Guest blog post by Gerald Haigh

Darrick Wood, a very successful 11 – 18 secondary school with over 1700 students moves carefully and methodically over time to upgrade its IT infrastructure while maintaining and enhancing the focus on teaching and learning.

Judging the pace of progress

Visiting a Microsoft Showcase School is always a trip up a learning curve

So at Darrick Wood school, for example, I was reminded just how important it is to judge the pace of technological innovation.

That’s always true of course, but it’s particularly so in a highly successful school like Darrick Wood, which is judged ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted in all key areas. That’s because excellent teachers, while being open to new ideas, will also be quick to say,

‘ Now convince me that this will help me to improve teaching and learning in my classroom/department/school.’

So, when I met Mike Slater, network manager at Darrick Wood, and senior technician Brendan Hood, it was fascinating to hear how they had, over a considerable time, been building a new IT infrastructure for the school – an efficient wireless network and a new SharePoint portal which is gradually replacing the existing proprietary VLE. Along the way they have been supporting teachers with OneNote in the classroom, and are now piloting the new Groupcall ‘Emerge’ Windows 8 app that brings MIS data from SIMS on to teachers’ hand held devices. All of that has been done, so far as I can tell, without untoward drama, largely by doing what a local authority adviser I knew used to call, ‘working on the growth points’. That’s to say they have found, and supported, the people who want to try things.

Finding the right device

I was particularly impressed though, by the way Mike and his team have been working, step-by-step, towards equipping the school with ‘one-to-one’ devices.

‘We made the decision to do that about two years ago,’ says Mike. ‘We believe it’s the future. Each department has an e-learning co—ordinator and we went to them with the vision.’

We’ve all heard the ‘one-to-one’ horror stories – schools flooded with tablets, bought on the basis of a top-down diktat, that no-one really knows how to use or manage. If you want an example of the exact polar opposite of that, then Darrick Wood is your place to go.

First, Mike his team set about looking at what was on the market. They were looking for Windows devices, that would be part of the whole-school IT eco system.

‘We got feedback from everyone, including the students. They were adamant that whatever we chose had to have a keyboard, a pen, and some kind of way of holding the thing up.’

What they were describing, says, Mike, was a Microsoft Surface Pro, but that wasn’t going to be affordable as a mass purchase.

Support was also very much in the frame, and here Mike and his colleagues were aware that there’d be better on-site service from a major hardware supplier.

After an initial filtering that rejected some obvious non-starters, the choice boiled down to Windows 8 tablets from Lenovo, HP, Toshiba and Dell.

‘We approached each of them and asked if we could do a proper trial with a class set. Only Lenovo were interested in that,’ says Mike.

The option of using the tablets one-to-one was opened up to the teachers and two volunteers, in Geography and science respectively, used the devices in class for half a term each. Even though they couldn’t go home, the teachers found a wide range of uses for the devices.

‘They were able to do VLE-based lessons, have children interacting in groups, researching topics and doing presentations, making podcasts, running lots of immediate feedback quizzes with the results on the main screen. The science teacher drew out a big picture of the human body on the floor with QR codes that led to detailed explanations of each part. They reported that the potential for differentiation was amazing.’

Unsurprisingly, the teachers were bereft when the tablets had to be returned.

‘But we’re hoping for a class set of our own in September. It may or may not be Lenovo, but the good thing about Windows is that you’re not tied to a single device as you are with the iPad.’

Surface features in the school, and will continue to do so, though not as a one-to-one device for students.

The current position is that there are 39 Surface RT devices deployed mainly to for student support and ICT teaching, and 10 Surface Pros used by IT Support, the Hearing Impaired Unit and the Head of School.

SharePoint and Lync

200px-SharePoint_logo_2013     Lync Logo

Mike also told me about migrating from a proprietary VLE to SharePoint.

‘It will be more flexible, much easier for people to collaborate on the same document. Staff will move over in September and by Christmas the students will have lessons and resources on the SharePoint portal. ‘Salamander’ make cool products to link SharePoint to the SIMS MIS.’

Lync, he explained, is already helping staff to communicate better.

‘You can use “presence” to search for them and fire off a quick question. Some staff have Lumia phones that they can use with Lync.’

Hannah Smith and One Note

After our talk, Senior Technician Brendan Hood took me on a walkabout to see what we could find. Not much, he thought, because it was exam time. However, the Microsoft fairies guided our footsteps to the classroom of Hannah Smith who effectively made my day by extolling the virtues of OneNote. She showed me a lesson that she’d planned in OneNote on her laptop, then showed to the class on a big plasma touch screen. She and they could add annotations and comments.

‘It’s so easy to save it then, and pick up where we left off.’

Hannah is becoming a de facto OneNote ambassador within the school, and it was clear from our conversation that she regards it as a real game changer.

The Holy Grail

That’s the phrase Brendan used to describe the goal that the IT and school leadership are heading for in terms of using technology to change classroom practice.

‘If you’re going to get away from the teacher at the front of the classroom, the best way is by walking round with a device that’s wirelessly connected to the screen. ‘Miracast’ is a game changer in this and we’re gearing up for it. The same will go for ‘Office Mix’ when that’s fully available.’

Groupcall

Basic CMYK

In April, we blogged about the new ‘Emerge’ Windows 8 app from Groupcall, which gives teachers full access to their SIMS MIS data from a Windows 8 mobile device. At that time, Groupcall were looking for schools to use the app within their normal routine, and report back. Now, Darrick Wood staff are using ‘Emerge’ on Windows 8 phones and finding a whole range of uses for it.

‘There’s great potential for school trips, for example – teachers have full access to contacts, medical details and so on, says Brendan Hood. ‘And then staff on gate duty can check if students are leaving without serving a detention – all kinds of things like that. It’s really exciting.’

Jack Richards, a Dell Tablet, the United Nations and the World

On the same walkabout with Brendan that took me to see Hannah, Queen of One Note, I encountered Year 10 student Jack Richards, holding a meeting with the aid of a Dell Latitude tablet. Jack, it turns out, leads, as General Secretary, Darrick Wood’s branch of UNA-UK – the youth United Nations. The website, dmun.webs.com, says ‘Darrick Wood Model UN. A small group trying to make a global difference’

Twitter @darrickMUN

Each year, globally, 400,000 young people meet at UNA conferences across the world, and now Jack, with the aid of his Windows 8 tablet and his fellow delegates, is planning a UNA Conference in the UK in 2015, hoping for representation from across the globe. Here’s an impressive young man with a vision and a deep concern for humanity who deserves to succeed.

Currently, Jack is seeking sponsors for his conference. Now I wonder if there are any major organisations around with an interest in young people, education and development who might respond to that? Let me see….