It’s probably fair to say that the conventional VLE (virtual learning environment) or learning platform – the terms are really interchangeable – is a heavyweight beast. In fact it puts me in mind of the beautiful shire horses admired in my childhood; glossy, powerful, uniquely effective in the right hands and the appropriate setting – and, sadly, doomed to be replaced by more flexible, bespoke tools.
All too often, an individual school would find that their VLE, chosen after much thought and a convincing demonstration, did not, as time went on, quite meet their specific requirements. Enthusiasts on the staff would persevere and bend the creature to their will, but all too often, others were more reluctant. Unsurprisingly, there was ‘churning’ as schools tried different VLEs, at a financial cost that sometimes turned leadership teams against the whole idea. Before long, the main VLE suppliers realised that the way forward was to offer more of a framework, often Microsoft SharePoint-based, within which they could negotiate a tailored solution for each customer. Even then, though, the process was ‘top-down’ and could be expensive.
Meanwhile, the app revolution was in full swing, together with the increasing attraction of cloud services, so heads and teachers began to say:
‘Would it not be better if we saved the considerable cost of the VLE and just concentrated on choosing what we need from the online cloud applications that are becoming available in ever-increasing numbers?’
In fact, within many classrooms and departments, teachers were already moving that way, choosing and using favourite apps to support skills and knowledge. IT managers were keen to bring this trend under control, making the app environment safe and manageable school-wide. It would certainly be possible, they said, to put together a collection of educational apps – selected and approved as safe and educationally sound for the school. The downside, though, would be the need for users, students and teachers, to use separate log-in for each application – half a dozen or more per user would not be unusual, with every prospect of the number increasing rapidly. It was obviously possible – many schools did it – but the burden on the IT department, particularly in terms of rescuing users from failed log-ins – was always going to be considerable.
One group of schools where that scenario was played out was Victoria Park Primary Academy Trust in Sandwell. I talked about it to the Trust IT manager Saheed Iqbal.
‘We use a lot of internet-based resources – applications such as Mathletics, Education City, Little Bridge and others, around eight different services for the children. It was a nightmare. Eight different log-ins. Every day there would be children who couldn’t do their homework because they had lost their log-in details.’
Clearly, something needed to be done. What was happening was not only inconvenient, but was affecting children’s learning. The answer, as Saheed and his colleagues rapidly realised, lay with RM Unify.
The principle of RM Unify is simple enough. It brings together the cloud-based applications and services that a school wishes to use, making them accessible from a ‘Launch Pad’ which presents a set of ‘tiles’, each one giving access to an application. Once signed in to Unify, no further log-on is necessary. Microsoft Office 365, for example, becomes easy to manage across the school.
At the heart of RM Unify is the ‘Application Library’ a rich resource which is likely to contain every service and application that a school might need. (Although it’s possible to bring a favourite app that’s not in the library into the Unify single sign-on environment.)
By providing a wide choice of apps and services, organising them into launch pads (one for each user – as many as are needed) and making them easily accessible with one log-in, RM Unify gives reliable, quick, anytime anywhere, cost-effective access to essential and familiar apps and services. It brings apps under the umbrella of the IT team covers data safety issues, and the organisation of resources and user identities. In short, RM Unify makes it possible for learners and teachers to concentrate on the core task of improving teaching and learning, while providing the IT team with a pro-active learning support role. Add the functionality of comprehensive cloud services such as Office 365, which has become a major feature of RM Unify, and schools can now have a truly transformational teaching and learning environment.
Certainly that’s the view of senior RM Education Manager Emma Brown, who makes the comparison with VLEs.
‘With VLEs you were asking a lot from the teachers. A small number of keen users would make the VLE work, but with RM Unify, the ability to scaffold it to the needs of the school offers a genuine change in practice and culture. What’s refreshing is that it does what people want it to do.’
Saheed Iqbal adds,
‘For me as administrator, I see it as fantastic. As a MAT we use one tenancy and all the students are in it, all staff in all schools have access to it and can communicate with staff in other academies.’
Unsurprisingly, there are currently 5,000 RM Unify user schools across the UK, including virtually every school in Scotland, where the Scottish Government’s comprehensive ‘Glow’ environment is at the heart of Education Scotland’s digital learning strategy.
Finally, RM Unify is a living, breathing part of the school’s learning and teaching activities. As a cloud service it’s continually updated with more apps and features. And, because RM is all about education, the team of RM education experts is always on hand to provide advice and practical support.
Gerald is a former head teacher and a writer on education.
Read his blogs about Microsoft Office 365.
To find out more about how RM Unify can support you please call 0808 172 9525 or visit rm.com/unify