The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh.
Recently I talked to Sacha van Straten, Head of Digital Literacy at Trinity School, a leading independent school for boys, with a co-educational sixth form, situated in South London. What I heard from him turned out to be something of an object lesson in how to develop and improve a school’s IT provision thoughtfully, step by step, taking careful account of learning needs, teacher experience and existing resources.
The immediate reason for contacting Sacha was the news that the school has bought fifty Toshiba ‘Portege’ Windows ultrabooks – effectively tablets with keyboards -- in a ‘first-wave’ deployment.
‘Currently,’ says Sacha, ‘We have them for students and teachers in Physics, where they are proving very useful as interactive data loggers and note taking tools, and in Economics/Business Studies, where they are used for research.’
The choice of device was carefully made.
‘The functionality is fantastic,’ says Sacha, ‘They’re as powerful as desktop machines, and in the offices of the departments where they’re used we’ve actually taken away the desktop machines and replaced them with docks for the Porteges. The IT support team have also replaced their desktop PCs with Porteges, as I have myself. ’
He finds the idea of the classroom docking station, with keyboard and mouse and a bigger screen a very attractive alternative to having two devices – desktop PC and tablet for example.
‘It’s just something that we want to investigate, to pilot the way it might work.’
Given that Sacha’s approach has always been open-minded – the school has class sets of Samsung Galaxy Tabs, and iPads – his verdict on the Portege is very significant.
‘Windows 8.1 and the Portege has been the best deployment by far. We have had teething problems of course, but one month into the pilot I would say it’s showing all the signs of being a great success. There is a wealth of innovation waiting to happen. ’
Potentially the biggest series of developments will be to build upon the school’s existing architecture steadily, using proven enterprise-standard Microsoft technologies. Over time, Office 365 is going to play a significant role in this, and already Sacha is using it himself in his Computer Science teaching using OneNote and OneDrive. ‘Everything my students create is on a screen, so they send their coding work to my OneDrive. I can handwrite comments and corrections on the Portege using a pressure sensitive pen and ping it into an online folder, where the students and their parents can see it. Also, at parents’ evening I can sit there and show parents the students’ work on the Portege.’ (Sacha describes the pen feature on the Portege as a game changer for interaction with students.)
Sacha’s also starting to experiment with Office Mix and also with Wireless Display (WiDi) technology, beaming from the Portege to the projection screens. Rob Earl, the Head of Business Studies and Economics, who has trialled WiDi, which enables a Portege to connect to the interactive whiteboard via HDMI says,
‘WiDi has completely transformed the Portege for me. Before, I had to use it as just a laptop. Now I am moving around the room, writing on PowerPoint slides, filling in worksheet gaps etc. I’ve also had students using it for hand writing on screen from their desks, so it’s definitely having a big positive impact in terms of interactivity and engagement. Combined with my portable Bluetooth speaker, it means I never have to be sitting at the desk if I don’t want to.’
When it comes to Mix, a new free plug in for PowerPoint 2013, Sacha is enthusiastic about the possibilities. ‘What Microsoft has done,’ he observes, ‘is add screencasting and interactive whiteboard tools to a well-known interface. So many teachers have PowerPoint presentations and these can feel flat, even if they contain useful information. With Mix, I hit record and I can add audio and/or video to my existing slides. It’s as simple as hitting the red button. Lots of existing resources can be given a makeover. You can also record anything else that’s running on the PC, and that video is embedded into a slide. Not only that, but you can also embed online quizzes and questionnaires. The whole presentation is uploaded to a Microsoft server, from where students can watch and interact with it. It’s like having your own Khan Academy at your fingertips. Overall, I can see Mix being a big hit when we move to Office 2013. It’s simple to use and powerful in impact. That’s what great technology should do – make learning better for students and life easier for teachers.’
In all of this, Sacha talks of ‘proof of concept’ ; the aim being to demonstrate the advantages of Office 365 and associated technologies to other colleagues, ready for a wider deployment down the line.
‘In the bigger picture,’ says Sacha, ‘We are planning an overhaul, in 2015, of our SharePoint 2010 ‘Gateway’, upgrading to SharePoint 2013, with an educational overlay designed by Microsoft Partner CORE ECS. This will provide us with drag and drop functionality and much better Web 2.0 integration. We’re also looking at CORE’s Homework module, that allows teachers to create class sets on the Gateway (via the MIS), where homework resources can be left, assignments submitted, and marks recorded We will also be upgrading to Office 2013 next summer. Our aim after that will be a rollout and integration, in 2016, of Office 365.’
As I talk to Sacha, it becomes apparent that he and his team, with the support of the school’s leadership, are working towards a hybrid cloud and on-premise enterprise standard Windows and Office infrastructure. But it’s going to move at a carefully judged pace.
‘We can’t forget that teachers are very busy and we don’t want to foist another level of complexity on them. We have no need to prove anything here. So we’re not rushing. We’d rather go at a slower pace and make sure we carry everyone with us.’
At the same time, having experienced the possibilities of Office 365 in his own teaching, Sacha is undoubtedly quite sure that as the touchscreen and pen capabilities of the Portege reveal themselves, together with the new Gateway, incorporating intuitive and fundamentally familiar qualities of Office 365, teachers will gradually take to what will be a new and highly effective learning environment. Sacha makes the point –
‘First and foremost, learning technologies have to be used well by teachers. The benefits need to be understood and transformative in their outcomes. To that end, we’ll be offering a large number of live training sessions at times to suit, together with downloadable video and text based guides. Thankfully, using Office 2013 and Mix, we think we can make relevant resources for minimal effort. We want to model best practice in the way we’re going to teach the teachers. This will be a powerful example of how learning can evolve using innovative tools in interesting ways.’