Blog written by education writer Gerald Haigh

Furness Academy, after finding that the iPad could not fulfil their learning vision, moves to a Microsoft-based environment using ‘one-to-one’ Windows 8 tablets, SharePoint 2013 and Office365

Furness Academy, a large secondary school in Barrow-in-Furness, originally based its ‘one-to-one’ device policy on the iPad. In early 2012, 544 were deployed to departments, and by Sept that year all teaching staff had an iPad.

By then, however, the Academy’s IT team were having serious doubts about the viability of the iPad programme. Technician Amy Dempster, who was responsible for iPad support says that because of the lack of easy compatibility with other school systems, including the management information system and Microsoft technologies such as OneNote (extensively used for lesson planning) teachers were using two devices.

‘In September 2012 I found that teachers were really only using their iPads for email and making notes. They did have the option of using the iPads for registration but few took it up, as it meant carrying two devices, and they needed their laptops also for sharing lesson planning using OneNote.’

At that point, ICT Resources and Learning Manager Peter Docker decided enough was enough. Instead of spending time and resources making the iPad program viable, the better option was to look at the newly emerging Windows 8 touchscreen tablets which would form part of an integrated system with the school’s existing Microsoft technology – Active Directory, SharePoint, OneNote, Office.

There were other considerations, too, says Peter,

‘We were concerned about storage for example.  We were only deploying 16Gb iPads and Amy and I didn’t think this was enough space.  We couldn’t add to it so where would all the pictures and files go?  You had to have a PC/Mac to be able to transfer/store them and providing larger capacity iPads would have increased the costs.’

A Windows Tablet, on the other hand, with a USB port and an SD card slot, provided expansion, connectivity and storage solutions that the iPads didn’t. 

‘Then, also, we had made a public commitment to parents that we would keep students provided with the latest technology.  Even giving students an iPad 2 either from the ones we had in school or buying new ones did not meet this promise because the iPad 3 was already on the market with their new retina screens and HD cameras. This was a further argument for the newer Windows Tablets.’

Senior leadership saw the logic of the argument – and Amy Dempster had been hard at work demonstrating what was possible with the aid of a Windows phone. In January 2013 she went to BETT to look at available Windows 8 tablets and arranged for samples to be tested in school.

Price was an obvious consideration, but there were others, as Peter Docker says,

‘We wanted something not too heavy, with USB ports and a stylus.’

The eventual choice was the Lenovo Tablet 2, with Windows 8 and a 10.1 inch touch screen. One of the clinching points for the decision, given that more than one device came up to scratch in all other ways, was that the Lenovo has a slot to store the stylus where another close contender does not. For a device handled by teenagers in a classroom environment that kind of thing matters.

The tablets were given free of charge to the students. Parents were asked to buy a specific carrying case for £15 though this, too, was given to eligible families.

The Academy’s funding arrangements meant that all 1100 tablets were bought at the same time, and by Christmas 2013 there were only a small number of students still awaiting their Tablets.

Such a big rollout presented some challenges. The practical ones, around care and management of the devices at home and at school were pre-empted by a detailed home-school agreement and ‘Tablet Pledge’ setting out parental and student responsibilities. Together, they say that students have to turn up at school with their tablet fully charged, in its case, in working order. Staff have been given their own Lenovo Windows 8 touch screen devices – in this case the ‘Twist’ convertible laptop/tablet.

Possibly the bigger challenge is to help staff exploit the capabilities of the technology to the point where students will feel out of the loop if they forget to bring their tablets to school. Important in this, and very much part of the whole story, is that alongside the tablet implementation,

Microsoft partner ‘Novotronix’ was, and still is, engaged in building a school portal which uses the power of SharePoint 2013 and also Office 365 to create a fully integrated online working environment.

The availability of ‘one-to-one’ devices working with the SharePoint portal to provide anytime/anywhere learning potentially opens up a whole new world of learning, and great deal of effort is being by the team at Furness to help colleagues realise the possibilities.

‘We’re working with small numbers of staff to develop their own subject sites,’ says Peter Docker ‘and Amy is working with some departments to put their OneNote planning into SharePoint so that it’s available there for all staff across departments to share best practice.’

Some interestubg examples are starting to emerge. Peter tells how one keen member of the PE staff, on sports day, was able to solve the traditional sports day problem of keeping the results table up to date by using a shared Excel document.

‘Originally this was using GoogleDocs as Excel couldn’t cope with being shared,’ he says. ‘But now with the advent of Office 365 this has been ported to Excel and works a dream, avoiding the workarounds and new skills that Google accounts previously needed.’

The lessons from this have now been applied to another version that is now being routinely used to record athletics scores and times, live, in lessons on the sports field.

And now, Peter adds,

‘The same principle is being taken up in the science department for assessment tracking where complaints of somebody locking the spreadsheet by keeping it open will be a thing of the past.’

A similar classroom breakthrough is related by Amy,

‘We have two nurture groups of lower ability students who are taught a number of subjects, including ICT by non-specialists,’ she says. ‘To help them, an ICT teacher has posted on the SharePoint portal a scheme of work and lessons, with video links and websites, so that the students can work through them at their own pace.’

Administration is made easier, too says Peter.

‘Instead of emailing documents around asking for changes/corrections and then the inevitable collation, several people can work on a document at the same time. Collaborative working can now be truly that.’

There’s a strong sense from Peter and Amy that Furness Academy is at what some would call a ‘tipping point’ – on the verge of discovering the full potential of the whole integrated eco-system of Microsoft technologies and devices working together, both on-site and in the cloud as Office 365.

Novotronix have played an important part in developments at Furness, and I was sure they’d have good things to say. I wasn’t disappointed.

‘They’re a good team, a pleasure to work with’, said Novotronix SharePoint consultant David White .

‘They’re trying to have everything included in the portal, creating lots of sites, project areas, exam tips. The great thing is they don’t mind having a go – if something’s implemented they’ll go with it.’