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January, 2009 - Microsoft UK Schools blog - Site Home - MSDN Blogs
The UK Schools Blog
News and views from the Microsoft UK Education Team
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January, 2009

  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    The Internet isn’t working


    My favourite humbug phrase is “The Internet is down”. It’s a phrase people use, but it winds me up. Somebody walks in and says “The Internet is down” or “The Internet isn’t working”. I ask you? Like 3 billion nodes, millions of switches/hubs/routers, thousands of undersea cables. They’re broken? I can see it may come across as tetchy when I say “No. It is not. The Internet is fine. I think what you mean is that our connection to it may be down/broken.

    The Internet’s down

    It happened twice this week, while at BETT. The first time was on Tuesday night, when I was walking back from Olympia to the hotel. I phoned home to say goodnight to my kids – and my eldest said it - “Dad, the Internet isn’t working”. Give me a gold star, because I resisted the temptation to correct her. Instead I had to talk her through counting green lights on the wireless router, and then I had to ask her to crawl under the desk and find the mains plug to reset it. Over 5 years with Zen Internet, this has only happened twice, and the first time was when a BT Exchange burnt down, so it’s the kind of problem I can live with – I switch on/off every 30 months is pretty good.

    The second time was a little more serious, and a lot less professional.

    The Internet’s down at BETT

    On the first day of the BETT Show we were having a great time. The stand was packed with people. The Surface at BETT was drawing crowds. Jonathan Bishop of Broadclyst Primary School was having a wonderful chat with one of his pupils at school via video conference, and another in a hospital who was still being included in teaching and learning via a video link. And suddenly something went wrong. The video conference died, and for the life of us, the techies couldn’t solve it.

    Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, was due onto the stand shortly, and was going to join in the video conference, and have a chat with the pupils. It would have been a nice moment. And that is when Gordon whispered in my ear “The Internet’s down”. This time I wasn’t even focused enough to correct the statement, instead I just asked “Can you fix it?”. (Following my previous logic, I can now see that it wasn’t reasonable for me to ask Gordon to “fix the Internet”)

    It turned out that the Internet service provider at BETT, to all of the stands, had switched over their Internet provider mid-way through the morning, and suddenly all of the server gateways had changed. Everybody we spoke with had the same problem – their Internet connection suddenly died. It took us about half an hour to get everything reactived, and a little longer for the video conferencing as new IP addresses were configured.

    imageLots of kerfuffle followed, and the end result was that the Internet connection simply wasn’t stable enough to let us video conference reliably. And sadly the children down at Broadclyst school didn’t get the chance to talk with Jim Knight (and they’d shined their shoes specially). Instead, Jim had a hands-on demonstration of the Surface using Finquistics, which you can see on the Teachers TV website.

    The moral of the story?

    1. If you’re providing a communication service, proper change management means making changes when there’s lowest risk of causing disruption, not highest.
      Change your service the day before BETT, or even better during the Practical Caravanning Show! Just like schools make big system changes during the holidays and weekends. Not during Period 2 on a Monday morning…
    2. If you’re running a stand at a show, always have Plan B (and Plan C) ready, because something outside of your control will mean you need it.
  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    The netbook Wall of Cool at BETT


    One of the things that is new on our BETT stand this year is a netbook “Wall of Cool”, with a dozen netbooks to look at and compare. Although there are loads of suppliers at BETT, all showing off their latest mini laptops, you can’t visit a stand elsewhere where they are all lined up together. So you can compare them side by side, and you’ll be able to see how their speed, graphics, weight and design vary between manufacturers and price brackets.

    Side by side netbook comparison

    And last night, we thought we’d do a true Top-Gear style road test. We loaded as many as we could get into a laptop bag (a big laptop bag, but could still only fit 7) and trundled them down to a local hostelry with a group of teachers and network managers.

    They passed the first test – they were all working still when we got there!

    And after we’d achieved the necessary preparation (minimum 2 glasses of wine/beer in order to judge!) we set off trying to arrange them from Seriously UnCool to Sub Zero.

    There was plenty of debate as I handed them around – with lots of opinions on keyboard size, style, colour, which paint job was best/worst etc. And although the middle of the chart moved around during the debate, there was no serious debate about the winner and the loser in this discussion:


    Our hero turned out to be the Samsung NC10 (Link), which people thought looked good, felt good, and had the right keyboard and screen. One of the schools there had decided to standardise on it for next year (but kept that quiet until after the judging!), and we could all certainly see why.

