Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft Education series of blogs.

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In 2004, Barnsley’s Council Leader Steve Houghton CBE said to me, in the course of an interview for an article I was preparing on Barnsley schools,

‘We can’t be a former mining town for ever.’

It stuck with me as the right kind of aspirational attitude for any community living with a challenging post-industrial legacy and Barnsley schools have taken it fully on board (We’ve blogged already on the innovative work at Barnsley Academy with Windows 8 phones).

If there’s one single place, though, that can act as the final backstop, providing hope for young people and lifting both aspirations and expectations, it’s Barnsley College, which takes in 8000 full and part time students, eight out of ten of the town’s school leavers.

It doesn’t fail them either. In 2010, Ofsted rated the College ‘Outstanding’ on 20 out of 22 categories (the remaining two were ‘Good’). The report says,

‘The college provides an inspirational resource for the Barnsley community and a transformational one for many learners.’

That same Ofsted report frequently mentions the effective use of learning technology, so it came as no surprise to discover that the IT journey continues. Technology is now used even more extensively and creatively. So much so that when Microsoft Business Manager for Further Education, Mike Morris, talked to me about the College, he used the term ‘eco-system’ to describe the way that Microsoft technologies, and associated devices are being used to provide a joined-up service for students and staff.

I followed up with a call to Mark Kendrick, IT Director at the College, and sure enough within a very short time Mark had mentioned Windows 8, SharePoint, Office 365 Education and Lync 2013, as well as a number of brands of Windows 8 tablet (including Surface). All of it – and here’s the point – is working in harmony, like the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, whose home is almost within earshot of the college.

The starting point is a SharePoint environment, first developed for staff, soon to be extended to students with a ‘MyDay’ front end (a Collabco product) with single sign on to resources including their timetable, library account, and the ‘Moodle’ VLE.

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At the same time, students have ‘Live@Edu’ – moving soon to ‘Office 365 Education’ – with free email, storage on SkyDrive, access to office web apps.

‘Office 365 gives a level of service that we couldn’t manage any other way,’ says Mark Kendrick. ‘And it prepares them for the real world – something useful for life not just for their time in College.’

And that’s not all. Also in the picture is the coming rollout of Lync 2013 which will replace the existing PBX telephone system and go on to do much more ‘The idea is to deliver remote lessons and to share good practice with less traditional classroom teaching ,’ says Mark.

But of course all of this is about much more than technology. The underlying aim is to make a difference to the way that students learn, which is why all of the software innovations are planned to go along with the extensive use of Windows 8 tablets – Samsung Series 7, Asus ‘Vivo’, and Microsoft Surface of course.

 

They are on trial in various departments including Catering, and Early Years. As well as the new devices, Mark and his team have successfully upgraded and given a new lease of life to an existing set of inexpensive ‘Zoostorm’ touch screen tablets to Windows 8. Now equipped them with 3G dongles, they’re for use by students out on work placement.

The whole package of innovations – ‘A big game changer for us’ in Mark’s words -- will make it possible for the College to move towards a more flexible approach to teaching and learning.

‘We run something called “Self-Organised Learning” says Mark. ‘They can pick up a Windows 8 tablet and organise your own learning environment within the building. So not everything’s done in the classroom. The emphasis starts to be more on guided learning than on direct teaching.’‘

Immediately, the connected nature of the whole enterprise becomes clear – SharePoint ‘MyDay’ portal (from Collabco), Lync, Office 365 Education, Windows 8 devices – all working to create a personalised learning environment that Mark calls,

‘Learning without barriers’.

At the same time, by continuing to provide quality learning with fewer, face-to-face teaching hours, and by fully exploiting existing Microsoft licensing agreements it turns out to be clear demonstration of how to bring about a change of learning culture through efficient and responsible use of resources.

‘What you have to remember is that it’s public money,’ says Mark, ‘So we have to be seen to be cost-effective in delivering our services.’

It all really only works if the tablets in use are Windows 8 devices, because they effectively become integrated into the College’s Microsoft ‘eco-system’.

‘Other devices – Apple and Android – are hard to control in terms of safeguarding and so on, and keeping in touch with what the students are doing,’ he says.

This realisation – I think of it as ‘the penny dropping’ – of the implications which arise from seeing the up-down, sideways, outward and inward connectivity and manageability of Windows 8 tablets, is already well advanced in the educational IT community. The coin’s a bit slower to hit the ground among professional educators. But that’s bound to change as users discover that they can sit in the staffroom, or the student coffee bar, or at home and have seamless access to everything they need to move their work on.

Steve Houghton, the Council Leader I met in 2004 went on to speak feelingly of the need to do radical things in the cause of improving the life chances of young people, ‘Because if you just do more of the same, you end up with more of what you had before.’

Everything about Barnsley College says that they’re entirely signed up to that -- and that they have the IT team, and the technology, that’s well able to support the vision.