The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh.
In the Spring of this year I visited Sandymoor Free School in Runcorn and wrote a blog about their commitment to Office 365 as what principal Andrew Howard described as an ‘Anytime, anywhere collaborative space for learning’.
Recently, a contact at Microsoft partner ‘Civica’, who have worked with Sandymoor on their O365 implementation, told me of the rapid progress the school has made since I was there; so, over half term I had a catch-up call with Andrew Howard, Sandymoor’s Principal.
Sure enough, a lot’s been happening over the seven or so months since I was there. Most significantly, perhaps, Sandymoor has moved from its first home in a group of temporary buildings, into the brand new school that at the time of my visit was rising at the far end of the site.
My discussion with Andrew was wide ranging, with technology in general and Office 365 in particular as the overall theme. Within that, one or two of the points that Andrew made seem to me to have wider significance, and I sum them up here under headings.
Whatever the plans, first attend to the infrastructure.
How often have we heard that? And how often, in the past, has it been forgotten by school leaders too focussed rushing, as Anthony Salcito puts it, ‘to get the stuff’.
Andrew was never going to be trapped in that cul-de-sac.
‘In the temporary buildings we were trying to do everything on a domestic broadband connection,’ he says. ‘So the two critical points for me about the new building were the broadband connection and the Wi-Fi within the building.’
So it’s thanks to his determination and foresight that he can now report,
‘Our access to Office 365 now is slick, smooth and instantaneous, for all students and staff.’
His thinking on this, and his determination to get the infrastructure right is an object lesson for schools that are looking to broaden and intensify the use of internet-enabled devices. So, looking for a hint or tip to pass on, I wondered whether there’s a key to success?
‘I hate to say it,’ he replied. ‘But there is no simple solution. Getting it all right took a huge amount of time. You just have to give it the time, and never believe that if you don’t hear anything it’s because it’s all going smoothly. In fact I when it came to technology in the new building I reckon that I only spent about a tenth of my time talking about devices and visible stuff; the other ninety percent I spent on the infrastructure.’
His general approach to this leans uncompromisingly towards ‘too much is better than just enough,’
‘One of the things I was strong about was that I didn’t want us to hit capacity too soon. So although we are building up to a total of about a thousand adults and children in the school, the Wi-Fi is designed to cope with 3000 simultaneous connections.’
Justifying that, he points out the array of devices that people routinely use – phones, tablets, laptops, desktops. He says – and this might become a rule of thumb for all infrastructure projects;
‘Planning for one-to-one is not enough.’
Office 365 is the hub for everything
Andrew says, ‘If you believe that technology can make life simpler and more transparent, then Office 365 is the perfect framework.’
At Sandymoor, Andrew explains, Office 365 has streamlined everyone’s workload. Each class has its site with schemes of work accessible to students and parents. Homework diaries are replaced by online calendar events that the head can monitor across the school. Shared diaries, online forms, the facility to book specialist rooms online all ease the administrative load on staff – and students can use online forms to report problems anonymously.
‘Last week I was in Egypt and I needed to book a room to use later in school. I was able to do it from the reception desk in my hotel, using their Wi-Fi. That’s Office 365.’
So how do devices fit in?
Very clearly, the emphasis on Office 365 to manage and support learning has deliberately run ahead of any move towards equipping students with one-to-one devices. That development is coming slowly and carefully. Currently, students can use their own tablets and phones, there’s a leasing scheme gradually growing, with a choice of IOS, Android and Windows tablets, and a backup bank of school-owned Surface tablets is available for daily loan. There’s a steady move towards what Andrew calls, ‘A tipping point’.
So in the new year there will be enough resources available to trial some lessons (GCSE Computing for example) in which each student needs a device. Rushing to be ahead of the game is not part of the plan. At Sandymoor it’s obviously more a matter of organic growth.
Keeping technology in its place.
The phrase ‘anytime, anywhere’ is so often used in connection with Office 365. And as we’ve already seen, that can mean making operational decisions from holiday on the other side of the world. Some might see that as sinister. But as Andrew points out, it’s a matter of personal choice.’
His view on this is worth setting out in full.
‘There are many books on management and leadership,’ he says.
‘One will say that the leader has to be the first in to work and the last one to leave. Another book will say the exact opposite. But in reality it’s a matter of personal choice. It’s just the same with technology. We are in a 24/7 world but that doesn’t mean we personally have to be on duty 24/7. I can let it be known I will answer no emails after a certain time. A student can email me at 2am with a problem that’s keeping them awake. I won’t answer at that time, but it will help them to send it and know I will deal with it and keep it confidential.’