South Dartmoor Community College wanted to free its teachers to work in a range of environments outside the classroom. Groupcall Emerge, an application that uses the Windows Azure platform, gives them secure access to the school’s management
information system (MIS) on mobile devices. Whether they’re in the classroom or on a field trip, they can complete registration faster and contact parents quickly in an emergency.
South Dartmoor Community College, based in Devon in the United Kingdom (U.K.), is an academy with sports college status. With 1,650 pupils, the school prides itself on its outstanding academic achievement supported by innovative learning techniques.
This ethos is apparent throughout the school, with teachers and staff members welcoming new ways to enhance learning. The school places great importance on minimising administration for teachers, and providing easy access to critical resources, freeing them
to teach in a variety of environments.
The use of technology is central to this goal. Today, most schools in the U.K. hold information such as student and staff details, timetables, attendance, and assessment records in a MIS. Richard Penhale, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Systems
Manager, South Dartmoor Community College, says: “While this system was useful for our classroom-based lessons where teachers could access it from a computer, it was less useful for teachers in environments such as sports halls, fields, or drama studios.”
By law, schools must mark pupils’ attendance in the morning and afternoon, but even in the classroom this process was often time consuming. Penhale says: “Teachers would have to wait for their computers to boot up and then log on to the MIS. Most lessons
are no more than an hour long, so teachers want to take the register as quickly as possible so they can get on with teaching.”
Over the years, South Dartmoor Community College staff used mobile devices, but they lacked functionality. As the need grew for teachers to be able to access the MIS outside the classroom, the school decided to look for a mobile solution that could integrate
seamlessly with teachers’ needs and fulfil many of the roles of a desktop computer.
In 2012, Microsoft Partner Groupcall was awarded ICT Company of the Year at the BETT Awards, which honour innovative technology in education. Its Emerge application—used by more than 300 schools in the U.K.—is among the Groupcall solutions that contributed
to this achievement.
Emerge—a cloud solution based on Windows Azure—was originally developed to help teachers take registration in a field or playground. Nick Gradwell, Head of Products, Groupcall, says: “We realised there was a huge potential for this solution to provide access
to other information. It would mean teachers could take attendance on a field trip, report absences, or contact parents in emergencies. We could make data instantly available to teachers anywhere.”
The solution synchronises data over the 3G network between devices and the school’s MIS. Tim Verlander, Technical Projects Manager, Groupcall, says: “The MIS is held behind a robust firewall, making it highly secure. The communication between this application
in the cloud and the MIS is only possible because of the Service Bus, which is part of the Windows Azure platform.”
A school MIS holds a lot of sensitive information about students, including Impact Level 3 data, which is “restricted” under the Data Protection Act six-point confidentiality scale. Verlander says: “Service Bus sets up a highly secure connection between
the school and the device, helping to render the data meaningless to any unauthorised party.”
For South Dartmoor Community College, much of the solution’s appeal lay in its support for a number of different devices. The school has 52 staff members using Emerge, including physical education (PE) teachers, drama teachers, and senior management staff.
They have a variety of Apple iOS and Android devices. “Many teachers have chosen to use their own phones so they can access the MIS alongside their own email and messaging applications,” says Penhale.
Teachers can be more independent and proactive with Groupcall Emerge. “Whether on school grounds or on a field trip, they can check timetables or look up contact information,” says Penhale. Because the process can be completed quickly, teachers often take
registration in each lesson. School head teachers are using the additional information to spot trends in attendance across academic years and in tutor groups.
Instant access speeds registration. Teachers can access Groupcall on their devices in seconds to take and submit the class register. Penhale says: “They no longer have to wait for a computer to power up, then spend time logging on and launching
the MIS. With Emerge, teachers can get on with their lessons quickly.”
Teachers aren’t bound by the classroom. PE teachers can take a register without having to send one of the pupils back to an office where the paper record is transferred to an electronic system. Meanwhile, cover supervisors, who aren’t based
in a particular classroom, can look up their lesson plans and class locations from anywhere.
Solution keeps parents in touch. The college is based in a rural area, so many children have to travel long distances. “With Emerge, teachers can access parents’ information instantly and notify them if their child hasn’t arrived by morning
registration,” says Penhale. “If a child is injured on the sports field, for example, the teacher has the information to hand to call the parent directly and put their mind at ease.”
Student data is secure in the cloud. “We’re confident about security because data is encrypted,” says Penhale. “We have password protection on the application, so even if a device is left unlocked the user still needs a password. We can
also wipe the information remotely if the device is lost.”
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