Guest post by Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft blogs.
I really look forward to RM’s regular regional Technical Seminars. The many sessions – which aren’t all highly technical by any means – deal with real and current issues, the educators and IT staff who attend are thoughtful, keen to learn but also with lots to offer. A huge amount gets covered in one short day, but nothing seems rushed, and that’s largely because the RM people, back stage and front, are efficient, helpful and always kind.
The one I attended this year, in November, at Birmingham’s National Motor Cycle Museum, included sessions on The Cloud, Classroom Control, BYOD , and Microsoft Exchange. Running parallel was an Educational Seminar that covered topics on, for example, Creativity in the Classroom, Podcasting, Windows in the Classroom and e-safety.
Like all good events, though, one of the main features is the opportunity to mix, mingle and just go up to people to talk. RM recognise that, and the big main space of the National Motor Cycle Museum conference suite was devoted to breaks, lunch and general milling about. Along the edges were exhibition stands from a number of suppliers including Meru Networks, HP, Toshiba, Apple and, of course, Microsoft.
The 120 or so teachers and network managers who attended were interested in all the stands, but simple observation showed that Microsoft consistently drew by far the most interest.
You don’t have to guess why that was. Just think ‘Surface’ and ‘Windows 8’ and you’ll get the idea. Everyone was keen to look, try for a chance to touch (which has a particular meaning in this context of course) and ask lots of questions – and this is the kind of event where the questions are good ones. It’s in the nature of the products, though, that the answers were good ones too. Network managers and teachers who see ‘Surface’, for example, are very quick to catch on to the significance of its creative potential and manageability. It’s very clear that the presence of ‘Surface’ at functions like this, together with Windows 8 devices from other suppliers, will do much over the coming weeks and months to reinforce the view not only that tablets are set to make a big impact on teaching and learning, but also that the debate about which device to use is a long way from being over. The Microsoft presence at BETT 2013, you feel, is going to open many eyes.
Another stand that interested me was that of Meru Networks. I first met the people from Meru some years ago, quite by accident, with Merlin John of ‘agent4change.com’, at St Pancras Station. We spent a long time with them, and concluded that this was, to say the least, a product with a future in education, given the hugely increasing demand on school networks. And so it seems to have turned out, for Meru are installing managed wireless networks in schools at an ever-increasing rate. It’s another reminder that the first priority for any school that’s looking at BYOD, or one-to-one computing, or just expanding their resources is to pay attention to the network that’s at the heart of it all.
Much as I’m always tempted to spend all my time talking to people, and although there were inevitable timetable overlaps, I did get to some sessions. ‘The Cloud Explained’ was the kind of good basic introduction that clears things up for people who’ve always been reluctant to ask the obvious questions. Another that particularly interested me was Simon Ansell’s on ‘Preparing your network for BYOD’ in which he talked about ‘squaring the circle’ of accepting any device on to the school network and reaping the benefits of learning while at the same time protecting the infrastructure. It’s the kind of challenge that will send some network managers running for the hills, but we know from experience that it can be done, and Simon is one of the people who can show schools how to do it – albeit slowly, methodically and one careful step at a time.
RM were showcasing some interesting new products, too. ‘RM Unify’ provides single sign-on access to all of the many cloud services that school users would otherwise need to log on to separately, including RM’s own cloud services such as RM Books, and Microsoft Office 365 for education which is increasingly becoming significant as so many services and products move to the cloud.
When I first heard about RM Books I wondered just how necessary it would be, but it turns out to be another of those products that you need to spend a few minutes looking at before you realise its implications. In effect it’s a way of supplying and managing electronic textbooks in school online. Having had the experience over the years of managing stockrooms full of rapidly deteriorating (and sometimes disappearing) textbooks, trying to find money to replace them or bring them up to date, attempting to retrieve them from students before they left or went to live in New Zealand, I’d have been more than grateful for something like RM Books, assuming that Tim Berners-Lee had been born a little earlier. Above all, like all online services it provides that all-important audit trail – who had what and when, and where is it now? If textbooks fall anywhere within your sphere of interest or responsibility – and that covers a lot of teachers – I’d say do as I did and take a careful look at RM Books.
The last session I attended was ‘Microsoft in Education’ presented by Education Partner Lead Mark Stewart, who’d spent the day providing the answers to those ‘Surface’ and Windows 8 questions on the stand.
With so much to talk about, Mark chose to focus on the Microsoft vision and strategy for future learning. He mentioned the New Line Learning Academy in Maidstone – a real showcase for future learning and for embedded technology that’s worth a visit http://www.futureschoolstrust.com/New-Line-Learning/We-are-NLL
He also reminded the audience about Microsoft’s Partners in Learning network http://www.microsoft.com/education/ww/partners-in-learning/Pages/index.aspx
Mark also drew attention to the global ‘Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills’ initiative, led by Melbourne University and co-sponsored by Cisco, Intel and Microsoft.
Mark’s look to the future hit the right note. The people who attend education events often spend much of their time solving immediate problems, and they surely welcome the chance to glimpse the more strategic picture.