    And then in order, came:

    • The Asus Eee PC 1000H (Link) which pipped all of the other similar devices because of its smart pearlescent paint job.
    • The Toshiba NB100 (Link) which divided opinion – some complaining the keyboard and screen was too small (noticeably smaller than the others), but others thinking that made it more convenient.
    • Then the Elonex Webbook in Black (Link), with a flecky metallic finish, followed closely by,
    • The Elonex Webbook in White (Link) which was exactly the same spec, but didn’t have street cred of the black one.
    • Falling a little further behind was the HiGrade Notino L100 (Link), which wasn’t saved by its “England” football team branding.
      (The lone voice of the Welsh on the panel didn’t shift the vote too far backwards!)

    But the device that created the most discussion (but not debate) was the Fizzbook from Zoostorm (Link)

    It started off well, with somebody observing that it looked like it might be good primary schools, because it “looked like it could take a battering”, and its in-built carrying handle would be “natural to take to class”. But then opinion moved around quickly. After the observation, put kindly, that it is “astonishingly retro”, and looked a little too “Fisher Price”, one of the teachers observed that in the hands of secondary school students, the handle would be a problem “The kids will feel like they’re being told to carry it by the handle, so they simply wont”. And the final nail in the coffin came as one panellist loudly declared “I’m not touching that, it looks like a handbag”. So Fizzbook, you might have a cooler name than some, but the panel simply couldn’t pull you out of the ‘Seriously Uncool’ box!

    So well done Samsung NC10, you stood out a mile. And sorry Fizzbook, better luck next time.

    This wasn’t the most scientific process, and we might even have been unfair to our losers. But it did illustrate that there are netbooks, and there are netbooks, and it pays to look around before deciding which one is right for your students.

    Thanks to the panelist – Mike, Dave, Dave, Alan, Sharee, Mark, Pippa, Stuart, Chris and Rory. And thanks to all of the people that lent us the netbooks.

    Oh, and sorry for the beer stains on the keyboards…

  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    The first day of BETT


    Phew, what a day. 6 months of planning, 90 people to co-ordinate with, and suddenly, it arrived. The first day of BETT. As I mentioned earlier in the week, we had a number of exciting things at the show, including a demonstration of the Surface, and a netbook Wall of Cool. I’ll have a few pictures to share tomorrow, but for now a quick run down of how the day went!

    As usual Schools’ Minister Jim Knight opened the event with a reflection on where we’ve got to with ICT and learning, and where we’re going next:

    • He chose to show three of the videos that we created last summer as part of the Innovative Schools deep case studies (read more about them in this earlier blog post). The videos are all stories of change, in the words of parents, learners and school staff – sharing their journeys of change, the lessons learnt, and the impact on their school community. The stories of parental and student engagement at Broadclyst Primary School, Bowring School and Shireland Academy are all good examples will illustrate the benefits of using ICT to widen the learning community, and especially to get parents more engaged with their children’s learning.
    • A little later he announced the launch of a new independent foundation, in partnership between Becta and Microsoft, to support the Home Access Programme. The full details of this are on the Becta news website, but here’s a couple of clips from the announcement:

    "Becta, the education technology agency, will work closely with industry and other interested parties to create an independent foundation, which will administer and distribute industry funds in support of the government's Home Access programme. The idea was proposed by Microsoft in response to the government announcement made in September 2008 and the foundation is open to other organisations who wish to get involved.

    Stephen Crowne, Chief Executive of Becta, said:

    "We need to ensure that every learner has an equal chance to tap into the benefits of the internet to enhance their learning – and the Home Access programme seeks to do just that, by offering this opportunity to all learners.
    "Getting parents and teachers on board is clearly vital to the success of the programme, so we are really excited about this opportunity to support them, in partnership with the industry. I welcome the leadership Microsoft has shown and am now calling for more leading companies to join us in the drive to support parents and teachers."

    • Over the next few months there will be more detail on the foundation and it’s activity plans, and hopefully more IT companies will join in. But for now it’s a sign that we’re working in partnership with Becta on areas where there’s a clear common goal.

