BETT 2012: Day one observations from Gerald Haigh

Gerald Haigh is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for the Microsoft Education Blogs.

You’re never in the BETT show for long before you become aware of themes and moods. The most usual one, I suppose, is a sense of determined optimism. It was a software developer in one of the most difficult parts of the education market, for example, who buttonholed me to say,

‘I have a feeling 2012 is going to be a good year.’

He may well be right, and if he is, at least part of the reason might lie in the way major developers like Microsoft have worked with partners to make sure that schools can achieve their technology ambitions efficiently, effectively and, most importantly, at reasonable cost.

So, for example, there’s the brilliant idea that Microsoft calls ‘School in a Box’, a revolutionary new approach to the delivery of ICT in schools that offers the benefits of the cloud, both public and private, on the schools terms. I talked to two of the Microsoft Partners who are working with schools to ensure they make the most of this new initiative. Bob Piggot, for example, Sales Director of ‘Civica’, told me about their ‘CloudBase’ solution which gives students, parents, staff anytime anywhere access to which ever parts of the school network are most appropriate for them. ‘CloudBase’ is remotely hosted, by Civica, and among schools that have used it to bring themselves quickly and economically up to speed with their technological needs is Free School Norwich, where the Cloudbase installation was completed within eight weeks ready for the start of term in September 2011.

A strong feature of ‘School in a Box’ solutions is the option of providing access with any of a range of mobile devices, including those belonging to the users,what’s known in the trade as ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD). Civica’s Virtual Desktop Implementation (VDI) however, makes BYOD a practical reality offering, in Bob Piggot’s words, ‘full secure access through the front door of the school’.

I talked Cloud and BYOD also at the Stand of European Electronique, another major Microsoft partner, where , Director Mark Simes, outlined his own vision of a highly connected educational world characterised by, ‘A proliferation of a range of mobile devices and hosted services.’ The current European Electronique slogan in fact is ‘Client to Cloud’ and they, too, have done fascinating work with ‘School in a Box’ with West London Free School and Bristol Free School.

European Electronique are also doing really interesting work with Microsoft on what Mark calls ‘Natural user interfaces’. In particular their exploration of Kinect as an access tool in the classroom shows what can be done to make sure that a child’s classroom experience of technology isn’t a step backwards from what he or she can do at home.

Another call on this whistle-stop tour was at RM Education’s stand, to update myself about ‘Community Connect’, a product which, essentially, makes the network manager’s job both easier and more productive.

‘Schools are like banks,’ says RM’s James Pebworth, ‘In that it’s critical to keep the network up and running’

Community Connect ensures this by providing the network manager not only with rapid response to all issues and demands thrown up by the school’s suite of Microsoft education products but also by providing the means by which teachers can deal with classroom issues such as the resetting of passwords.

Darren Brown, network manager at The Abbey School in Reading, was also at the RM Stand, and he made clear his own enthusiasm for Community Connect.

‘It gives complete control so, for example, I can have each teacher’s computer ready and waiting when they come into the room’

Community Connect is now into its fourth version (CC4) and with the advent of Windows 8, will become version 4.3.

Easing the way into existing technologies is also a feature of Learning Suite, Microsoft’s free access to curriculum software and content in one package. Among the publishers who are providing content as Learning Suite Partners is Global Grid for Learning and at their stand I had a quick view of just how easy it is to specify learning topic and download a rich collection of resources,and then easily convert them into Microsoft tools of which PowerPoint is probably the most popular.

Finally, I made sure to catch up with two Microsoft-based products that we’ve covered in the blogs over the year. One was LP+4, the latest Learning Platform from Learning Possibilities. At the stand, I met Tom Rees, who has led the in-school development work on LP+4 which is, as he reminds us,

‘The learning platform based on SharePoint 2010.’

‘It’s now being rolled out to our user schools,’ said Tom, ‘And there’s lots of interest in the UK and Europe.

The other old friend I visited was Mohamad Djahanbakksh of Serco Learning. Like Tom Rees,he was excited for the future of Serco’s ‘Progresso’ MIS. He was keen to emphasise the flexibility of delivery of ‘Progresso’ – ‘It can be installed on your system, on a data centre serving a cluster of schools, or hosted by Serco in the Cloud.’

In any event, of course, it’s web-based and so accessible on an ‘anytime, anywhere’ basis.

I was interested in some of Mohamad’s plans for the future, a tool for easy entry and analysis of data, and eventually a project management tool which will help clusters and chains of schools to make the most efficient use of their resources.

So, as we said at the start, the feeling is of optimism combined with vision. We live in exciting times, but that’s the way of the BETT Show. Exciting times come with the territory.

Meanwhile, there are so many things to ponder on, and this quick overview can only give a taster of developments which we surely need to revisit in this blog over the coming weeks and months.

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