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January 22, 2010

On the use of Microsoft SharePoint in UK universities

A while back we decided to fund a study looking at the uptake of SharePoint within UK higher education institutions, an activity undertaken on our behalf by a team from the University of Northumbria led by Julie McLeod.  At the time of the announcement of this work we took some stick about the focus on a single, commercially licensed, piece of software - something I attempted to explain in a blog post back in May last year.  On balance, I still feel we made the right decision to go with such a focused study, and I think the popularity of the event that we ran towards the end of last year confirms that to a certain extent.

I'm very pleased to say that the final report from the study is now available.  As with all the work we fund, the report has been released under a Creative Commons licence so feel free to go ahead a make use of it in whatever way you find helpful.  I think it's a good study that summarises the current state of play very nicely.  The key findings are listed on the project home page so I won't repeat them here.  Instead, I'd like to highlight what the report says about the future:

This research was conducted in the summer and autumn of 2009. Looking ahead to 2010 and beyond the following trends can be anticipated:

  • Beginnings of the adoption of SharePoint 2010
    SharePoint 2010 will become available in the first half of 2010. Most HEIs will wait until a service pack has been issued before they think about upgrading to it, so it will be 2011 before SharePoint 2010 starts to have an impact. SharePoint 2010 will bring improvements to the social computing functionality of My Sites, with Facebook/Twitter style status updates, and with tagging and bookmarking. My Sites are significant in an HE context because they are the part of SharePoint that HEIs consider providing to students as well as staff. We have hitherto seen lacklustre take up of My Sites in HE. Some HEIs implementing SharePoint 2007 have decided not to roll out My Sites at all, others have only provided them to staff, others have made them available to staff and students but decided not to actively promote them. We are likely to see increasing provision and take up of My Sites from those HEIs that move to SharePoint 2010.
  • Fuzzy boundary between SharePoint implementations and Virtual Learning Environments
    There is no prospect, in the near future, of SharePoint challenging Blackboard’s leadership in the market for institutional VLEs for teaching and learning. Most HEIs now have both an institutional VLE, and a SharePoint implementation. Institutional VLEs are accustomed to battling against web hosted applications such as Facebook for the attention of staff and students. They now also face competition internally from SharePoint. Currently SharePoint seems to be being used at the margins of teaching and learning, filling in for areas where VLEs are weaker. HEIs have reported SharePoint’s use for one-off courses and small scale courses; for pieces of work requiring students to collaborate in groups, and for work that cannot fit within the confines of one course. Schools or faculties that do not like their institution’s proprietary VLE have long been able to use an open source VLE (such as Moodle) and build their own VLE in that. Now some schools are using SharePoint and building a school specific VLE in SharePoint. However, SharePoint has a long way to go before it is anything more than marginal to teaching and learning.
  • Increase in average size of SharePoint implementations
    At the point of time in which the research was conducted (summer and autumn of 2009) many of the implementations examined were at an early stage. The boom in SharePoint came in 2008 and 2009, as HEIs started to pick up on SharePoint 2007. We will see the maturation of many implementations which are currently less than a year old. This is likely to bring with it some governance challenges (for example ‘SharePoint sprawl’) which are not apparent when implementations are smaller. It will also increase the percentage of staff and students in HE familiar with SharePoint as a working environment. One HEI reported that some of their academics, unaware that the University was about to deploy SharePoint, have been asking for SharePoint because they have been working with colleagues at other institutions who are using it.
  • Competition from Google Apps for the collaboration space
    SharePoint seems to have competed successfully against other proprietary ECM vendors in the collaboration space (though it faces strong competition from both proprietary and open source systems in the web content management space and the portal space). It seems that the most likely form of new competition in the collaboration space will come in the shape of Google Apps which offers significantly less functionality, but operates on a web hosted subscription model which may appeal to HEIs that want to avoid the complexities of the configuration and management of SharePoint.
  • Formation of at least one Higher Education SharePoint User Group
    It is surprising that there is a lack of Higher Education SharePoint user groups. There are two JISCmail groups (SharePoint-Scotland and YH-SharePoint) but traffic on these two lists is low. The formation of one or more active SharePoint user groups would seem to be essential given the high level of take up in the sector, the complexity of the product, the customisation and configuration challenges it poses, and the range of uses to which it can be put. Such a user group or groups could, support the sharing of knowledge across the sector, provide the sector with a voice in relation to both Microsoft and to vendors within the ecosystem around SharePoint, enable the sector to explore the implications of Microsoft’s increasing dominance within higher education, as domination of the collaboration space is added to its domination of operating systems, e-mail servers, and office productivity software.

On the last point, I am minded to wonder what a user group actually looks like in these days of blogs, Twitter and other social networks? Superficially, it feels to me like a concept rooted firmly in the last century. That's not to say that there isn't value in collectively being able to share our experiences with a particular product, both electronically and face-to-face, nor in being able to represent a collective view to a particular vendor - so there's nothing wrong with the underlying premise. Perhaps it is just the label that feels outdated?

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