    And then the day really took off – thousands of people coming through our stand, and wanting demonstrations. The theatre was busy as usual, but what I hadn’t expected was the near crush that formed around the demonstration of the Microsoft Surface. It was non-stop almost until the show had finished, and we got the chance to get Jim Knight to try out a Key Stage 2 Literacy Challenge on it (relief – passed with flying colours).

     BBC at BETT  

    We had a visit from Rory Cellan-Jones from the BBC News 24, and Teachers TV filmed Jim Knight using the Surface too. At some points it was difficult to see where the the stand ends and the walkways begin, as people crowded round the Surface and the presentation theatres and spilled into the gangways, but it was fun for everybody (although the presenters are likely to need some TLC for their feet and throats this year)

    And finally the Wall of Cool attracted lots of attention, because it was the place to be able to see lots of different netbooks together, rather than having to trawl the hall finding them on individual stands. We had about 10 out of them out to look at, and a few more in the hands of staff to talk about. I think some people were surprised by the similarities in some (we worked out that four different ones appeared to be exactly the same netbook underneath the paint), and also by the differences they hadn’t expected – like weight, and different perceptions of how robust they appeared. But more on that in my next post.

    So if you’re coming up to BETT later in the week, definitely put the Surface and the netbook Wall of Cool onto your schedule.

    And do say Hi, because as my kids are keen on saying “I’m here all week folks…”

  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    The Microsoft Home Learning Package for Home Access


    Keeping up on the Home Access Programme? Am I making sense so far? Wondering what’s next? Asking what exactly we’re going to do about it? Wonder no longer!

    Along with a number of other companies, we’ve been involved in the Ministerial Task Force for the Home Access Programme over the last year and a half. I don’t know the exact reasons for choosing us, but I’m guessing it’s because we are involved in education, and also involved in the consumer world of IT, and we’re intricately involved in the way that young people use IT in their social life (If you’ve got a teenager, you already know about that it’s easier to IM them down for tea than shouting up the stairs).

    And so we’ve been thinking about the programme for a while. We work with organisations involved with learning in schools, online safety, ICT skills for families and students, and a whole range of other things. So it seemed obvious to bring all of this work together to create what we’ve called the Microsoft “Home Learning Package”. In a nutshell, it means that a parent choosing one of the Home Access computers can opt for a software suite which has all of the key items pre-installed. And ‘key’ in this context means the things that pupils are using across their learning and social life (or, to fit with the trendy marketing moment, their “digital lifestyle and digital workstyle”).

    The package contains the Ultimate edition of Office 2007 (the version that includes Access and Publisher, which is handy for secondary-age pupils) plus the Windows Live Essentials pack, plus access to some of the other key online software and resources (Photosynth, SkyDrive, Virtual Earth, Worldwide Telescope), and then a range of resources to help families who are potentially getting their first online computer:

    • Family Safety Settings – which will allow parents to set limits on their children’s use of the Internet, Messenger contacts, time limits etc
    • Digital Literacy Curriculum – a set of skills training courses covering everything from using word processors, e-mail and the Internet through to digital photography and music.
    • KnowITAll for Parents, a set of award winning resources to help parents keep their children safer online, with a special section for children

    Now some of these resources are free to download, but the bit we’ve done as part of the Home Learning Package is to ensure that parents can get them all pre-installed as one simple package, and to be honest I think that’s pretty useful. Whenever I get a new computer, I’m used to downloading my favourite utilities and add-ons, but for most people, having it all in the box to go on day one makes a difference.

    I haven’t seen the price of any of these computers yet, because the shortlist of approved suppliers has only just been announced, but I’m hoping that the price will be pretty compelling (fingers crossed that the price will be as good, or better than, simply buying a copy of Office Home & Student, even though Office Ultimate has got tons more in it).

    Anyway, the details of our software are on our Home Access section on the Education website, which has got a handy FAQ section too

    (If you spot anything missing from the FAQ, let me know and I’ll pass it on to be added)

    And if you’re wondering whether having the Home Access Programme really can make a difference, and you’ve got 3 minutes, take a look at the Broadclyst story below – filmed last summer, it’s staff, pupils and parents talking about the way that learning has changed through having access to ICT at home and at school, and how it is connecting up their learning. There are plenty of other stories like this on the Innovative Schools website

    Reading in RSS? Download the video on this link

  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    Home Access Programme – the basics


    I was just starting a blog post to update everybody on the Home Access Programme, and the latest news. But then I stopped. I wondered “Well, do people know what the Home Access Programme is?” – and a couple of quick phone calls to schools and I realised that there’s a big gap between what most people know, and what ‘the powers that be’ assume everybody knows.

