Guest blog post by Gerald Haigh

This year’s annual Frog conference – ‘Frog14’ was held on 24 June, at Birmingham’s International Conference Centre as usual . It’s a great venue, within the same building as Symphony Hall, on Broad Street in the liveliest bit of a lively City. That’s not at all a bad start.

The real attraction, though, is that there’s just so much good stuff going on – a great exhibition in the huge central space, workshops, presentations. With the best will in the world I hadn’t a hope of covering everything The good news is, though, that for more detail, there’ll be videos of the event on the Frog website by 4 July and a trawl through the #frog14 twitter feed will throw up some nuggets and interesting links. In addition, two Microsoft presentations are attached here.

First impressions? One was the sheer energy of it all. Frog’s own people are really on top of this event now, and clearly enjoy it. Then, of course there’s the people who matter – some 750 of them, almost all teachers and front-line education IT people. They’re all enthusiasts, too. Oh, there’s a few grumbles – ‘They didn’t answer my email’, ‘ Why doesn’t x link up to y?’ But make no mistake, the Frog VLE is a lesson in brand loyalty. I’d say it’s because they’ve been at pains to make the product increasingly flexible and capable of being tailored and branded to the school’s requirements. In addition to that, they’ve been careful to ensure compatibility and integration with other significant technologies used by schools, including Microsoft products, now, particularly, Office 365. The latest cloud-based ‘Froglearn’ is a demonstration of that.

Another immediate impression, in fact, was the degree of interest that delegates were showing, right from the start, in Microsoft’s presence. But more of that later.

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I arrived during the opening session as Frog’s Education Marketing Director Alistair Smith was outlining his vision of excellence in education – the defining characteristics which make a ‘world class’ school. I was particularly taken with his notion of ‘fit’, which he illustrated by calling up a volunteer, and giving him his jacket and tie to put on. ‘Does it suit him?’ Obviously not, from the reaction of the audience. The point, of course, was simply that what works in one school won’t work in another. This led him to the concept of ‘The Dangerous Deputy’. We’ve all known one of those. They go off to conferences, exhibitions, school visits and come back with the one idea that will save them all from perdition. But, of course, as Alistair says, it might be inappropriate to emulate that excellent school,

‘Because it’s taken them maybe five to seven years to get there.’

I was at Frog 2012, when Alistair was just starting with Frog. I blogged then that it was a significant appointment and I was right. Later in the morning I went to a presentation, chaired by Alistair, on ‘Going Paperless’. I was intrigued, because I’ve blogged here several times on the huge savings to be made from replacing paper by online collaboration within and outside school.

The Frog14 presentation, though, opened up new paperless possibilities. To be fair, the main presenter Anna Dwyer, Assistant Head at St John the Baptist School in Woking, was focused entirely on learning and any cash saving will be a bonus. She explained how they were using one-to-one devices (iPads in this case, but the general principle holds) to replace exercise books and remove from teachers the drudgery of ploughing through piles of marking. The fundamental point is that what matters is not the exercise book itself, but high quality feedback, teacher to student, peer-to-peer. Interestingly, before you ask, Ofsted understand this, and the school is ranked ‘Outstanding’ in all areas. It’s a fine example of the principle of ‘learning first’.

I couldn’t help thinking, incidentally, watching Anna’s great presentation, that Office for iPad would broaden her already exciting approach. But having seen her in action I guess she may well be ahead of me on that.

clip_image002Tablets were also to the fore in a very well attended (100 people, standing room only) joint presentation, ‘Inspiring Teaching and Learning with Technology’,  by Microsoft’s Graham Fox and Professor Steve Molyneux, CEO of the Tablet Academy.

Graham took as his theme the way that Microsoft technologies and particularly Office 365 and Student Advantage make anytime/anywhere learning accessible and free to schools.

‘Helping to transform education, supporting educators, inspiring students’.

Graham also reminded the audience of Microsoft’s programme to inspire teachers (and students) through IT Academy, the Showcase Schools programme, Partners in Learning, Imagine Cup, Kodu Kup and others.

