Thursday, 2 December 2010

web based virtual schools and the snow- adversity driving innovation

Regardless of extreme weather- and in Sheffield in recent years extreme is the word- floods in 2007, record breaking snow in 2010 both January and now that has forced schools to shut- we are ever more reliant on our web based systems, everything we do at Notre Dame High School, Sheffield happens via our 'virtual school'.

This week we have been closed due to 2 feet of snow but we are working with our students using our shared online resources, email, Moodle and web resources like Youtube and MyMaths. Our council leader wants us to report to schools that are open (there are hardly any) but that would stop us being an effective e-teachers to our own students. Other staff at my school today will be collecting students work submitted by Moodle and giving grades and feedback, others will use discussion forums and live chat rooms to teach in real time and give the students a collective and collaborative experience.

Schools without this technology can use public systems like Google docs and social networks but there are risks as well as benefits and school leaders should read

So what have we done to build in the needed resilience in our systems? Firstly we've taken responsibility, not accepting the managed service we were offered, secondly we've built in fail safes- multiple connections to the web, not just one we were provided with, systems of multiple servers so if one part goes down there is a) a back up and b) it doesn't take the rest of the system down and we've spotted weaknesses in the system like importance of the web server for the main 'hub front page' which everyone uses to link to the tools in our Virtual School and have a clever bit of code that detects if this is down and then automatically redirects users to a functional list of links to all the key parts of the system that will be running- e.g. our Moodle server which (touch wood) has never failed.

We learnt some of these lessons from an web site outage on boxing day last year when no one could access school due to bank holiday to restart the main school site web server- resilience and built in redundancy at the watch words for a reliable Virtual School, web systems are no longer a nice add on to the brick built school, they are the school- 24-7-365 (yes there were working on boxing day!) the brick built school we visit 200 days a year for 7 hours a day is fundamentals but its just a part of the school, just as the web site is part of the school.

In 2011 the word 'school' doesn't mean building but a collection of staff and learners who work together- sometimes but not always in a building together. But don't look for just one 'trick' to make your system robust like shipping your Sharepoint to the cloud- that might be one idea but part of a while strategy that is regularly reviewed (our strategy group visit this issue every 2 weeks as a standing agenda item).