Queensland Schools rein in tech administration, free up time for teaching

Students gathered around computers

‘Let’s spend more time on IT administration’ said no-one ever. In schools, where every moment spent on admin is a moment less for learning, the need to streamline technology administration is particularly acute.

The Queensland Department of Education (QDoE) has found a way to slice administrative effort – and at the same time secure an efficiency dividend that allows teachers to focus on their students and learning outcomes.

QDoE has a Statewide licence for schools to use Microsoft 365 and was mid-way through a pilot of Class Teams when COVID-19 struck, and schools needed to find a rapid way to connect and communicate with students now learning from home.

Microsoft Teams had already demonstrated how valuable it could be as a communications and collaboration platform – but the Department wanted to make it simple for teachers to establish Class Teams. Class rosters for physical classes are typically handled by a school’s Student Information System (SIS) – when Queensland wanted to use Class Teams it needed a way to take that information and automatically create Class Teams.

Fortunately as a Microsoft 365 user, a free Microsoft tool was available to help.

School Data Sync (SDS) is a web application that can take data from pretty much any SIS, using either CSV files or a direct API connection. SDS then uses this data to automatically create users, Microsoft 365 groups, and Class Teams.

SDS can also synchronise data from the SIS with Teams data to provide even richer Education Insights  – providing real time analytics regarding a student’s progress and their activity in a Class Team.

Meanwhile, for a school’s IT team SDS creates groups that can then be used for identity management, group-based licensing, Intune device management and to manage school wide data and application governance. Again it’s a case of streamlined and simplified admin.

Brad Walsh, Senior Project officer at QDoE, first came across SDS in 2018 just when the Department was exploring Microsoft Teams. “Like a lot of educational organisations we already had all our class rostering stored in a Student Information System, and so when School Data Sync became available it made sense to us to leverage a tool designed by Microsoft to simplify bulk Class Team creation and management,” says Brad.

We were only a couple of months into a pilot of Class Teams, provisioned using School Data Sync, when COVID struck in early 2020 and we were placed in a position where had to look at a model where we could roll out Class Teams at a much faster pace.

Volume, velocity and value

Queensland strives to give State Schools as much choice as possible – and that was also the case with Teams. It meant that QDoE needed to manage the way that SDS ingested data from the SIS – taking in data only from the schools that had opted to use Teams. Brad says that was simplified by access to the Conditional Access Policies in Azure Active Directory.

QDoE runs a single tenant model for all Queensland state schools – that’s 1,257 schools, 550,000+ students and 100,000 staff identities. When the pandemic led to students learning remotely, there was a sudden demand for hundreds of thousands of Class Teams.

Brad acknowledges that; “We experienced challenges around timelines, things like aligning the Class Teams created with updates to Student Information System data, and then estimating timeframes for completion, and we also encountered challenges with things like object limits in Azure Active Directory.” Support from Microsoft in Australia and the US helped overcome the issues says Brad.

“The last major challenge for us was around Teams life cycling. With such a large number of Team creates we were very conscious of avoiding hitting any of the tenant and service limits associated with Microsoft Teams and Microsoft 365 Groups. In order to ensure that we would stay under those limits we worked with Microsoft to architect a Teams life cycling solution that used the out-of-the-box Group clean-up tools built into School Data Sync in combination with an Azure Active Directory Group Expiration policy.”

The effort paid off;

The obvious benefit to schools, and specifically teachers and students, is that in having access to Microsoft Teams they have access to a modern, powerful application that combines chat, video, calling and collaboration in to a single experience.

SDS meanwhile ensures that teachers can focus on teaching – they no longer have to spend time at the start of each school year, term or semester creating or deleting Teams or managing memberships because any and all changes that occur in the Student Information System are seamlessly synchronised through School Data Sync into the Class Teams.

Brad is now investigating increased automation by exposing SIS data through an API so that School Data Sync and Flow combine to completely automate the creation and management of Class Teams.

He says; “There’s probably three pieces of advice that I’d provide to educational institutions who are starting their School Data Sync journey, the first is Garbage In Garbage Out – take the time to sit down with the teams that manage and support your Student Information System, especially if you are running either a bespoke or heavily customised system.

“Having a comprehensive understanding of the data being synchronised via School Data Sync will help to ensure that your deployment results are what you expect and will greatly assist troubleshooting if things go awry.

“Secondly, plan for lifecycle management, especially if you intend to allow end user Team creation in addition to creating Class Teams based on your Student Information System. Teams proliferation can and will have an impact on your organisation in the context of both end user support but more critically in relation to the overall health of your tenant as you start getting near or hitting technical and service limits.”

The third – and critical component to a successful deployment, says Brad – is to invest in proper change management, especially around education specific capabilities, such as Assignments, which are built into Teams.

Brad says that his experience reveals that with proper planning and effective training and support, Class Teams, created using School Data Sync, can be “transformative” for education and learning.