Scone Grammar School transforms learning experience for regional students with Teams and Office 365

For some of the students attending Scone Grammar School (SGS), just getting to school can be an adventure, taking an hour on the bus each way. Many of the teachers face similar lengthy commutes. When they do get home some have no, or patchy, internet connections.

Undaunted by the challenges of its location in the Upper Hunter region of NSW, Scone Grammar School is now serving as a beacon for learning innovation, collaboration and communication.

Scone Grammar School is a relatively small regional school. It has 543 students across years K-12 and 84 children attend its Pre-School.

Principal Paul Smart acknowledges that in the past the school’s technology and information systems have been patchy. While students have had access to devices for some time, in the past there was no consistent software platform and different teachers used a range of different learning management systems which could be confusing for students who had to navigate them all.

Working with Paul Carnemolla, a partner with technology solutions firm CrossPoint Technology Solutions, the school has now rolled out Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft Teams, which are transforming teaching and learning at the school, and providing parents and guardians with a window into their children’s education.

Carnemolla, himself a former physics teacher, says the guiding strategy for SGS is about; “Improving the learning experience for teachers and students and also improving communications generally across the school.”

That, he says, is why Scone Grammar School embraced Microsoft Teams, rather than relying on emails and attachments for communications, “because teachers are very time poor.” If the students’ and teachers’ commutes seem lengthy – then the four hours Carnemolla travels from Sydney to Scone is extreme, but he is nevertheless a regular visitor to the school where he has taken on an IT leadership role, and also spearheads the training and change management efforts.

What was clear to Carnemolla from the get-go was the need for a coherent, streamlined solution that could support teachers and students in class, at home, and provide the foundations for rich communications and collaboration across the entire school community.

Mindful that because of its regional location not all students and teachers had easy access to the internet out of school, SGS has deployed OneDrive files on demand and OneNote so that students and teachers can continue to work even without an internet connection. Microsoft School Data Sync automates the creation of different school Teams and the content in OneNote is linked to the appropriate Teams when an internet connection is available.

“When a student or teacher works offline, the content they have created will be synced whenever they can connect. Today SGS no longer stores files on site – all learning content is stored in the cloud, in Teams and in SharePoint libraries,” says Carnemolla.

 

Engaging every student, supporting every teacher

Anyone who has spent any time in a classroom – teacher or student – knows that there is often one child who will sit at the back of the room in a corner seat, and rarely raise their hand or engage in a classroom discussion. Another might be constantly losing their notebook or homework, while those students on excursions or ill may find it hard to keep up with their classmates.

“Teams and OneNote have changed that at SGS,” says Deanna Hollis, Head of Secondary, and Head of Maths and Science. “Now all the school’s current learning content is available online anywhere anytime, and students can communicate and collaborate no matter how shy they might be in a physical classroom, or if they have lost a notebook or are away for a day .

The technology is also helping teachers to get to know their students better,” says Hollis. “OneNote and Teams allow teachers to digitally look over the shoulder of each student real time, rather than waiting for assessments to be handed in, to understand how they are grasping different concepts, and gently steer them back on track when needed.”

Hollis, who last year taught Year 8 Maths and Science classes says, “When you start to use Teams and are collaboratively co-authoring and commenting, there is nowhere for a shy student to hide – you will get to know them better.”

“And there’s the capacity to communicate beyond the classroom. That’s really valuable – students could send a message and I could respond fairly quickly.”

“That instant connection can be a double-edged sword,” Paul Smart acknowledges. While he appreciates the willingness of SGS teachers to support students, he says they have to set boundaries and ensure they have proper downtime away from their teaching duties.

Teachers by their nature, though, often go above and beyond, and technology is making that simpler. When one of Janet Walsh’s students had to spend time in hospital, for example, Teams made it possible to engage her in class activities even when she wasn’t in the classroom. The hospital teacher was able to work with the student on the lessons that her classmates were completing, and Teams facilitated communications between classroom and hospital.

Besides her role as a classroom teacher, Walsh is also the school’s curriculum coordinator and lead teacher of innovation and learning for K-12. She says that as well as supporting student learning, Teams is helping to build community; students will chat with one another about homework or check in about what uniform is needed the following day. “You do see the quieter kids get on and feel more comfortable because you are behind that screen. You watch conversations happen between students that would not have a conversation in the classroom,” she says.

