Damn you, Netgear.

So our Easter work schedule was pretty manic, perhaps more then expected. We have 3 new ICT work areas now, and they have seemed to fit in quite well, no drama there – infact with WDS in place, it was easy, and other then tell techs what to name the machines, I had no input in the actual build of the PCs.

No, my Easter was taken up worrying about the infrastructure work going on around the site. Due to the arrival of some 387 tablets, I had taken the opportunity to upgrade our switches from aging Allied Tellison to Netgear, on the recommendation of our usual infrastructure partner. I had spoken to Netgear at BETT, but I hadn’t really come away that fussed, they appeared to be offering better kit then HP, and my guy was confident in their kit.

The main selling point is that they could run 10GB over our existing OM1 fibre, meaning, we could use our 8 core run to have an 80GB backbone effectively (we have not yet, I hasten to point out!)

So, all goes well, we included in some work for tidying our second biggest cab as well, and moving it all into a nice new cab. We also VLAN off the CCTV, and the wifi, ready to enable Aerohive to manage the DHCP Scope for the wifi clients – enabling us to solve the problem of running out of IP addresses.

Apart from an issue where a switch wasn’t connected back to the VLAN 0, the start of term goes well, until the end of the first day – and the contractor, whilst investigating a newly dead port asks to restart one the main switches, with 10GB link module.

Stupidly, I said yes. It turns out, the switch had crashed, and didn’t like it when new cables were plugged in, simply not detecting them.

Safe to say, the switch did not restart. Even taking it out, and trying to get into the console only confirmed the kit was dead.

So, you would think getting a replacement was easy? It was only a day old anyway really, and we hadn’t even had it delivered for that long. Well, you have probably guessed, it wasn’t.

I took a punt and ordered the switches from Softcat, knowing they had a good relationship with suppliers, or so they claimed. Of course, the true colours of any supplier comes out when something goes wrong, and Softcat would not direct replace. We had to talk to Netgear.

This I did, and after a 30 min product registration was told I could send it back to Netgear, and they would then dispatch a second had refurb unit – or – in the unlikely case I didn’t want to replace my 1.3k switches for a refurb, I could give a code to SoftCat to send me out a new device.

Well, it appears Softcat and Netgear, then had an argument, and much to my annoyance the new switch almost got delayed again. Softcat, in fairness, did send one out pre 10 am, but still, the whole process was frustrating, and made me accutely aware that we need to ensure that we have hardware on site to manage the situation again if the kit dies. You can have all the server redundancy you want, but don’t forget your switches! As servers are useless without them!!

 

 

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Expectations

Unrealistic expectations from users is a common theme of tickets and conversations in any IT support team. Our users, as consumers do, demand that products work to their exact specifications.

Unfortunately, the world of IT isn’t like that – it is often ‘best fit’ solutions that are in place. As much as it surprises some members of staff, we cannot command developers to include our specific wants in SIMs, or Windows, or Office.

These demands to get it working how users expect it, or to fix an issue that has no fix get bigger as IT systems are used more. Because of the impact our support and development has had at the schools we manage – IT is critical to their day to day function, and complaints are louder and more complex then ever before.

When networks are just left to ‘run’ the wants and expectations from staff die out with any enthusiasm they had for using IT.

So, in effect, these unrealistic expectations are proof you are doing your job right. Managing them is a key tool in continuing your networks development. Don’t just say ‘no’- offer alternatives – but don’t shy away from ensuring staff have an understanding of how software development works that they understand how unrealistic their demands and expectations of you are. No doubt, you will share their frustrations – make sure they know this too.

I always point staff to the fact that we never stop evaluating, to ensure we learn when things do go wrong. They go wrong for many different reasons, and staff need to know what these are. So when things go wrong (like internet outages) make sure you inform them of the reasons (even if it is you) – if users understand this more and more, it makes dealing with outages and issues so much easier.

For instance, our new deployment of tablets hasn’t defaulted to the existing iPads, iPads were the wrong choice. So when we get the demands (like today) to rewrite iOS to actually be Windows, we can point out that we have let someone else do it, and just bought windows tablets.

On the flip side, don’t expect people to care or want to understand too much. They are not you, and they will come back to the fact, it’s your job to get their IT working.

 

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Projects Update

So it is getting closer to Easter, an unusual time for me to have big projects on the go, but with our new financial year as an academy running alongside the academic year, Easter, and not the summer holidays is the key time for things to be done.

This will be a bit weird, and somewhat demanding – but at least we can say the summer term is for testing, summer holidays for rectifying and Autumn term for go live for any major projects.

Project 1: 387 Windows 8.1 Tablets & Complete infrastructure upgrade

This project involves deploying 16 tablets in most classrooms, and then some additional bookable trolleys around the school. I have worked closely with MillGate to get this one right.

It has been quite a big job with many different elements, for instance, an upgrade of our internet to 100mb for the extra use.

Over Easter we are upgrading, and Vlanning our switches, to give us a 10GB backbone, and more redundancy. The aim is the aerohive wifi should also start dishing out its own IPs to help us not run out of IPs

We have gone for Netgear, purchased via Softcat and installed by M&J Data Networks. Some £10k of switching gear is ready to roll out…

The tablets themselves, after a few early hiccups at VeryPC and the end of TAP, are on their way to us early April, with the first one currently at work as I wonder how on earth to image it.

I am currently thinking the only real way to image something that wont PXE boot is to create a custom image on 20 Memory sticks, which will join them to domain via their USB to NIC adapters and then deploy software via GP. That is tomorrows job however…

Our wall mounted cabinets are on the way, which means I need to go around classrooms and find out who will need additional power for charging units.

As nobody owns rooms in our school, over Easter I plan to take a picture of all the locations and then let staff check and feedback.

Project 2: New Rooms

Additional machines are planned for the Staff room, for our learning support area (in a new staff work area) and a small 16 PC ICT room is being remoddled with 8 new PCs and a storage area for trolleys…

This work is a simple as imaging and then installing the new PCs now I have sorted electrics and network installs

Project 3: Main Network Cab #2 Refit

The old server room, is now a backup server room, with, funnily, all our backups in it. It is air-conditioned and it has a cab in it for DR – but the switching in it is awful. So a floor to ceiling cabinet is being installed over Easter, with the new switches. It will be much easier to problem solve here.

Project 4: SSD upgrades 

We use SSDs in pretty much every machine, infact, this last batch of machines to upgrade will be the last ones being migrated, so that’s 40 machines to rebuild.

Project 5: Laptop refurbishment

The exisiting rubbish laptop trolleys will be cleaned up and deployed to 3 key areas: SEN, Science and D&T – all places where they will be nursed till their retirement, and rooms that have plugs in for laptops with dying batteries.

So 5 big projects at just one of the 5 schools, the other schools all need UPS shutdown tests, one needs RAM upgrades in its failover cluster, Impero 5 needs to be rolled out at 3 sites and all the usual holiday jobs. In less then 2 weeks, as, being a single parent of 2 I need to spend time with my kids, and the techies have these annoying habits of taking holiday…

Not a long post this time, but hopefully for those looking for inspiration on what others are doing, this might be interesting!

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Fighting talk

Having an IT team to manage is something relatively new to me, I’ve had a tech to manage for nearly 4 years, but I now have a senior tech and 2 technicians, and a 4th I line manage at one of the schools we support.

I have three main ethoses for my team to stick to: “Bodge job are not acceptable” “everyone is learning” and “Because that’s the way it’s always been done is not a reason to keep doing something”

I have worked in a couple of teams prior to managing one, at the first place it was a real sense of being in something together, a clear purpose and a camaraderie which is still there to this day.

My best mate was my boss, and next month I am going to be the best man at his wedding. He instilled in me that a bodge job is not acceptable. It makes an already stressful job harder, as you will always have to fix it at a later stage.

By all means get thing working quickly, but don’t leave it there. Fix it. Change it. Sort it.

At my second school, the environment was different, the management style was different. But it taught me a lot. Some things I would avoid, but one thing I took away was “everyone is learning”

The second school taught me that just because I know it, and it’s easy to me, and it makes sense to me, to other people what I do is an alien world and a completely different language. I got shouted down when trying to roll out new things, I got grief for trying new things because I didn’t explain them well enough, but mostly nobody trusted the third and most important phases my team now lives by:

The most dangerous phase in the English language is “we’ve always done it this way”

I saw this tonight on twitter, and whilst I might not have said it in so many words, it struck a chord on the ethos I have been trying to get for my team, and I’ll be putting a big picture on the wall in the office tomorrow with it on.

You won’t be able to find me someone in IT who has not dealt with that weekly . Even if someone is sat working on a new system you have implemented that they originally opposed, they don’t trust your sinister ideas of change.

All IT people are people who just want to fiddle and make people’s lives harder, because they can. Not for any real reason.

I have been there, I still am on a regular basis – but I have confidence born out of lots of fuck ups, and lots of won battles. Within a month of starting this job, I decided with the head that I would rip everything out. And start again. I’ve done it at 5 schools now.

It’s not easy changing the way someone does their role. But it is precisely because people do not understand what we do that there should be a bit more trust coming our way. I don’t know about heart surgery, but I would sure as hell trust a heart doctor.

We can make things easier and quicker if we understand the bigger picture more, if we get people to trust that we know what we are doing, like people trust doctors. (Do not attempt any medical solutions however, as this will not end well.)

But here is a key point many techies miss: you have to earn that trust. Learn people’s roles, listen to their issue before blindly rolling out change and only then, if you are still sure you are right, push through changes.

At the end of the day, we know how to make things easier with technology. We don’t know how to teach, and we don’t know how to manage sites and facilities or be a TA. We know technology, and the best way to make use of technology is to make it easy. To make it easier to do something. And to do it better.

Sometimes this means you make unpopular choices, and people do not always appreciate them, or why you have made it. But they need to understand your role better, as much as you do theirs.

The bigger picture is key here, ICT is now a whole school system, there is no curriculum and admin side, its all one big mesh. People see their role, not the fact that what works for admin, won’t work in science, or PE or won’t be passed by governors. Or even, is frankly illegal.

My final poster I plan to put in our office is this:

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Like a lot of jobs, being basically the person that people only speak with to tell you things are not working is tough. It makes having a larger team now really quite a good thing to be able to bounce issues and gripes off each other without losing focus or blowing things out of proportion.

But it does make me and my team work hard to get those messages where people are just saying thanks. We get some 200 tickets a week – we get 2 messages a week saying thanks. And that helps us stop being sad and be awesome again

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Why iPad’s just don’t work in Education.

I am not a Windows fanboy. I may have a new Nokia Lumia running Windows 8.1 as my new phone, Windows 10 on my laptop, just ordered nearly 400 Windows 8.1 tablets, and manage over 1200 windows devices – but I am not fan boy. 

I am a fan of technology that just works. Whatever it’s role or aim, if it works I am a fan. I am really a fan when it is a step ahead of my aims, and when I realise the software or hardware’s potential, it has the solutions already there to maximise that potential.

So it stands to reason that I love my iPad. I use it all the time. I think for home users with a bit of money, OSX is a great platform, and I think the Apple hardware is stunningly beautiful.

But lets be clear. They are useless devices for anything but 1-1 deployments, and that makes them useless for education.

Even in 1-1 deployments, they are poor, limited devices.

Lets focus on why they don’t work at enterprise level – and this is quite an easy point – it is incredibly difficult to manage settings, apps and policies on iPads.

No other hardware platform requires you to have actually been part of the team who coded the process to actually understand it and be able to do it (which is two different things, I understand what SHOULD happen, but I cannot actually get it to work)

Getting work off the iPads is almost as hard as getting apps on there. If the device is not yours you have to rely on webmail, or Home Access Plus or similar to send the stuff off – because its not your device, you cannot use the default mail client.

So, you point out to me (obviously I already know this…) iPads are 1-1 devices. Yes! Yes they are kind person. But they don’t have to be. And more people need to understand what they are, to stop pushing them to be something they are not.

Now I know there are apps and 3rd party solutions – Meraki, Lightspeed for example to manage iPads, aircatch and foldr for file management – but this is not the point. For a start, most school NM will agree when I say trying to get Meraki or LightSpeed to work through a proxy is nigh on impossible.

I have never met anyone who has done anything other then get ipads working at a basic level (deploy proxy settings, and deploy apps in some crappy work around way that is not what Apple think should be happening) .

They simply don’t have the time to dedicate to the faffing and learning required. So they may have got a company out, and even they don’t really know what they are doing on deployments on the scale of what most schools require.

What I HAVE knowledge on is (usually) ex-teachers who want to showcase what the iPad can do for a school, get them all fired up and ready to go, and then disappears. Because yes – they are fantastic 1-1 devices and that’s easy to show, but they know the deployment and management on the scale schools need is near impossible.

I have spent today trying to get our new filter (smoothwall) to play nicely with iPads. It work’s great on my windows devices, obviously, even on android ones too. But not iPads. And trying to redeploy new proxy settings to the iPads is apparently impossible.

There are reasons why companies such as Virgin Media, BT and others are deploying Windows Tablets to their staff all of a sudden. And a reason why I am so glad I didn’t blindly go and order 387 of them.

My windows test tablet picked up the same settings as the PCs, all I had to do was log off and on.

Yet still, we have 200 of these iPads, and we are continuing to use them – every teacher and TA has one, and we have clusters and trolleys around the place, they captured the mood of a quick device to use cameras and internet on with a good battery life. And we will keep them just for that, as soon as I have worked out how to get the proxy working.

In a way, we had to have iPads to convince us tablets were the way forward – but I can see their prominence as being the defacto education tablet falling sharply with Windows tablets, and in particular, Windows 10 tablets emerging.

The best places they are effective is staff and TA deployment – funnily enough – where they are 1-1 devices. They do engage pupils as they love the technology and use it at home, and some Apps can do some amazing things – but until Apple grasps what enterprise management is, I am firmly a Windows fan boy.

 

 

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Changing Primary ICT Provision

When I moved from a secondary, to a middle school (years 5-8) I was faced with a primary phase network. By a primary phase network – I mean a network with one thing bolted onto the other, kept going by someone who had been the person who had used computers a bit at home, and their role had morphed into something they were clearly not the right person for. Or supported by county or similar, where not enough time or skill is present.

Staff don’t rely on IT in these situations, because they couldn’t – so in our case at least it was rarely used in lessons, clearly this had an impact on learning outcomes, workloads for staff and progress at later stages.

I sold the idea of a new network to the head of my middle school at the time by selling him a secondary network, for a middle deemed secondary school. What I meant by this was a network with the same level of reliability, flexibility and attention spent on it. Half of the challenge was creating a new network, but the other half was convincing the SMT and staff that this is the way it is actually meant to be. All things that Secondary and high schools mostly realise.

Some staff took no convincing, others resented changes until they saw which way the tide was going. Now they are, rightly so, our biggest critics and our biggest champions. Which is the way I like it.

As we started branching out into first schools (and through my chair of governors role and contacts I know this applies to primaries as well) their networks are a mish mash of outdated technologies and products the school got sold by some flashy sales guys, but has never been adopted or integrated when they realised either the limitations or the county support doesn’t have the time or skills to manage it.

The benefits of rolling out a secondary network into first and primary schools is something I have seen first hand. It’s what the teachers desperately want to enable them to prepare pupils for secondary education. It is what secondary schools need in place at primary level to make the biggest impact across the curriculum later on – but especially in the new computing curriculum.

Networks we have taken over struggled to run anything but office. Security policies and data protection was ignored ‘for the greater good’ – even worse, sometimes the schools simply go overboard in the opposite direction due to a lack of understanding.

One of the most rewarding things I do, and what other schools need, is someone they can ask a few questions to, someone they can tell an outcome, and get a solution that will make it happen.

All 3 of the first schools we support have been less accepting of secondary changes. But now all 3 schools wouldn’t be without them.

“We don’t use email” … “Nobody will use remote access” … are the two most common, swiftly followed by calls (like today actually) when they forget to change their expired password before the holiday and want to use remote desktop or check their email via the Exchange 2013 webmail. We regularly get told now how they cannot live without these things.

I wonder if we took a look, nationally, at the state of first/primary schools IT – and made a real effort to make the IT in them effective, what effect this would have on results and long term budgets. Better results, lower costs, particularity in staffing (because yes, some still pay people to enter marks from a paper register into SIMs)

I strongly believe that an effective IT system is the spine on which schools are now built from. It’ been amazing to transform some schools into secondary networks, and watch them thrive.

