Guest Post by Education writer Gerald Haigh

I never had stabilisers on my first bike. Not sure they existed in those rather more gritty days. My dad ran along holding on to the saddle, until the day I turned round and saw he was two hundred yards behind me, at which point I fell off.

However, according to Ollie Bray, speaking to forty or so educators in Sheffield at the Civica Education Conference, my dad had the right idea. Stabilisers, said Ollie, do nothing to help a child learn how to balance.

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For years we have taught people to ride bikes wrongly because we thought it was the right way.’

Now, it seems – and Ollie had some great video to illustrate the point – tiny children are given small bikes with neither pedals nor stabilisers and sent off to zoom down mountains.

Ollie, Head teacher at Kingussie High School in the Cairngorms, was delivering the Conference keynote address, on ‘Embracing risk to empower teaching and learning’ .

Ollie is well known to us, of course, not least for his contribution to the library of our Microsoft e-books, including ‘Using 1:1 to Unlock Learning’.

In his lively talk, he supported his message by reference to numerous examples of bold innovations – Monkseaton School’s cutting edge building, schools across the world that have classes of 120, taught by teams of teachers and support staff in flexible learning spaces.

As you’d expect, much of what he had to say was about what technology can do to encourage and support creativity and innovation.

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‘We don’t make enough of web-based video conferencing in schools,’ he said. ‘There are lots of technologies that can be used to link schools and classrooms across the world, enriching the lives of children’.

Importantly, though he was clear that the teaching and learning come first, and it’s necessary, before introducing technology – such as tablets, and ‘bring your own device’ -- to go back and understand what problem it’s intended to solve.

‘The challenge for schools and heads is that they don’t always know what problem they are trying to solve.’

Ollie also mentioned the Naace ‘RiskIT’ campaign, by which schools are encouraged to set aside a specific week during which teachers will, in the words of the campaign, ‘Use something “ICT” you have not used before.’

Although identifying a specific week provides focus, ‘RiskIT’ ideally becomes embedded in the culture of school, which is what has happened at St Birinus School in Oxfordshire. We told the story of Civica’s Office 365 implementation at St Birinus in at two-part blog in January. Read part one here. Read part two here.

At the Civica Conference, Jim Fuller, St Birinus deputy head, spoke with his usual huge enthusiasm, telling the story of their ICT journey, and linking their ‘RiskIT’ programme to their BYOD policy.

The point of RiskIT, he says, is to remove fear of failure.

‘You are encouraging your staff to take risks. A lot of the dynamic and interesting stuff gets thrown out when you try to hit tick boxes. With RiskIT you can try what you like and it doesn’t matter if it fails.’

The key, though, is to provide structure and support through regular CPD providing a constant message about teaching and learning.

The whole, including the school’s developing BYOD policy is made possible by Office 365

‘Without Office 365 we couldn’t do it, it’s so embedded.’

In one of the optional sessions, Microsoft’s Mandeep Atwal gave one of her lively presentations on what ICT in general, and Microsoft technologies in particular, can do for classroom teachers. It’s a constant source of frustration that many teachers, paradoxically, seem unable to find the time to discover resources that could make the job a little easier. One of Mandeep’s professional missions is to use her presentations to say, ‘How can we help?’, going on to spread the word about the Partners in Learning programme, and give examples of what’s possible with Windows 8 in the classroom, especially within the Microsoft Learning Suite.

Although I couldn’t attend everything, I was particularly keen to catch a session called ‘Getting the most out of Office 365’, run as a double act by Civica’s Paul Hart and Brendan Murphy. I first encountered Paul as the Civica e-Learning Consultant who worked with Sandymoor School on their Office 365 implementation and I anticipated that Paul and Brendan’s session would be good value.

And so it was. They began by discussing ‘Flipped Classroom’, which they defined as, when

‘..learning is done through work outside of the classroom, and understanding is gained through discussion and collaboration within the classroom’. Although, as Paul pointed out, ‘There aren’t defined boundaries to this. With Office 365 those two elements can happen both inside and outside the classroom.’

Brendan went on to describe the way that computer use has changed over time, using a graphic to show how we use different devices as the day goes on. Office 365, however, offers a consistent experience, anytime, anywhere. As he went on to explain

‘It’s industry standard technology – the same ribbon that everybody knows. It’s flexible, device neutral, secure and all the features are available with one log-in.’

Paul and Brendan explained the various elements of Office 365, including the Web Apps, and showed examples of how they can promote and support participation and collaborative learning.

‘With the online version of Word you can have several people working on the same document at the same time,’ said Paul. ‘And with Lync, they can speak to each other if they want.’

I was particularly intrigued by Paul’s mention of schools using ‘Reputation scores’ to encourage and reward collaboration.

Because I knew very little about this, I phoned Paul later to find out more.

‘It’s a fantastic feature and a bit of a hidden gem,’ he said. ‘If you create a community site in Office 365 using the site template, you can use the feature to give participants a score for their level of participation, visible on the screen.’

Civica choose to surface this feature in their Office 365 implementations.

‘It’s such a powerful tool for systematic rewarding of participation, and we’ve just drawn a bit more attention to it by switching it on in our release.’

Paul and Brendan finished their conference presentation by mentioning briefly the possibility of moving beyond ‘on demand’ learning, towards ‘pushed’ learning – information that arrives on your device before you ask for it.

There was more to the Conference than I’ve been able to describe here (it’s that old ‘being in two places at once’ thing). There was much useful sharing of information and experience on BYOD for example, and I was sorry to miss Mandeep’s ‘Young Voices’ presentation on using technology to encourage open debate among pupils from different backgrounds. I’d like also to have caught Civica Strategic Educationalist Graham Crerar’s advice on ‘Taking a Strategic View’ – something that not all schools have been good at over the years.

At the same time, it’s not a bad thing to come away from a Conference wanting more. For example, I want to know more about ‘Reputation Scores’ and their use in the classroom. Then there’s ‘pushed learning’ – something else that’s bound to be in use out there somewhere. I feel a couple of future blogs coming on, so watch this space.