It’s like a shared drive

Back in 2005 our organisation didn’t share much. We worked in silo’s – and in many cases still do. When we weren’t communicating face to face or over the phone, information was typically making its way slowly around the business in paper form. What we did share was often transferred through shared folders – or mapped drives as they were more commonly referred to.

Shared folders were fine, but subject to improvisation. A shared folder will often contain many files, and sub-folders. Each sub-folder containing many more, each with a different content type, structure or naming convention – a sign of how many were contributing with little or no usage guidance.

We didn’t host many we services back in 2005, but curriculum technology was about to steam ahead. Emerging from a difficult time with Learnwise, we had identified Moodle as a VLE that would transform our curriculum delivery. It was around this time that we also became aware of SharePoint. Here was an opportunity to take some of those paper communications and documents, and transfer them to a digital medium.

We had some very clear objectives for SharePoint, and for Moodle too. It very quickly became clear that Moodle could do for us what Learnwise had not been able to. Curriculum staff were gaining enthusiasm for this new learning environment. We knew that Moodle was a great platform for curriculum delivery, but we also considered whether Moodle would be the right platform for our business support content. We realised that SharePoint was a great content management system, and we also considered whether SharePoint would be the right platform for our curricular materials. Our conclusion was that Moodle, our VLE, would be used purely to support curriculum delivery. SharePoint would be used purely for hosting content related to business support activities.

In education, shared drives have been popular. Simple, practical (crude even) methods of sharing content among users with varying roles. It’s easy with a shared drive to add your content. The idea of a shared drive has persisted from our distant past, and for the most part, is how we use the very capable SharePoint application. This is my experience of how SharePoint has most frequently been used – it’s like a shared drive. It’s been an interesting product to work with, but hasn’t continued to deliver continued opportunities for innovation that were evident when first adopted.

I don’t view the upgrading of any application to a newer version as being the solution to any intrinsic problems that may be associated with it. In this case, problems with a given version of SharePoint won’t be resolved by simply upgrading. Similarly, a new release of Moodle won’t suddenly generate increased learner participation. Instead, a new approach is needed. I regularly comment about the continuing prolific activity of uploading lots of files. It’s really not the sort of activity that represents the position that learning technology should be in today. We can create that very same content online with the right tools. We don’t all need to be using the same suite of Microsoft tools that have been dominant for so long. Admittedly this isn’t the case for everyone as some organisations have been very successfully in using open source alternatives for some time – and well done to them. For an organisation to be held to ransom by continual upgrades in order to achieve a certain degree of usability is surely far too restrictive for a modern and fast moving business – educational or otherwise.

It’s all too easy to place a high reliance upon new products to reveal solutions for long term problems. When (and if) the latest and greatest version arrives, it won’t provide all the answers.

Talking SharePoint with the JISC RSC South East


Thursday of last week presented opportunity for me to again exercise my newly achieved presenting skills. We hosted a meeting for our JISC Regional Support Centre (RSC) covering SharePoint and Shibboleth.

As is my style, I took a conversational storytelling approach to my presentation, accompanying this with a minimal set of slides, loosely composed around to 10/20/30 principle – although I typically use font sizes far in excess of 30 point! SharePoint was the subject of the morning agenda, with Shibboleth to follow. I started the conversation with a quick show of hands from the audience; “Who already uses SharePoint?”. It was about 60/40 in SharePoint’s favor. This surprised me a little (I didn’t expect so many users). A pretty reasonable result given that our audience included work based learning and specialist providers.

I’m pretty sure the only thing I forgot after completing my storytelling was to open the floor for questions. This group weren’t about to let me get away without any questions though! The conversation that followed turned our to be the start of a great discussion.

Key in this discussion was SharePoint functionality in the uploading of files – or rather how in some combinations, the upload functionality can be your biggest limiting factor. I can describe this better with an example. We currently use SharePoint 2003. Our users have Microsoft Office 2007 (or 2010 in some cases). SharePoint 2003 hasn’t been developed to accept Open XML Document format files, and therefore users must upload in a compatible format – the old “.doc” format. This isn’t a problem for any computer connected to the domain; we simply apply an Office Group Policy package to set the default file type. However, take this outside the domain – to a home computer perhaps – and your application of a consistent environment is no more.

My view here is a challenging one, and perhaps not yet achievable. Our reliance on SharePoint is for the most part (although not quite entirely) still built around uploading files. All too quickly our SharePoint installation grew to include a multitude of sites and document libraries, each with a subtly different structure and security model, bringing with it an administrative burden. Instead, as is more commonly the case with newer web tools, our longer term objective for collating content should surely be focused upon creating content online. Flexible structures, simplified security management, little or no dependence upon sometimes proprietary content types. Don’t get me wrong; SharePoint does handle the simplistic task of collating content in an accessible location very well. At the end of the day though, it’s usually treated just like a shared drive. Sadly, there’s nothing particularly advanced about that.