The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh.
I think its safe to say that Friday, 5th December 2014 was a big day for Microsoft . I know that because when I arrived among a group of teacher at Microsoft’s London HQ, we were met by the ever-enthusiastic Education Relations Manager Clare Riley with the words, ‘Big day today!’
The significance of the event was plain. It was a gathering for six newly designated Microsoft Showcase Schools (Broadclyst Community Primary School, Cornwallis Academy, Oasis South Bank Academy, Sandymoor School, Simon de Senlis Primary School, Wymondham High School) and also for thirty teachers nominated and chosen as Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts (MIEE). The day had several related purposes. One was to celebrate (with certificates and champagne) the achievements of the schools and the teachers. Another was to highlight for them, through a ‘carousel’ of mini-presentations, Microsoft’s ‘Best Kept Secrets’ technologies -- ‘Sway’, ‘Office Mix’, ‘Windows 8’, ‘OneNote’, ‘Skype in the Classroom’ and ‘Competitions and Opportunities’.
Most important of all, though, was to emphasise to the schools and teachers, their active role as collaborative partners in a global network. In collaboration with their counterparts across the world, they were, in effect, being commissioned into a joint mission to improve the life chances of young people through high quality learning supported by the creative use of the best available technologies.
The day was opened by Microsoft UK Education Director Steve Beswick, who set out the vision, emphasising the need to look beyond devices – the ‘access aspiration’ which diverts attention to technology rather than learning. Change, he said, is about people and culture.
And so, for example,
‘When Microsoft talk about “cloud and mobile”, it’s not in the context of phones and devices but in the mobility of people as they go about their lives.’
That’s not to say devices are not important, and Steve welcomes the arrival of sub-£100 Windows tablets, making innovative teaching and collaboration more accessible.
Then came the big surprise.
‘I have an announcement for the thirty innovative teachers. We know that in order to work closely with us you need the right technology, and so we are going to give each of you a Surface Pro3.’
That, clearly, went down very well.
But as Mandeep Atwal, UK Microsoft Schools Audience Manager, pointed out later, there’s a significant list of expectations as to how the devices, and the rich resources to which they provide access, will be deployed - not just for innovative work in classrooms, but for sharing ideas across the MIEE community on YouTube and social media, including Yammer.
Later on in the afternoon Microsoft Schools Business Managers Graham Fox and Craig Parker put on a brief keynote presentation before the MIEEs were split into groups and given 30 minutes to produce their next ‘big idea’ by combining their existing knowledge with any new resources/concepts they had discovered from the Teach Meet session and the skills and opportunities presented in the Best Kept Secrets Carousel. With the help of Graham and Craig the two groups got to work on their ideas before reconvening for the final 20 minutes of the session to share their thoughts with the whole group.
A big day then, because it was a high profile expression of Microsoft’s global commitment to education. For me the icing on the cake came with the opportunity to meet so many innovative teachers, both individually and in group discussions, hear their views and experiences, and arrange to talk further in the future. They represented just a sample of what we might see being shared, discussed and further developed on the MIEE network as time goes on.
Matt Gray, for example, of South Bank Oasis Academy is interested in the potential of technology to reduce teacher workload by cutting out some of the quasi-clerical work involved in assessment and marking.
‘I want children to have individual devices, and a system for giving feedback quickly which will also be tenable for inspection purposes.’
Matt, incidentally, has an interesting take on ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD). Many teachers, I guess, have come to view BYOD as something to be aimed for – a means of making use of the technology that students already bring to school. Matt, though, is not so sure. He feels that the increasing availability of low-priced tablets might make BYOD less relevant.
‘Do students need their phones in school?’ he asks. ‘Do they need their contact lists, or one-touch access to Facebook?’
Matthew Davies, of Treorchy Comprehensive reinforced the ‘no need for their own phones’ argument.
‘We have numerous tablets and devices, and good wifi.’
It’s quite a compelling position, but obviously not everyone agrees. Steve Lydiates from Sandymoor School suggests that school is where children can learn the social conventions of where and when to use the various features of their phones.
There’s clearly no immediate answer to this, and – as more than one pointed out – much depends on the overall culture of the school, and the vision of the leadership. It’s clearly right that the questions are asked, though, and the MIEE/Showcase Schools community is the place to air them.
Treorchy Comprehensive, incidentally, is one of a pair of South Wales schools – Pontypridd High is the other – making great strides with Microsoft IT Academy. The schools are seeing significant numbers of students qualifying as Microsoft Office Specialists (MOS) and some staff qualifying as Microsoft Technology Associates (MTA).
Another discussion contribution came from Mark Martin of St Mark’s Academy, who is interested in bridging the gap between industry and schools, so that students can see innovative technology in action – ‘join up the dots’, as he puts it, and raise their aspirations. St Mark’s has ‘Enterprise and Technology’ as a curriculum subject that carries a strong element of employability and business awareness, and here, too, there’s clearly something going on that will interest many colleagues across the country and beyond,
There was a good Scottish contingent at the event, and I took the opportunity to speak very briefly with some of them, discovering, as with all the of the others I met, that they have stories which cry out for a proper follow-up. Amanda Crabb, for example, teaches at Kersland School in Paisley, which has about ninety pupils aged five to eighteen, all with a range of learning difficulties and support needs. Amanda’s challenge is with parental engagement. That’s the case in many schools, of course, but where children have difficulties with communication and learning, there’s a double whammy because home-school contact is both more necessary and also less easy to maintain. Amanda is working on this with strategies involving SharePoint, and I learned just enough from her to realise that I need to speak to her at greater length.
I felt the same about Natalie Lochhead, of Kirklandneuk Primary in Renfrew, who is developing a team of 20 children to be digital leaders. We’ve met digital leaders before, and discovered just how effective they can be in leading the way when it comes to embedding technology across the school.
All of that, though, was just the start. As Mandeep was keen to emphasise, the real value of the day will be seen in the collaborative energy and innovation that develops over time, largely through the creative use of social media. Mandeep was insistent that part of the MIE Expert deal is that teachers use Yammer and Twitter and post blogs and vlogs and, importantly, engage colleagues as ‘Innovative Educators’.
‘Microsoft & MIE-Experts will be responsible for keeping the community active and engaged.’
And so, at the time of writing, only a couple of weeks on from the launch event on 5 December, the MIEE Yammer Group is alive with ideas, and the Twitter hashtag #MIEExpert15 is even more crammed with comments and photographs. Vlogs on YouTube include one from Marie Renton of Lochfield Primary in which she plans to join with other Renfrew MIEExperts and also considers which Microsoft technology to explore first. Her conclusion, ‘I’ve decided to go with OneNote’, is typical of the great interest shown by this group of teachers in OneNote, and in ‘Class Notebook Creator’ in particular. I fancy that the ‘Best kept secret’ label won’t be on ‘OneNote’ for much longer.
Another vlog is a brief and jolly talking head from Natalie Lochhead at Kirklandneuk (with equally cheerful children in the background) talking about their ‘Hour of Code’.
It’s exciting stuff, so much so that, as Marie says in her vlog, ‘You hardly know where to start.’
What I will venture to say, though, is this.
The Showcase Schools and the Innovative Experts who proudly and modestly received their certificates on 5 December are not being primarily set up by Microsoft, and still less by themselves, as stars to be applauded and rewarded. Yes, they have proven themselves to have ideas worth sharing, but they are also creative learners, ready to pick up on what others have to offer. I’m pretty sure, too, that there are schools and teachers not so far included in this community who won’t just look on and admire, but will say,
‘Hang on! We can do that; how do we get involved?’
Which, in a real sense, is the whole point of the exercise.