Together with Steve Molyneux’s contribution the whole presentation was mind-blowing, at least for someone like me who started running to catch up in 1982 when our BBC ‘B’ arrived. I do urge you to look at the slides.

What they don’t convey, of course, is the sense of excitement. Steve, for example, bombarded us with graphs and figures that show just how quickly tablets have taken over the world, moving from consumers to institutions in a quite unprecedented way, and supporting a ‘New learning society’ based on mobile services, cloud platforms and free agent learning (Khan Academy, iTunes U)

He told us about the ‘four ages of learning’ – the age of the philosopher, of the clergy, of the industrialist, of the individual, and how today’s young people are

‘connecting, exchanging and creating in new ways, when and where they want, and with no understanding or regard as to the consequences of their actions…..’

Scary, inspiring, unsettling and fascinating all at the same time.

The last presentation I attended was by Tim Rylands @TimRylands, assisted, as a stage magician of an earlier kind might have been, but rather more proactively, by Sarah Neil @sarahneild. As with all Tim’s presentations, he gave a continuous stream of links, examples, ideas, opinions, all of them classroom friendly and replete with wisdom and understanding. Sarah weighed in with examples and took photographs of the audience. Everything’s available on Tim’s blog.

But again, as with other presenters, what the blog doesn’t give you is his beautifully judged presentation style, nor does it convey the attentiveness and enthusiasm of the audience.

But of course, Frog14, like any other good event, is more than the sum of its presentations, excellent though they were. It’s also about encounters and experiences. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to visit some of the stands in the central space, but I did notice a lot of interest in Microsoft Partner ‘ClickView’, major users of ‘Azure’ who were explaining how their ‘All in One’ video package integrates with Frog.

Much of my time, though, I was at the Microsoft stand (which was shared with The Tablet Academy) trying not to get in the way while taking notice of what was happening – and there was an awful lot.

Mark Stewart, Mandeep Atwal and Graham Fox were at full stretch fielding enquiries. There was huge interest in Windows 8 tablets and Office 365. I found myself talking to staff from Stanley Academy in Carshalton who are trialing different tablets, including Windows devices, in Key Stages 3 and 4. I made a note to follow up on their progress, and Mandeep quickly weighed in with offers of support and lots of information.

Mark Stewart was usually surrounded by people as he stood showing off a new Surface Pro3. ‘Everyone loved the device,’ Mark reports, ‘and it worked flawlessly.’

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Many delegates, unsurprisingly, were seeking information on Office 365 integration with Frog, and the team demonstrated this many times, showing the advantages which include – single sign-on, integration between OneDrive and Frog Drive, the ability to create Office documents from within Frog and store them one OneDrive. There’s also the facility to download Office documents from OneDrive into the Frog environment, and also launch Office 365 email from within Frog.

A very significant degree of Frog/Microsoft integration in fact. Mark Stewart comments,

‘The value here is for schools to leverage the utility that Office 365 offers through cloud storage and Office Online.  We had great feedback on what users want to see next, so we hope to see that put into the roadmap.’

Also on the stand was a rolling online presentation which includes lots of QR codes leading to a mass of Microsoft Resources. This is now available here.

Mandeep Atwal, true to form, was highly active making contacts, identifying prospective Showcase Schools. Very significantly, she recruited three teacher volunteers who agreed to work with ‘Office Mix’ , producing videos which will be highly valuable evidence of what this great product can do for teachers. Obviously there’ll be more to come about that.

So, the final impression is one of great optimism. In my time I have seen many IT breakthrough moments in schools, starting with that BBC ‘B’ moment over thirty years ago. Now, though, I feel in my bones that another one is unfolding. Tablets, anytime/anywhere learning are leading to redefinitions of what we mean by ‘lesson’, ‘classroom’, even ‘school’. And there’s no doubt that Microsoft are and will continue to be significant players in all that is to come.