Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft series of education blogs.

Over a small chai latte and a piece of cake at Thames Valley Park the other day we agreed that I would write a round-up of my impressions of the academic year – and Microsoft year – that’s just come to a close.

As it turns out, that’s not easy; there’s just so much that it’s difficult to know where to start, what to include and what to leave out. The only way, I decided is to try to identify one or two trends – ideas that seem to me to be coming to fruition, or are planned or maybe no more than straws in the wind. These are personal to me, you understand.

So, for example, while you don’t have to be a genius to realise that the move to ‘one-to-one’ devices is in full flow, you need to look a little more closely to discover that the early mistakes are being taken on board and we are probably now into a second, more thoughtful phase.

Recently, for example, I blogged about Darrick Wood School in Orpington, where staff are still methodically working towards one-to-one fully two years after they decided it was the way to go. For them, it’s a careful process of trialling devices, putting learning first and bringing staff along.

 

As I point out in the blog, what we see at Darrick Wood is the precise opposite of the oft-reported policy in some schools of flooding the place with tablets in the hope that magical things will happen. Significantly, Darrick Wood is an Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ school, which means that staff understandably want to be sure of the effects on learning.

Another thing I learned this year about tablets in the classroom is that it’s not all about apps. Not primarily anyway. The main point about giving a child a tablet – or any one-to-one device -- is that, thanks to effective Wi-Fi (which the school, thankfully, will have provided before even thinking about the devices) he or she will become effectively enrolled in a virtual, anytime/anywhere, internet-enabled environment which is a cloud-based extension of the classroom.

So, for example, I was able to write about Simon de Senlis primary where children and teachers were using Surface RT, Office 365 and the SharePoint based LP+4 learning platform to keep in collaborative touch with each other, giving and receiving feedback.

By contrast, basing a tablet policy on the availability of apps is sure to raise issues about control and consistency. IT staff in what I’m tempted to call an ‘app-happy school’ will tell you that every teacher has a list of favourite apps, with more arriving every day, and there’s a possibility that classroom work, and learning will become app-driven in a way that might be inconsistent with putting learning needs first.

One answer is to look first at apps that support teachers in their day-to-day work and hardly had I written that when a post appeared on the schools blog that’s evidently inspired by the same line of thought. Called, ‘See What’s APPening in Education’, it makes lists five Windows Store apps – ‘Class Policy’, ‘Test Policy’, ‘eBackpack’. ‘Edmodo’ and ‘Social Express’ that are aimed at classroom and learning management tasks and policies.

At the heart of so much that’s happening, I very quickly realised, is Office 365. Back in September, I wrote a blog called ‘The start of my Office 365 Education Journey’.

The blog relates conversations I had with Office 365 experts – people like Alex Pearce of BFC Networks and Microsoft Expert Educator Charlotte Beckhurst of Hartsbrook School. Talking to them made me realise that Office 365 is not just a resource, but a whole learning environment.

Now, it gathers momentum all the time, particularly since the ‘Student Advantage’ licensing scheme has made it so readily available to education. At Wymondham High School, for example, the student ‘O Team’ is pioneering the use of Office 365, spreading the word with a series of videos, and demonstrating just what a force for growth students can be given freedom and wise support.

Across the country, in fact, student groups – ‘The Offperts’ at Saltash.net School is another -- are showing qualities of leadership and creativity in technology that cause me to wonder whether leaders of other curriculum areas are always as aware of the possibilities.

One effect of the ready availability of Office 365 is that it introduces many more schools to Microsoft technologies that we’ve met in enterprising schools but haven’t been widely exploited.

Wymondham High, for example, is just one that’s using SharePoint Online to build a learning management ‘portal’ . ‘OneNote’, too, always a favourite among those who took the trouble to explore it, is now reaching a wider audience. The same thing is going to happen to ‘OfficeMix’ as the word goes around.

In most of my encounters with schools and colleges as the year went on I was reminded yet again of the presence and importance of the partner businesses that add so much value and expertise to the Microsoft offering. So, for instance, when I went to see Office 365 in action at St Birinus School in Oxfordshire and later at Sandymoor Free School in Runcorn

I realised just what a great contribution had been made in both implementations by Civica Education, and their great team of e-learning consultants, all with roots in the classroom.

Similarly, my blog about Furness Academy provided an opportunity to renew my contact with SharePoint consultants Novotronix, who have worked with the school to build a school portal using SharePoint 2013 and Office 365. There’s so much going on at Furness that I hope I’ll be able to return to their story in the new school year.

There’s been so much else happening over the year that this personal review has only scratched the surface. Topics that I hope to focus on in coming weeks and months include the development of the Showcase Schools Programme and the increased engagement of teachers and students in Microsoft’s various learning, partnership and certification programmes. On the technology for learning front, I’m sure I’ll find more and more transformational Office 365 stories, driven, often, by Student Advantage. And did I mention Yammer? I’ve written about it in use both at Wymondham and in Further Education at the Isle of Wight College

Now that Yammer enterprise is available with Office 365, more and more institutions are going to discover that it’s potentially a game changer for communication and collaboration. So, as ever with Microsoft, it’s very much watch this space because there’s always something coming along to capture the imagination.