And when her own daughter, who attends SGS, was sick at home but desperate to be part of a camp meeting being held at school, it was easy enough to use Teams to stream the meeting. “There is a lot of power there if we use it and use it well,” she adds.

As Walsh job-shares with another teacher, Teams also acts as the glue with her co-teacher. They put their lessons into Teams, chat with one another, and annotate content, ensuring both remain on the same page and up to date.

Aili Clifton, a Year 5 teacher also team teaches. She says that the Microsoft platform has been a real boon, with a single location for all lesson information that can be easily shared. “And because many teachers live out of town, being able to access that from the cloud has been “amazing,” says Clifton.

 

Change management and life changing

Deanna Hollis has been impressed at the impact technology has had on work-life balance. “A lot of staff come from a distance. I drive 70 km to get to work every day.

“A lot of staff like to go home close to the bell and work at home. That was hard with the data storage and the solutions we were using,” she says. The transition to the cloud and embrace of Teams means Hollis can now log on and work from home. “The quality of teachers’ lives is so much easier. You can do it once and everyone can see it, or you have the option to keep things private.”

Selecting and installing a technology platform is one thing. Getting everyone on board and using it another – effective change management is essential for sustained success.

Hollis says that once the decision was made by the SGS Executive Team to transition to Teams, a date was set and after that staff were not expected to use email for communications.

To accelerate the adoption, Carnemolla worked with a group of “Super Ten” teachers who he trained first. This group then became evangelists for the technology transformation and were able to help colleagues as they got to grips with the changes.

To cement the Teams community among staff, several teachers also committed to posting regularly – Hollis, a keen photographer for example posts her best photos on a Tuesday and another teacher shares a Friday joke on Teams.

 

Anytime, anywhere and ready for anything

With the Office 365 platform now deployed across the school, SGS is also able to leverage emerging functions and features as soon as they are released. For example, a recent influx of Mandarin speakers at the school are benefiting from Office 365’s translation features.

Aili Clifton stresses that the opportunity to engage with modern technology at school and home is valuable for students as they progress into further education and the workforce. “They need to be adept with different programs and these kids are really tech savvy and pick it up quickly,” she says, adding that students also develop better digital etiquette about how they use the technology and connect with one another both in an out of the classroom.

At SGS, technology is meshed into all aspects of school life – both in the classroom and extra-curricular activities.

Jason Buckley is Director of Music; he teaches music to Years 6-12 and runs most of the instrumental ensembles at the school. One of the challenges he faces is that the school day is compressed – SGS is the area’s last school bus drop off in the morning and the first school pick up in the afternoon so there’s little leeway for before and after school activities.

Buckley has been a long term and enthusiastic user of OneNote for lessons, using the system to embed links to music or music videos that students can review as part of their studies even before the school made the decision to adopt Office 365 as its learning platform. “It’s easy for me to drop the music in, then they can work individually – and I can check how they are progressing.”

Having lessons prepared in OneNote also reduces Buckley’s workload as he can review and revise lesson content rather than having to start from scratch each year.

With Teams now deployed, Buckley can also collect assignments from students and send back notes and marks. In addition, he uses Teams to share music scores with different ensembles such as the Primary Band and Primary Chapel Band; instead of printed copies of music that can be lost or torn, students put their devices on music stands and access the score for their instrument.

He’s enthusiastic about the collaboration opportunities afforded by Teams, and the way in which cloud-based platforms overcome the challenges of hardware limitations as now everyone can use whatever device they have to access the same content.

Technology is successfully transforming learning, teaching and community at SGS according to Principal Paul Smart who says the technology is “Engaging the students very profitably in their learning experience and providing good opportunities for feedback and real time change. There’s a heightened sense of sharing the educational experience with parents, particularly for Primary School.”

He says that, with strong digital foundations now in place, there is an opportunity to reap even greater value from OneNote and Teams, embedding them throughout the learning process and engaging all members of the school community with a single vision of improved educational and community outcomes.

 

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