Portal fosters collaboration at Upper Canada school board

As recently as a year-and-a-half ago, the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) was not taking advantage of the communications tools that enable teachers to effectively collaborate, according to sophomore UCDSB CIO Jeremy Hobbs.

For Ontario’s largest school district geographically, but with one of the province’s smaller student populations, that was a problem.

“When I arrived here, I found that (UCDSB) lacked the tools for communicating electronically,” Hobbs said. “We had a very primitive e-mail system, and a very low level of email usage among staff.”

Brockville, Ont.-based UCDSB is developing a collaborative portal, calling it the first of its kind, which is forging a strong connection between the student, home, teacher and the school. Traversing logistic, financial and geographical obstacles, the portal attempts to create a collaborative environment.

“School Web sites were very primitive and that was a result of the technology that was available,” Hobbs said. “Schools had to have somebody, but not a dedicated staff position, on site that knew HTML and applications like Dreamweaver, and had to know how to FTP to a site.”

UCDSB’s external Web site had been recently redesigned, but the underlying tools on the site didn’t get to the point where end users could contribute content without going through the IT department, he said. The same was true of the internal sites.

“Even though we are a rural community, the expectation both internally and externally, for electronic communication tools has been rising,” Hobbs said. “Parents, to an increasing extent, are expecting information to be posted in a timely fashion on the school and Board Web sites.”

One of the challenges of having small schools is the teachers in those schools can become disconnected, he said. UCDSB wants to engage a system of improvement, and one of the key drivers is getting staffs that are isolated in their sites together to share best practices and collaborate on common issues and challenges.

“We want to capture the passive knowledge of our organization and repurpose it going forward,” Hobbs said. “(Until recently) we have had no means for doing that at all.”

UCDSB laid out their vision: An internal portal where schools and ad hoc and departmental teams would have space where they could collaborate and direct content without having to go through an IT department. Teams could be built within school or departmental environment then across the Board on an ad hoc basis.

“We wanted to make it easy, seamless and transparent for schools to manage their external Web sites,” Hobbs said. “Essentially, putting a system in place to get the technology out of the way, for school principals and staff, so that they could focus on maintaining a vibrant Web site that would look professionally branded.”

UCDSB engaged Microsoft after a series of meetings with potential technology suppliers. According to the Board, Microsoft was selected because of its willingness sit down with the Board’s key decision makers prior to making the sale.

“(Microsoft) wanted to know what our business needs were, and what are business drivers were,” Hobbs said. “They were also the most willing to help us establish a proof of concept (for the portal) to help us generate internal buy in and to help articulate our vision, and translating that into a technology solution.”

For portal strategy, graphic design and usability, and coding and development, UCDSB looked to Cambridge, Ont.-based Concept Interactive Inc.

“UCDSB was looking for a partner that could bring portal experience,” said Christopher Federico, president, Concept Interactive. “They needed to be introduced to the concept of portal because it is different from a traditional intranet.”

The technology is fraught with change management issues, he said.

“It sounds really simple to talk about, but the reality is that, in the background (portal technology) is very complicated,” Federico said.

This isn’t about at technology tool in a lot of cases, this is about changing our behavior so we communicate more effectively with our communities, collaborate and learn more effectively, Hobbs said.

“We want to get schools to say: ‘We are not going to communicate on paper anymore,'” Hobbs said.

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