RM Technical Seminar, Birmingham

Guest post from freelance writer, Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft blogs.

Towards the end of April I went to Birmingham, to one of the nine Technical Seminars which RM ran in venues around the country this Spring. They were primarily dealing with the technical challenges schools face and how their ICT management product ‘Community Connect 4’, can help network managers solve them.

RM have been holding these seminars for twenty years now, covering successive generations of RM schools networks. At first they were small affairs, held in informal venues (yes, it’s true that some pubs were involved). Now they’re major events for over a hundred people at a time, and are often oversubscribed. So, you’d guess, they’re probably getting something right.


That’s certainly the opinion of the people I met in Birmingham, many of whom attend the seminars regularly.

(‘They’re not just about knowledge, I find them inspiring, ‘was the verdict of one network manager who’s been attending for ten years.)

Gill Rhodes, who manages the networks for three neighbouring primary schools in Oxfordshire puts it like this.

‘In effect they give cut down versions of their courses – the kind of brief overview which is what you often need. They bring you up to date, and add some of the latest tips. I always pick something up – and then there’s meeting people of course, and speaking to experts face to face.’

They’re also, it must be said, very friendly gatherings. As they’ve developed over the years, RM organisers and presenters have done a quite remarkable job of hitting and keeping just the right balance of information, informality and expertise.

Unsurprisingly, the people I met were all convinced of the advantage of using RM’s Community Connect to manage their networks. Ian Wilson, Assistant Head at Manor High School in Leicester says,

‘We know that a plain vanilla Microsoft network will deliver a lot of what’s required, but in my view Community Connect adds a set of education-specific tools which allow the network team to concentrate on high value education activities and not so much on lower value network activities.’

The case becomes even clearer when the network team is small and overstretched.

‘If you have a small network team, Community Connect makes life much easier,’ says David Greengrass, Network Manager at Uppingham Community College.

Gill Rhodes agrees.

‘I do a lot of my work remotely when I’m in one school and another has a problem. I couldn’t do what I do without Community Connect.’

The partnership with RM is also worth a great deal – everyone spoke well of the quality and promptness of their support.

The optional seminar sessions themselves – nine in all – covered a range of issues. Some, like the one on ‘Troubleshooting: Drivers’ were no-nonsense technical sessions obviously responding to specific needs. By no means all were like that, though. ‘Developing an Effective AV and Classroom Technology Strategy’ was very much about senior leaders and network teams picking their way through the forest of available technologies towards a position where effective classroom AV is at the core of teaching and learning. And in ‘Negotiation Techniques’, Gethin Nichols dealt with what can sometimes be an elephant in the room – the importance of building an effective relationship between the network team and the leaders of learning in a school.

I was particularly interested in two sessions that dealt particularly with CC4. One, ‘CC4 Management Tasks’, run by Matt Edwards, might have been a bit technical for me in parts, but I thought it a very clear statement of what Community Connect, and particularly CC4, is all about, which is making the network team’s life easier.

Matt started by listing eighteen basic network management tasks, common to virtually all schools, ranging from ‘checking backups have worked, through ‘resetting passwords’ and ‘fault diagnosing computers’ to ‘creating and supporting package installation’.

He then set about methodically looking at teach task to see how, with CC4, it can be made easier, or automated, or are effectively administration tasks that someone else could be doing. Talk to any seasoned CC4 enthusiast and they’ll soon tell you that the ease with which they can manage routine tasks is in fact one of the main attractions. At BETT this year, I shot a short video clip showing Darren Williams, of the Abbey School, Reading, making exactly that point. In the clip, Darren, who has his own school’s Management Console open on his laptop as he speaks, uses the same phrase that was the main theme of Matt’s presentation. ‘It’s made my life much easier’.

(You can see the video on Merlin Johns ‘Agent4Change’ site at http://www.agent4change.net/people/five-things/1339-gerald-haighs-five-things-to-think-about-1.html

The other CC4 session I was interested in was ‘CC4 The Future’, also run by Matt Edwards. Here, Matt was keen to emphasise the ‘future-proofed’ nature of CC4,

‘The focus of CC4 is very much in line with what’s going on in the industry,’ he said. -- To support BYOD (bring your own devices). To support remote access to services. To support use of new software and hardware technologies.’

Part of this approach, he explained, is to offer a subscription model for users, whereby licenses are paid for annually rather than up front.

As well as reducing the up-front expenditure, Community Connect Subscription customers will be entitled to future product enhancements, new server and client operating systems when available, CC4 updates, maintenance fixes and future Community Connect versions. They will also be able to add clients or servers to their network without having to increase their subscription.’ (Quite like Microsoft’s own subscription licensing models in fact, was the thought that crossed my mind as Matt spoke.)

For me, though, what was most exciting about Matt’s look into the immediate future was the prospect of CC4 working with Windows 8. Matt has clearly made himself very familiar with Windows 8 and spent some time showing its features to his audience. Developments are still going on in this area at RM, but there’s a clear determination to make sure that all of the innovative features of Windows 8 including the Start Screen, Metro Apps, ‘Swipe, Slide and Zoom’, are exploited to the full. And just to comfort those in the audience whose brows were furrowing by the second, he said,

‘The key to using Windows 8 in my opinion is to get your head around the concept that the Start screen (Metro look) has simply replaced your old fashioned Start button.’

As Matt went on with his description of Windows 8, a question was forming in my mind, and just as I’d decided to tackle him with later, he answered it like this.

‘Although I do not currently have a great deal of detail on how the new Start screen will work with CC4 policies and security, I can reveal at least one little Windows 8 CC4 secret - we are currently developing CC4 specific Metro apps that can give you fast, direct access to management areas of your CC4 network.’

In other words, as network manager you’ll find specific CC4 functions accessible via individually labelled CC4 apps on the start screen.

He was able to show one example – an app called ‘RM Users’ which will come up on the Start Screen and allow direct access, without going to the management console, to all CC4 user groups.

As you’d expect, there was quite a buzz about this afterwards, and some network managers were clearly worried about what they saw as a big change from the Windows environments that they’d lived in harmony with for so long.

But thus has it ever been.

I guess the very fact that these questioners take the trouble to attend RM Seminars in order to keep up with trends and provide the best possible service to their learners shows that they’ll be quickly won over.

I have no doubt that there’ll be much more on Windows 8 in the Autumn Technical Seminars.

Frankly, I can’t wait.

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