What hidden gems are already lurking in your Office 365 Suite?

The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh.

Say ‘hidden gem’, and I think of a lonely beach in Scotland where I flew kites with my daughters many years ago, or that amazing Yorkshire pub where my late mother loved to go for lunch. So when my Microsoft Education friends talk of their ‘hidden gems’, I have to tear myself away from those golden memories and think instead of great Microsoft products that are also cherished by knowing users but remain under-used or undiscovered by others.

In that Microsoft context I first encountered the term applied to ‘OneNote’. It sits modestly there as part of ‘Office’, unfairly overshadowed by ultra-familiar brothers and sisters such as ‘Word’, ‘Excel’ and ‘PowerPoint’.

Soon, I discovered that when it comes to knowing about ‘OneNote’ there are three types of ‘OneNote’ users.

One lot don’t realise it’s there. They bought ‘Office’ for the ‘big three’ and are content to work away on documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Why look further?

Another user has a quick look at ‘OneNote’ – ‘We paid for it, so let’s see what it is….’ But have neither the time nor the inclination to work out what it might do for them.

The third user, by complete contrast, is a ‘OneNote’ enthusiast, like the ones I’ve met on my Microsoft travels -- Angela Bingham, for example, an administrator at West Suffolk College who uses ‘OneNote’ all the time on her ‘Surface’ tablet, making notes in meetings and collating all the related information. And Hannah Smith at Darrick Wood School, effectively a whole-school evangelist for OneNote in the classroom, using it on a big plasma screen to build up the lesson as it goes on. I need to emphasise here, that when I say ‘enthusiast’ I really mean it. Both Angela and Hannah were practically jumping with delight when they described the way OneNote was changing their working lives.

There are many stories like that, but, up to now, there’s always been the feeling that so many others could do the same if they only took the time to explore and think and apply some imagination and creative juice.

Now, though, with the advent of the OneNote Class Creator app, which makes it so much easier to transform OneNote into a working classroom tool, it seems certain that more and more students are going find their learning enhanced and supported.

Other ‘hidden gems’?

I’d say that ‘Lync’ is a great example, certainly in terms of its take up in schools. One innovative IT manager suggested to me that he was able to sell ‘Lync’ to his school leadership team on the strength of cost effectiveness as a replacement phone system. He knew that it has much more potential than that, but that he would have to take time making the case.

That, I guess, is a common story. Now, though, I’m increasingly hearing of plans to use Lync for communication in multi-site institutions, and where a single governing body oversees a number of schools or colleges.

Lync in the actual classroom is starting more slowly, but the pace can only accelerate when schools like Oakwood Junior are using Lync to provide numeracy support and to allow students to discuss homework with each other.

And, of course the ease and economy of the cloud, with Office365, is going to make all parts of the Office offering so much more accessible. Then there’s ‘Pivot Tables’ in ‘Excel’. In a visit to Shireland Collegiate Academy some years ago I saw Assistant Principal George Faux using Pivot tables to highlight the school’s progress. Lots of schools use ‘Excel’ to handle their data. Not all of them have explored the way that Pivot Tables allow significant parts to be extracted and presented – to governors, for example, or at staff meetings just as George Faux was doing.

Now, with the advent of Power BI in Office 365 for Education, ‘Power Pivot’ becomes one of a suite of data analysis tools, and will rapidly make its presence felt in schools that have not so far been aware of it. There are other examples – you could put your own list together. But what about help with any of these technologies, and how to use them, to the full? The answer is to take advantage of yet another surprisingly little-known Microsoft gem, what some have called ‘The biggest free training deal on the globe’. It’s called ‘Microsoft Virtual Academy’ and if offers a huge range of free online training, all by experts.

It’s worth remembering, incidentally, that your existing licensing agreement may well include some or all of the products we’ve mentioned, and more. Why not take a closer look? It would be a great shame if any of your unused hidden gems were sitting there already paid for, and an even bigger one if you were using other methods, even other brands of software, to carry out tasks that your ‘hidden gems’ were more than capable of.

In 2011 I wrote about Highbury FE College in Portsmouth where Head of IT Paul Rolfe and his team set about ensuring that the College was reaping full value from its Microsoft Licensing agreement. By making sure they were using everything that was available, and cutting out the use of third party software for tasks that Microsoft technologies could easily do, they made an annual saving of £13990 on their IT budget.

It’s worth noting that in this case Highbury worked closely with Microsoft partners. One partner is quoted in the Highbury blog, commenting on the way comprehensive licensing agreements are routinely under-used in schools, colleges and businesses.

“They may have an Agreement covering fourteen or fifteen products and be using only two or three”, they said, implicitly underlining the importance of working with a Partner who fully understands licensing.

One further thought. What do these hidden gems have in common? I’d say they enable users – teachers and students in our case – to take a step beyond where they currently are. Microsoft Global Education leader Anthony Salcito talks of going further than just ‘using stuff to do what we do already’. Technology, he fervently believes, can do so much more than that. So to use OneNote in the classroom, or Lync, for example, presupposes that you have a vision of a different kind of learning, a different kind of classroom, maybe a different kind of school.

So – get your hidden gems working, and keep up to date with them as they develop. You and your students will work smarter, and you may well save some money along the way.

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