    So here’s my “Dummy’s Guide to the Home Access Programme"* (although, if I was from across the Atlantic, this would be tagged “Home Access Programme 101”.

    Took me ages to work out what 101 meant, until I discovered it was the first module in any course – eg Science 101. Microsoft seems to have taken this to a higher level still, with all of our training tagged 100, 200, 300 or 400 Level. For me, I have a simple inverse rule:

    • I will understand 100% of a Level 100 course
    • I will understand 50% of a Level 200 course
    • I will understand 25% of a Level 300 course
    • On a Level 400 course, I will not even understand the course title

    Anyway, back to Home Access…

    What is the Home Access Programme?

    • A Government programme for England, implemented by Becta, to give children in low-income households access to a computer, support and Internet access
    • It was announced last September that the Government will be funding it with £300m over the next couple of years
    • Parents of children who qualify will be able to claim a “Home Access Grant”, which they can exchange for an approved computer package at one of the approved suppliers
    • Around 1 million children will qualify (the bottom 15% of households by income)

    When does the Home Access Programme start?

    Like all of these schemes, there’s a pilot phase first, from now until the summer:

    • English Local Authorities have already been given the funding to buy computers for ‘looked after’ children only, and they’ll be providing them before April
    • Two local authorities, Oldham and Suffolk, are running the wider pilot, for all qualifying children in their authorities. So families in these two areas will be able to apply for the Home Access Grant from the end of February, and they can then go and choose one of the approved packages from one of the approved suppliers

    The main roll out of the scheme starts in the Autumn, probably from November:

    • All families who qualify will then have the chance to apply for the Home Access Grant, and can then rush down to their nearest approved supplier and walk away with their new computer.
    • The family own the computer – it doesn’t belong to the school or local authority.
    • The grant period lasts for two years (ie that’s when the current money runs out).

    Some people confuse the Home Access Programme with Computers for Pupils (CFP), but it’s quite different, as the CFP programme used education (local authorities and schools) as a channel to families. The Home Access Programme is very different – it is mostly about parents buying directly from an approved supplier, using their Grant – the school isn’t directly involved.

    How are schools involved in the Home Access Programme?

    • The model for purchase – parent applies for the grant, the government provides it, and then the family buy from a supplier – means that schools aren’t directly involved.
    • However, lots of good practice from community ICT access programmes, including CFP, shows that schools can make a significant contribution to the effective use of the computer, by providing remote access to the schools learning platform, supporting parental ICT skills development etc
    • I think we’re going to see some schools choosing to get involved – such as providing advice for parents on how to choose the right package, and how to ensure it is compatible with the school’s systems & learning platform (and this would be especially true if the school is considering allowing pupils to connect their own laptops to the school network)

    I’ll stop there, because that’s quite enough info for a Dummy’s Guide, but over the next couple of days I’ll write more about the programme…

    * "Dummy's Guide" rather than "Guide for Dummies" because the first version refers to the writer (me) being the dummy!
  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    Home Access Programme Approved Suppliers


    This post refers to the pilot of the Home Access Programme, for 2009, which has now finished.

    There's now an updated blog post all about the Home Access Programme Suppliers for 2010, which is much more useful to you!

    A little earlier I got my “Dummy’s Guide to the Home Access Programme” done, which I realised I had to do before I could start this next subject.

    It was only an hour ago, so you’ll remember the basics:

    1. Government gives grants to low-income families
    2. Families take Grant card to approved supplier, and swap it for approved computer package
    3. Everybody’s happy
      1. Family is happy because they’ve got a free computer
      2. Kids are happy because they can now IM all their mates, get online, and connect to the school Learning Platform (uhm, well there’s bound to be one or two happy with that bit)
      3. Government are happy because they’re finally getting the last 15% of households with children but no computer, online
      4. Suppliers are happy because after working on the programme (in some cases for 18 months), they’ve finally got a computer off the shelves (which in today’s economy is important, and only fair enough)
      5. Schools are happy because you can now move on from wondering “what could we do with our Learning Platform if we could be sure every pupil had access from home”. Soon, you’ll be able to just do it (imagine, no more letters home, printed worksheets and ‘the dog ate my homework’ * )
    4. And you’ll remember we’re still in the pilot phase until the autumn

