How do you build a cutting-edge education platform for 80,000 students?

Catholic Education WA is leading the way and more schools could do the same

Catholic Education Western Australia (CEWA) faces unique challenges. Spanning the two-million square kilometres of Western Australia, CEWA connects 163 schools with nearly 15,000 staff members and 80,000 students, to deliver education fit for a high-tech future.

With the assistance of Microsoft and partners, CEWA now has a unified student data platform, enabling the organisation to perform analytics at a scale never before possible.

Building a new kind of ecosystem for education

Originally, CEWA looked to combine different digital products over a basic intranet, but the team quickly saw this wasn’t the best approach. “We realised that was old thinking,” explains Dr Edward Simons, CEWA’s Director of Governance, Strategy and Digital Technology. “We wanted to put the best technology in front of everyone – whether that’s a staff member out in a remote desert school in the Kimberley, or a student in Perth.”

CEWA launched a transformation project called Leading Lights, working with Microsoft and a range of local Microsoft partners to develop an all-in-one ecosystem that could connect and support every school. This encompassed a collaboration and identity management suite in Microsoft 365 and a world-first connected administration of schools (AOS) system developed in Dynamics 365 and Azure.

With the underlying platform infrastructure in place, CEWA is now able to capture much richer data across its operations to drive better learning outcomes and experiences for students in 120 primary and 43 secondary schools.

Mike Kovacevic & Dr Edward Simons

Giving remote communities the same opportunities

Connecting a huge community across such a geographically diverse area was the first hurdle. “When we visit some of our remote schools in Aboriginal communities it’s often a case of chartering a plane,” says Simons. “The impact of that isolation can be challenging.”

The new Leading Lights platform has connected these schools and completely transformed their education opportunities. “There’s amazing teaching and learning going on in our remote schools,” says Simons. “Some teachers have become experts on the platform, supporting their colleagues in other parts of the system.”

“Technology is a great problem solver for us in that way,” adds Mike Kovacevic, CEWA’s Chief Technology Officer. “Not only can we connect schools, but we can create and share content between them.” That means students in the most remote regions can be taught by specialist teachers working in the metropolitan schools, while metropolitan students can experience the life and expertise of the outback.

Encouraging sharing and economies of scale

Five years ago, each CEWA school had its own IT solutions, IT teams and IT partners supporting them. Nothing was connected, so information was extremely difficult to track and manage. Not only did this put a lot of pressure on smaller schools, but it meant there was no easy way to share resources, merge records or deliver staff training.

“Dynamics 365 was the perfect solution,” says Kovacevic. It allowed CEWA to build a single platform with a single user identity for students and staff. Now everyone can access exactly what they need anywhere on the system. “Where previously you had five or six different usernames and passwords – all of which, of course, got written down on a piece of paper and stuck to the screen – now we have one system that’s the same across every school.”

Plus, because it’s based in Office 365, teachers can rely on a familiar experience across the entire platform, while their students can graduate with real employable technology skills.

Harnessing the power of cloud

Another advantage of the Leading Lights platform is that it is based in the cloud and fully supported by Microsoft. “We don’t have to worry about being woken up at night because the system’s crashed,” explains Kovacevic. “All the security is taken care of, all the connectivity taken care of.”

What’s more, Microsoft manages and maintains the technology to the latest standards, so CEWA will never need to do another digital transformation.

Because everything is based on cloud technology, when we had to shut down due to Covid it really meant very little disruptive change for our students and staff.

Gaining real visibility of student experience

Following the successful rollout of the AOS platform, CEWA’s next goal was to enable both administrators and the schools themselves to draw insights from the data.

“The real power of the platform is that it gives us insights and predictions at a system level,” explains Simons.

We can look at the day-to-day experience of 80,000 students and see how to provide the very best learning and pastoral care.

It enables teachers and administrators to make early interventions or decisions that may not have been visible in the past. This has huge potential for student wellbeing, says Simons. “It’s one thing having access to test scores and data, but increasingly it’s about gaining insights into how students are feeling.”

CEWA also undertakes engagement activities through Dynamics 365 Marketing.

What can we learn from CEWA?

Is a successful transformation of this scale possible for other schools? “We started from a low cloud maturity base, a big dream and not a lot of certainty on how we were going to achieve it,” notes Kovacevic. “And the only way that I can explain our success is that we didn’t start from scratch. We used an established, well supported platform (Dynamics 365) which significantly accelerated our program by allowing us to focus on value-adding development rather than re-inventing core administrative and operational functionality provided by the platform.”

By building on proven Microsoft technologies, CEWA has gone from zero to industry-leading in under five years. “I would love to see more people jump on the bandwagon and start using the same approach so we can all stop reinventing the wheel and start sharing our collective intellect,” says Kovacevic.

“This is the last time that CEWA will need to run a digital transformation,” adds Kovacevic.

Microsoft takes care of it for us by providing an evergreen platform, which is ultimately building something that can help our students achieve better and have a brighter future.