid from all their Teams like an online suspension.

We had to make some policy changes to how we build our groups, for example, the Junior School originally had every class created, though we quickly realised that most junior classes were the same students just with a different name so we changed our system. We also had to create some custom groups like Year Level Groups for year meetings and so on.

And we are still reviewing our policies in terms of what students can and can’t do in Teams. Currently, we don’t allow them to use the individual chat and they can only join other meetings teachers have created. We have found an issue that if a teacher schedules a meeting students can join that before or after the date, though thankfully Microsoft is releasing a fix for that in April by setting only a Teacher can start a scheduled meeting and also the ability for the teacher to end a meeting.

With Identity1 as our Identity Management System we have achieved the following;

  • Full automation of all student and parent account creation and management.
    • Staff accounts are a work in progress.
  • All parents get an email once their account is created.
  • Full automation of Teams;
    • Automatically creating teams based on Synergetic timetable.
    • Automatically assign teacher as owners and students as members of their class.
    • Utilising the Microsoft Teams templates to make sure each class is built as a Class Teams.
    • Applying organisation-specific policies based on whether the user is a student or staff member.
    • All configured in 2 days.

Identity1 is not a blackhole of scripts or some lumbering system that is hard to know what is happening. All settings for Identity1 are managed via their GUI, and easy to use. All you need is a basic understanding of SQL and our your ‘Source of Truth’ is configured.

Once of the best parts I loved about Identity1, was with Andrew Merrick the bulk of the system was up and running in a few days and not months.

Finally, before I wrap up, here are some of the states from the 3 weeks we used Teams before the holidays started.

1070+ Teams created
100% Student engagement in Teams.
100% Staff engagement in Teams.

And our Teams User Activity

107,381 channel messages
65,086 reply messages
34,182 post messages
23,532 chat messages (staff only)
12,018 reactions
1,990 mentions
2,021 meetings organised
5,095 meetings participated
452 1:1 calls
1,543 total active users

Is Microsoft Teams the best platform for Remote Learning? For CCGS yes… though is it the best platform for everyone? That is like asking ‘Is a sports car the best car for everyone?’ Each school or business has different requirements for their remote learning or virtual meeting platforms.

Though as said, for CCGS it is the right and best platform for us, and despite what happens in Term 2 CCGS will keep using Microsoft Teams for now.