Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft Education series of blogs.
Mid July is frantically busy for primary schools, and I guess the last thing heads and teachers want is somebody like me strolling in to drink their tea and gaze around asking questions. So I was more than grateful for the warm welcome I had at Northwood Park , a two form entry primary in Wolverhampton, just before the end of term. My mission there was to ask them about their work with the LP+ learning platform from Learning Possibilities, and particularly the upgrade from LP+ to the SharePoint 2010 based LP+4.
Now, LP+4 passes a very significant milestone as it rolls out in Wolverhampton where all 80 of the Authority’s primary schools, and a growing number of secondary and special schools, are already using LP+.
So, before I went to Northwood Park Primary, I reported in at the offices of Wolverhampton’s Learning Technologies Team, where I was brought up to speed by Headteacher Consultant, Dave Whyley, and eLearning Consultant, Gavin Hawkins. They explained to me how, starting from their deep understanding of how classrooms work, they have built a collaborative network in which each school’s LP+ platform is linked to the authority’s SharePoint based ‘Engage’ gateway https://www.wolverhampton-engage.net .
The presence of ‘Engage’ in every school is symbolic as well as practical. As Gavin Hawkins says, `It’s important to us that officers of the authority should be using the same technology as the people in school.’
In fact, as I found at Northwood Park, the school’s own LP+4 platform is so well integrated with that of the local authority that teachers simply call the whole thing ‘Engage’.
That led me to suggest to Dave Whyley that having developed ‘Engage’, the team might have gone on to offer schools a locally developed SharePoint platform – ‘Engage for schools’, maybe.
That, however, as Dave pointed out, would saddle the Authority with a whole lot of unwanted baggage around upgrades, data security, e safety and the rest. So the chosen solution, in 2008, was to go with LP+.
‘Learning Possibilities is a medium-sized, agile, business that could respond to our needs,’ says Dave Whyley, ‘And the presence of Stephen Heppell as Chairman weighed heavily with us.’
It says a lot for schools’ relationships with their Authority and with the Learning Technologies Team in particular, that once the decision was made to go with LP+, each of the 80 primaries spent their own money on the platform and bought into a service agreement for support. The result is that there’s a high degree of integration between schools and between schools and the authority. So, in a very real sense, the Learning Technologies Team has effectively created an authority-wide learning platform, with a host of advantages for training, support and collaboration.
‘For example, we do have a lot of teacher and pupil mobility in Wolverhampton, and LP+ makes it easy for someone to move from one school to another, taking their work and planning with them,’ says Dave Whyley.
Dave and Gavin showed me some of the individual school platforms, and it was possible to see how important will be Web 2.0 features in LP+4 – wikis, blogs and discussions, all accessible from each individual class site.
The idea of blogging is attracting a lot of attention among teachers at the moment, as they see the value of giving their children the opportunity to engage and interact with a wide audience. LP+4 really scores here by providing, a secure and easy-to-use environment without the need to use a separate blogging platform. (There’s a fuller exploration of blogging with LP+4 on the Microsoft Schools Blog)
To illustrate the points he’d made, Dave took me to Northwood Park where I met Stephanie Butler, eLearning co-ordinator and leader of Foundation Stage and Key Stage One. She showed me how well her six year olds grasp the opportunity use the tools on their class site to share their ideas.
‘Class sites’, which provide each class with a secure environment for blogs and discussions are clearly going to a big hit for LP+4. Well led school classes are close, warm and supportive communities where children learn about sharing, appreciating individuality and listening to each other. Extending this into online version of the class that continues beyond school is bound to be a winner. The use of photographs, too, easily uploaded, and displayed as thumbnails in a gallery on the class site is a further bonus that Stephanie’s children are already appreciating.
‘Discussions are the big thing on our class site,’ says Stephanie Butler. ‘We started a discussion on the Titanic at Easter and it’s still going. And recently, after the children saw a rehearsal of the school production, some were already writing up comments before school next day. They love the photographs, too, and the opportunity to use them in their work.‘
As we talked and looked at Stephanie’s class site, we were joined by music co-ordinator and Year Six teacher Dan Jessel, who’s been working on using Wikis for homework tasks.
‘It’s great for getting children to use the platform at home. I can give instructions, links to websites and Powerpoints. Children are supportive to each other, too, keen to see each other’s work. It can be marked online, too.’
At Northwood Park, the real push into those SharePoint 2010 features with LP+4 is going to start across the school in September, after the staff are fully up to speed.
Engaging teachers with a learning platform has, at times, been an uphill task in schools. Head teacher Gill Morris explains that the key at Northwood Park when they started with LP+ was to use it for all communication. The write-on whiteboard in the staffroom -- the standard information centre in many schools -- was taken down, and a system where children went round with messages was discontinued. Now, teachers have to log on to the learning platform morning and afternoon to find out what’s happening.
That said, Gill confesses to a faux pas of her own, when she didn’t at first realise that her daily ‘Heads Message’ was readable by the children as well as the staff. So, she recalls, children’s expectations were raised when they read a cheerful message from her (partly intended to encourage teachers to log on) to the effect that chocolates were available in the staffroom.
Northwood Park –‘Good with Outstanding Features’ in Ofsted terms, is very focussed on ICT for learning. At the same time there’s a strong commitment to creativity -- it was heartening to encounter Gill Morris carrying a violin, hotfoot from rehearsal – and there’s no doubt that there’s a real desire to use LP+4 to motivate their lively children, releasing their ideas and abilities.
I left Wolverhampton with the realisation that I’d had a glimpse of just how effective technology can be when it’s picked up and applied by people with real understanding of its potential. What we have here in Wolverhampton is Microsoft SharePoint 2010 given educational focus and context by Learning Possibilities, then guided into action by a highly responsive and innovative Learning Technologies team. From there it’s picked up and applied in the classroom by creative heads and teachers like Gill and Stephanie and Dan. And the final essential link is provided by the children who, as always, are going to find ways of using the technology that nobody has thought of.
The Northwood Park story will be repeated across all 80 Wolverhampton Primaries, and there are strong signs that a significant number of the authority’s 26 secondaries will eventually join the four which already us LP+.
All this means that in the heart of the UK there already exists a critical and growing mass of school SharePoint 2010 users. The success of LP+4 is a prime example of how Microsoft’s partners, in the words of Strategic Partner Lead Mark Stewart, ‘…make what we do relevant’.