    The list of Home Access Approved Suppliers

    On Monday Becta announced the suppliers who had been approved for the pilot programme. Their announcement is here, but the summary info is that the approved suppliers are:

    • Centerprise International Ltd
    • Positive IT Solutions
    • RM Education plc
    • Stone Computers Ltd
    • XMA Ltd

    So this means that from the end of next month, parents in Oldham and Suffolk (the two trial areas) will be able to go to these suppliers to get their approved Next Generation Learning @ Home packages (Name change number 3? We’ve gone from Universal Home Access, to Home Access Programme, perhaps to Next Generation Learning @ Home?)

    I know it’s a pilot, and the purpose of the pilot is to learn things, but one of the early learnings I’m hoping to spot is that some of these suppliers will create partnerships with retail suppliers. I don’t want to stereotype the bottom 15% of income households, but I’m willing to bet that 99% of them have never heard of these suppliers. But they have heard of the main supermarkets, the mobile phone suppliers and the major electrical chains. So perhaps we’ll see these packages offered through these kind of stores. These families don’t have a computer, so they’re not going to be ordering online. And I think it’s unlikely they will turn to the school for advice (again, trying to avoid stereotype, but the demographic research implies that typically these families will not have a lot of contact their local school). So that means the scheme really does need these computers to be on the shelves at their local Tesco or Comet, or another local retailer they would be confident walking into.

    * Now for some fun. If this programme does away with “the dog ate my homework”, what are going to be the new excuses that your pupils will come up with, when they have to submit their homework online. And I’m not talking about the real ones, like ‘Couldn’t get a 3G signal’, or ‘The Internet wasn’t working’. I’m looking for the truly creatively inspired ones. Pop them into the Comment box below (you’ll need to register or login), and I’ll give a prize to the most creative by next Friday (small print, small print, and some more small print. Not valid in Quebec).

  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    BETT is just around the corner…


    Only two days until BETT, and it’s currently all-hands-on-deck to get everything ready for the opening day of the show. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that 80% of the people that come through the doors visit the Microsoft stand – which makes us the busiest stand at the show. And so everything’s got to be right by 10am! Yesterday the first team on site will have started laying the data and electrical cables, which have to be down before the floor is fitted, ready for the structure of the stand. Sometime on Sunday, while I was enjoying the day with the family, somebody will have been crawling beneath the floor with Ethernet cables, connecting our two stands together onto a single network.

    But you probably don’t want to know about that. What your probably more interested in is what the stand will contain. So here’s a summary view of the things you can pop along to see:

    • Microsoft Surfacethe first time in a public event in the UK, and pretty exciting (I’ve been playing with one on-and-off for the last fortnight, and it still makes me smile at how clever it is).
    • The Wall of Cool – a dozen netbooks – small, low cost laptops – for you to look at and compare. Although there are loads of suppliers at BETT, all showing off their latest mini laptops, you can’t visit a stand elsewhere where they are all lined up together. We’re putting them all into our Wall of Cool, so that you can compare them side by side, and you’ll be able to see how their speed, graphics, weight and design vary between manufacturers and price brackets. (I looked at them all on Thursday, and there’s some big differences between them, and some obvious winners in the dozen!). I’m not going to give the game away, so come and take a look yourself. And if you have preferences, drop me an email to let me know how you’d arrange them into your personal Wall of Cool.
    • Plenty of schools talking in the theatre. We’ve got a cracking line-up of schools and local authorities, all telling their own stories of how they’re using ICT to enhance learning. Schools include Broadclyst, Shireland, Twynham, New Line Learning, Warwickshire local authority and Bowring.
    • The Digital Literacy Curriculum – we’ve got an announcement on that on the schedule for Wednesday, so I’ll have to wait until then before I can tell you more than you can see here.
    • And finally, we’ll also be making some announcements about our support for the Government’s Home Access Programme. Some details are already here, but more will be out this week.

    Plenty more to come later, but hopefully that’s enough to whet your appetite. And if you’re coming along, look me out and say hello.

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