How The Harris Federation implemented a failsafe online learning strategy – Part 1

The Harris Federation - 18 June, 2020

Category : Blog

How The Harris Federation implemented a failsafe online learning strategy – Part 1

Over the past few months, in our webinar series “Adapting to Change”, we’ve been speaking to leaders of Multi-Academy Trusts about how they’ve been adapting to lockdown.  Recently we invited Derek Hills, Head of Data and Andy Meighen, IT Director from The Harris Federation – a trust of 48 academies in London and Essex –

Over the past few months, in our webinar series “Adapting to Change”, we’ve been speaking to leaders of Multi-Academy Trusts about how they’ve been adapting to lockdown. 

Recently we invited Derek Hills, Head of Data and Andy Meighen, IT Director from The Harris Federation – a trust of 48 academies in London and Essex – to talk about how they rolled out an online learning programme for their 36,000+ students. 

They explained how when Covid-19 hit, their flexible, cloud-based setup allowed them to quickly and easily give all students access to online education, which would not have been possible using a legacy, server based system. You can read more below about Harris’s unique IT approach and how they responded to Covid-19.

Check out our next blog to find out how they analysed their online learning data!

 

Harris’s technical approach

With 4,500 staff and 36,000 students across primary and secondary, Harris uses a centralised and standardised IT set-up designed to give everyone the same experience across the trust. 

The focus of Derek and Andy’s roles is making IT work for everyone across the trust with systems that are as efficient and cost effective as possible. 

The key principles of their IT approach are:

  • Centralise: Keep central control of system setup to reduce the amount of IT support needed at each school site
  • Integrate: Make sure data flows between systems so you don’t have to access everything separately
  • Consolidate: Make sure there is no duplication or errors in the data when it is brought in from different systems 
  • Automate: Make sure workflows and processes are automatic to save staff time and cut down on the number of people needed. This is particularly important when dealing with a large amount of staff and student data 

 

Using a data warehouse

The IT team at Harris manages data centrally through a combination of their own data warehouse and cloud-based systems. They created a data warehouse so that they could hold all their MIS (Management Information System) data on premises and develop systems on top of it. 

Using a data warehouse also means that when they bring in a new system, for example Microsoft Teams, it can set up user accounts for all students and staff automatically. Admin Staff simply add the student names, then the data warehouse puts them into the right groups, saving the central IT team time. 

Whenever they design new systems or processes, Derek and Andy ensure they can be used across all academies. They want to make sure all staff and students have the same technology options at their fingertips. At the same time, it’s also important to give Teachers the freedom to use digital tools in a way that suits the particular lesson they’re giving. For this reason, the IT team doesn’t advise that staff teach in a certain way, or use a certain VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) such as Google Classroom. From experience, without top-level buy in from trust leadership, initiatives like these are rarely successful.

Harris uses Microsoft systems across the trust which are set up to communicate with their data warehouse. These are some of the key parts of the puzzle that help the systems interact:

  • API: Harris makes sure that systems they integrate with (like their MIS) have a “read” and “write” API which means they can interact with their data warehouse
  • SSIS (SQL Server Integration Services): They use middleware that sits in between systems to connect them and allows IT to tweak the data as it moves between systems
  • MIM (Microsoft Identity Manager): This is a type of middleware they use for integrating with Microsoft Active Directory
  • SDS (School Data Sync) and Microsoft Flow: Allows them to push data up to Office 365 from their data warehouse and create Microsoft Team accounts
  • Microsoft PowerBI: A reporting tool which gives them insights into the information in their data warehouse 

 

How Harris responded to Covid-19

As schools began to close and remote working became necessary, Harris was able to respond quickly, using lessons they’d learned from a recent snow day. On that day, phone lines couldn’t cope, staff ran out of SMS credits and the web connection crashed. They therefore had already solved these issues, and increased their supply of laptops for students and staff to take home when Covid-19 hit. 

Setting up remote teaching and learning was also a smooth transition because staff were already using Microsoft Teams and Show My Homework to record lessons and set assignments. The only difference was that staff had to adjust to doing much more on Teams such as leading live lessons. The IT team also needed to set up lots more users on Teams – in March alone they set up 20, 000 accounts which took two weeks as Microsoft struggled to cope!

Click here to see the four steps the IT team took to set up users on Microsoft Teams using their data warehouse

Although they were smooth to set up, remote lessons brought some challenges. IT worked quickly with Teachers to adapt the ways students interacted with Microsoft Teams. For example:

  • Behaviour policy: Due to behaviour issues, they had to draw up a new Behaviour Policy and turn off certain capabilities for students, like switching off their cameras or not allowing them to create meetings themselves
  • Meeting formats: They looked at lots of different formats for remote lessons that Teachers could alternate between for best effect, for example a live “webinar” or “meeting”
  • GDPR: They had to navigate GDPR concerns for the recording of lessons, i.e. how long to keep the recordings before deleting
  • Remote support: Microsoft Teams was useful for IT teams to communicate easily with staff and give them support with systems, especially by being able to share their screen

Check out our next blog to find out what Harris has learned about their online learning programme from analysing their data in Microsoft Power BI.

 

You’re invited to join us for the next webinar in our “Adapting to Change” series tomorrow (Friday 19th) where we’ll be demonstrating how to use benchmarking and performance analysis to drive smart strategy at your trust. Sign up for free with the link below.

Friday June 19th 2020, 11:00am

Using Arbor’s benchmarking and performance analysis to inform data-driven decisions for your trust

 

 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash