Guest blog post by Gerald Haigh

The story of IT at Wymondham High Academy has many strands, all of them worth following. Fortunately, though, much of it is documented in blogs and YouTube videos. In fact, I will provide a list of such links. I urge you to explore them, and follow the various paths where they lead, because that’s where you will find the detail of the story.

But I knew I had to add something of my own – to try to get to the beating heart of this remarkable centre of educational excellence. What you have here, then, is a selective look at the things I saw, and which impressed me, on my visit to the school.

The key words, for me, are leadership, student engagement, collaboration and communication. All of those can exist without technology of course and most certainly do at Wymondham. In fact, were such qualities not embedded, then there would be no significant technology story to tell. Of all of those, though, the one that really stands out is student engagement, which is the theme that runs throughout everything that happens in IT at the school.

The quick version

The basics of the story are clear enough. This is a school that, over a relatively short, but not rushed, period has introduced Office 365 in Education across the school, initially to replace a defunct VLE, built a portal to exploit O365’s features, embarked on a tablet programme using Microsoft Surface, begun using Lync for internal communication, and Yammer as a highly democratic tool for the exchange of ideas between students and staff at all levels. Along with all that, students are gaining qualifications with Microsoft IT Academy, and in addition the Wymondham team have recently been helping nearby Old Buckenham High School with their implementation of Office 365.

Leadership

Russell Boulton, Principal of Wymondham High Academy

I’d have to start, of course, with the principal, Russell Boulton. I only met him briefly, because he’s very clearly something of a human dynamo, always on his way somewhere. His influence, though, is tangible. As I went round I realised more and more just how he has worked to create an energetic and supportive learning environment where people feel free to try out ideas, unafraid of critical feedback and ready to learn from failure.

One obvious beneficiary of the Boulton approach is another impressive leader, Kevin Sait, head of IT strategy. Kevin arrived in the school in September 2013, a Microsoft Certified Trainer, Microsoft Certified Educator, Microsoft Technology Associate and Microsoft Office Specialist with 20 years of school IT experience under his belt. Right at the start, as he describes on his Microsoft guest blog, he was charged by Russell Boulton with the task of doing something about the school’s moribund VLE.

Some technology leaders, faced with that task, would have set about convincing people that the VLE they were fed up with was, in fact, ideally suited to their needs, and a few twilight sessions would bring it back to life.

Kevin Sait, Head of IT Strategy at Wymondham High Academy

Kevin, though, has the vision and know-how that meant he saw the need for a solution that followed the needs of the teachers and the students, would grow with them, be flexible and, crucially, cost effective. As he explained to the Principal

‘Office 365 …..would solve various issues that the school had, and give us some strategic advantages – all for free (he liked that bit a lot!)’

Kevin’s vision of what O365 could, and would do for communication, collaboration and, of course, for learning is set out in that same blog.

Having the vision, though, is only the start. The real test lies with implementation, which is where I began to realise just what Kevin’s brand of leadership means. The phrase that comes immediately to mind is ‘distributed leadership’ – a concept that’s been much discussed in the context of schools. Usually it means, spreading responsibility across the staff. At Wymondham, though, in Kevin’s case it’s been spreading responsibility among students.

Student engagement

You’re not at Wymondham long (about ten minutes in my case) before you’re aware of the part that students play in supporting Kevin. At the heart of this enterprise is ‘The O Team’. (That’s ‘O’ for ‘Office 365’)

When I wanted a bit more detail about ‘The O Team’, I posted a request on the school’s much-used ‘Yammer’ feed. I can no better than quote the reply I had, from Jason Brown in Year Eleven. As well as filling in the gaps about the O team, it also speaks volumes about student engagement at Wymondham.

‘Hi there Gerald. The O Team currently has 3 members - Harry Traynor , Paul Harvey and Jason Brown. Harry and Paul are Year 13, Jason's (me) Year 11, going on Year 12. We are responsible for the rollout and promotion of Office 365 within in our school and also for helping and educating Wymondham High members on how to use this stuff.

We've been presenting assemblies about Office 365 over the past few weeks and we will be doing more promotional work in the future, for example next week we are heading to the John Innes Centre in Norwich the Student Digital Leaders to sit in at the Teaching & Learning conference there and also to demonstrate Windows 8.1 in Education and Office 365 running on some devices we have in school, eg Surfaces, laptops and possibly the iPads.

Over the past week or so I've been producing 'tutorial' videos to help get people started - these are on YouTube: once the word gets out there about our YouTube and Twitter accounts then more people will be watching these videos and getting started with Office 365.’

clip_image003Of all their achievements, the one that O team members remember most vividly is kicking off the tablet programme. As Jason describes it --

‘The most satisfying achievement for me, is setting up over 150 Surface RT's (Each of which required around 100 updates, and the updating to windows 8.1). These took a long time, and so it was very satisfying when we finally finished.’

These students, very clearly, aren’t just ‘involved’ in developments at Wymondham. They are, at the very least, co-leaders along with Kevin -- proactive, expert, accomplished, experienced. Yes, Kevin’s always there with the last word and the final decision, but what he’s doing is a remarkable demonstration of just what our young people are capable of when they’re given responsibility and support. It’s a mark of Kevin’s confidence in his own leadership that he’s very willing to take advice from his team of students. I noticed at least one Yammer post from Kevin asking advice from an O Team members on a specific point.

The O Team are not alone in their endeavours of course. There’s a full complement of digital leaders across the school. I met two of them, Tobias Dunn and Will Singleton in Year 7.

‘Actually, they’re extended version digital leaders,’ says Kevin. ‘We’ve given them a few more tasks because they’re good at what they do. They’re happy to share their knowledge and support other people and want to be part of what we do here.’

‘We meet every Friday lunchtime,’ says Will. ‘And we’re always in touch with Yammer’.

There are routine classroom tasks, he explained – ‘If we’re in an IT lesson and the teacher is helping someone else, we can sort out problems.’

They were also involved with Harry, Paul and Jason in the roll out of the Surface devices. Meanwhile they are updating their own skills, both in coding with ‘Touch Develop’ and ‘Kodu’ and working through Microsoft Office Specialist qualifications.

clip_image004

O Team with their co-leader, Kevin Sait

Also demonstrating remarkable success in MOS qualifications is fifteen year old Josie Fox. You can read a recent blog we posted in which Josie describes how she was alerted to them by an assembly presentation, and after intensive study supported by Kevin and the team, she’s now a Microsoft Office Specialist in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. She’s very realistic about her motives:

‘Those just coming out of University and Colleges are struggling to find a job. Some have outstanding grades, yet are still unemployed. By having a MOS qualification, it could mean that you wouldn't be caught in the unemployment sector.’

Josie is now studying for her ‘Outlook’ specialism.

‘The Microsoft course has been amazing and extremely helpful and I would recommend it to anyone. One of the best choices I’ve made.’

Josie’s now signed up for the Microsoft World Wide MOS championship, so it’s watch this space.

clip_image005

Poster created by Harry Traynor, O Team

Collaboration and Communication

Office 365 is all about collaboration and communication. Reinforcing that, is this post on the Wymondham High Academy Yammer stream from sixth former Paul Harvey.

‘One of the main advantages of Office 365 is the collaborative nature of it. It allows me to connect with and work with anyone else within the school. It is accessible from any internet connecting device, and so is available all the time, and means I can do work in the required format regardless of which device I have got (through the use of the web apps). During my time in the lower school, I lost numerous pieces of work due to losing my memory stick, but office 365 means that I cant lose it.’

As part of the work to make the most of Office 365, Kevin Sait and his team are developing a school portal. Sixth Former Harry Traynor is to the fore in this. (Harry, in fact, has now officially left school and is starting as an apprentice in the IT department.)

The challenge here has been to make sure that the new portal is clearly differentiated from the previous VLE, which was seen as inflexible and not tailored to user needs.

‘We’ve bent over backwards to build it around them. That’s what Office 365 makes possible. So we can tell them that this is not just another VLE but a bridge taking you to all the stuff you already use. ‘

The finished product is disarmingly simple in layout and functionality – the front page called ‘Metro Central’ has are 19 Windows 8 style tiles, clicking through to subjects, room bookings, cover work, IT Academy for example, and underneath a live twitter feed.

Kevin puts the straightforward efficiency of the portal down to student leadership in its design.

‘We would probably have overcomplicated it’.

Yes. You’ve seen some like that. No names, no pack drill.

Yammer

Kevin was quick to see how well Yammer would support his drive to broaden the number of people involved in developing IT at Wymondham High. Now, it’s used not only to involve staff and students but also to cement relationships with Microsoft.

Kevin sees Yammer, too, as a means of educating young people in the appropriate use of social media.

‘We want them to use it for professional, school purposes as distinct from the general chat on other social sites.’

It certainly works well like that. A trawl around Wymondham High’s Yammer stream shows it being used to exchange ideas, ask questions, suggest solutions, propose new approaches. It offers direct lines between students, staff, principal and outside members in a way that’s energising for the whole institution.

clip_image006

But it’s all about learning

As I talked to Kevin and his team, I realised that what’s happening here is, in a contrary sort of way, is more to do with taking away than it is with giving. As Kevin says,

‘The art is to make the technology as transparent as possible so that teachers and students can concentrate on the data and the work and the communication and not worry about different formats.’

In that sense, Office 365 takes away barriers. The resources, data, students’ work, remain precisely the same in a familiar format, waiting to be visited via whatever device is to hand.

That’s the message that Kevin, The O team, Tobias, Will, and many others are Wymondham are consistently working to put across, and they’re doing it with a degree of energy, enthusiasm and expertise that deserves the highest recognition.

Filling in the gaps

A really great starting point is this guest blog on the Microsoft Schools Blog by Wymondham’s Kevin Sait, posted by Microsoft’s Mandeep Atwal. 

Then there’s this equally impressive follow-up, from the student perspective, by Jason Brown of Year 11, in which he discusses IT Academy and also progress with Office 365 and Yammer.

O Team Youtube channel, with lots of instructional videos.

One other ‘don’t miss’ is a ‘student to student’ promotional video on Office 365 also by Jason Brown of Year 11 It’s had a lot of attention globally within Microsoft and beyond. Available in lots of places, including

This article by Jason Brown, posted on Kevin Sait’s blog, goes to the heart of what I think of as Wymondham way – student engagement, enthusiasm, the use of social media.

Most recently, at the time of writing, there’s ‘The O Team’ on twitter, with lots of good advice and links to the ‘O Team’ YouTube channel, which has a steady stream of ‘how to do it’ videos. @WyHighOteam

Read about that the work that Kevin and his team are doing with neighbouring Old Buckenham High School, supporting them in their own migration to Office 365 on Kevin’s own blog.