This blog post was written by freelance writer, Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft Education blogs.

The SharePoint- based learning platform LP+, from Learning Possibilities, is already well known in many UK schools and authorities.

This autumn, however, sees the launch of a new and considerably improved version, titled LP+4. The new version makes effective use of SharePoint 2010 and also provides students with access to a range of other familiar Microsoft technologies such as Excel and PowerPoint.

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LP+4 is cloud-based, hosted remotely by Learning Possibilities, which means it’s available on any web-enabled desktop or portable device, bringing fully to life the concept of “Anytime, anywhere learning.”

Helping to drive the development of LP+ and its roll out into schools is Tom Rees, head of Harrowden Primary in Northamptonshire. Tom is well known for his commitment to harnessing technology for school improvement, and his secondment to Learning Possibilities, as Director of Learning, is an imaginative move that will help win the confidence of potential LP+4 users across the sector.

LP+4 in the Classroom

Recently, I sat with two groups of pupils, already familiar with LP+ as Tom Rees has introduced them to the Beta version of LP+4.

At Harrowden Primary, Tom’s own school, Year Six children welcomed him to their classroom as a friend and made ready to deploy their already considerable online expertise. And at Southfield School for Girls, the staff had lined up an equally knowledgeable Year 11 group in the computer suite.

For me, sitting and watching, it was a fascinating experience. On reflection, though, I was struck by how much more comfortable both groups were actually using technology than they were listening to someone telling them about it.

During the introductory presentation they were impeccably behaved, keen to please. It was when they turned in twos and threes to their desktops and laptops, though, that the real buzz of engagement and concentration took over.

That, surely underlines two principles that underpin any effective classroom tool – that children prefer to engage with learning on their own terms, and that it has to be easy for them to do so.

Tom asked both groups to try out three “Web 2.0” features of LP+4 – “Discuss”, “Wiki” and “Blogs”.

These three, like all areas of the platform, are easily reached from a menu bar of one-click buttons, and the children at both schools were quickly absorbed. At Harrowden the children worked on laptops, netbooks and tablet devices to write a story collaboratively developed as a Wiki.

At Southfield, blogging was the popular choice. Within what seemed like seconds, two students had produced a well reasoned and grammatically accurate heartfelt protest about the air-conditioned coolness of the computer room.

One aim of the sessions was for children to experience the friendly feel of the new platform. When a student logs in for example, instead of finding a school page, he or she is presented with a personal page, with their picture and links to their own documents, and a social networking style ‘wall’.

In that sense, say Learning Possibilities, “LP+4 has moved from being school-centric to user-centric.”

The children certainly noticed that, because it’s how most young people experience the internet outside school. Social networks are the internet for many young people. The comment, “Like Facebook” was heard more than once from both groups.

What was most often mentioned about their learning platform, though, by both children and staff at these schools, was the way it enables seamless working between home and school. The children I met use LP+ quite naturally as part of their regular internet experience.

At Southfield, ICT coursework is now completely paperless all the way to examination level. At Harrowden, teacher Matthew Coleman explained to me that for him it’s a matter of capturing enthusiasm and preserving momentum between school and home.

“If I send homework home on a worksheet it becomes an onerous task by its very nature. But if it’s something they can add to a wiki, or write as a blog it becomes much more interesting and engaging.”

He looked round the room as the children worked on their wikis and blogs in LP+4 and added “You can see the engagement and enthusiasm, and how keen they are to be involved with it. In a normal classroom situation I could take that excitement and go with it instead of anything else I’d planned.”

LP+ and School Improvement

Teachers and heads are aware that technology can play a significant part in school improvement. They aren’t always sure, though, exactly how to convert that belief into practical reality. That’s where the effective learning platform steps in, promoting collaboration, communication, home-school links, assessment, and motivation. It opens up learning, takes pupils seriously and non-judgmentally, and reassures them that learning is for them to embrace, enjoy and share wherever they happen to be. If all that happens, then school improvement, however it’s measured, inevitably follows.

There’s good evidence for that in the story of Little Harrowden Primary itself. The school has shown dramatic progress in measured achievement over the three years since Tom Rees became head and installed LP+ as the cornerstone of a broad commitment to the use of technology for learning.

The story’s been told in detail on the Microsoft Schools Blog and it’s worth reading. It tells how SAT scores across all subjects have risen significantly year on year, attendance has improved and Ofsted has shown approval of the school’s use of technology.

Of course there are other factors. A change of head teacher is a significant variable in itself. But a great part of Tom Rees’s effectiveness lies in his commitment to ICT in general and to his deployment of LP+ in particular.

As time goes on, we’ll be looking at how schools use the features of LP+4 to support children’s learning. For us it’s a really super example of the flexibility of SharePoint 2010, used here by Learning Possibilities as the powerhouse of what really is a complete learning environment. It’s also a textbook example of how a cloud service can make easily available a wide range of familiar Microsoft technologies.