Working in a MAC, and I would imagine in other academy changes this is one of the small benefits of academies, that these primary networks are coming under the wing of experienced network managers and support teams, and the SMT that manage them and understand the strategic benefits. Many more SMT are are nowadays of the importance, we are going through a time of change in that respect.

So much so, that the term we are looking for is not a secondary network – it is simply a network, that works.

 

 

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Windows 10 – Why it is so important for education and beyond

 

There has been a familiar pattern from Microsoft in terms of OS’s recently, one good (XP), one bad (Vista), one good (7), one bad (8). So Windows 10 is important.

Microsoft’s largest customer base is corporate clients. Yet, with the failed Vista and 8/8.1 this is exactly who they forgot, and hence (in part at least) why they failed.

In schools, adoptions of new OS’s are met with scepticism. Its a vicious circle we have to deal with as network managers – not regularly upgrading software leaves hardware lagging behind, because it could run the old software. Old peripherals are kept going by old software, and then when a product comes along that requires an upgrade, we are held back by the older software and hardware of yester year.

Schools have for too long kept things running as they are as a result. If you were running XP for 5 years +, the thought of moving to Windows 7, changing everything you have built has meant technicians, network managers and senior management have kept what they have, lived with huge issues and not worked together to move things forward.

Partly, this is down to a lack of a decent alternative to XP for so long, that left technical staff in a rut, many cannot get out of. Be it there lack of enthusiasm for change, or SMT not embracing the change – if you cannot show someone the benefits, they wont motivate to do it. 7 achieved this, but the take up was slow. Partly due to bugs, mainly due to the lack of enthusiasm from technical support teams in schools to embrace it, after the mess of Vista.

I have seen this first hand. My home school took a huge leap of faith with me with a completely brand new 7 network (because their old network was so crap based on outdated software) – the success of this meant I could sell the plan to another 4 schools who were stuck in similar positions, and this was after 7 had been out for 3 years or so

And they made exactly the same mistake with 8 after 7. Its a tablet OS, for home users. Even MS themselves have failed to document it effectively. I am a driver of change, I always want the latest – but not at the sacrifice of reliability and there has to be a reason to move. The best windows 8 offered me was a nice login screen.

So 10 is important, 10 is important because 8 was so short lived 10, if its the right product, could come and mean that people have had to upgrade twice within three years, and that is not a bad thing.

In past years, licencing and cost and adoption at home would all impact take up in schools, but if we put the promises of Windows 10 aside for a moment – we can see how Microsoft are making this the easiest upgrade decision ever for schools, and that is tempting more people then ever to consider a quick adoption. And that, is crucial to the future of IT in schools moving forward.

So how are they changing this?

With EES, Microsoft’s annual licencing subscription for educational institutions – upgrading should now be a much more straight forward business decision. It simply doesn’t cost the additional £90-100 per machine any more to upgrade. A yearly cost, based on FTE includes software assurance, allowing you to run the latest versions of any MS software.

But, confidence in systems is born from the home – and Microsoft has made some strategic decisions here too – particularly in education. For instance, Windows 10 will be a free upgrade (that’s not education specific). Office 2013 is free for 5 devices if you have a child in an EES school.

So Microsoft’s two flagship products, will be easily accessible for those on older OSs to upgrade too.

But the product itself needs to be worthy of these new ways of shipping Windows and offices to the masses of consumer and corporate users.

What is getting me excited about Windows 10

Well, for a start, Microsoft have listened. The OS has corporate users central to their mindset. In fact, benefits for corporate users was the banner that the OS was launched under. Last September they wrote this blog with lots of promises: http://blogs.windows.com/business/2014/09/30/introducing-windows-10-for-business/

Home users are not forgotten, but the stuff we need in corporate environments needs to be embedded from the start, and it has not been before in this way. We, as technical staff can sell this product. And coming so soon after 7, we can hopefully look to convince SMT and governors of the benefits of pushing forward and updating software and hardware regularly. Supported by cheap licencing under EES reducing potential cost barriers.

Its convergence across devices makes a lot of sense, is interface is moving forward but not alienating users.

Everything I have read, and, as I type this on a Windows 10 running laptop, experienced has been exactly what they needed to do.

The right features, the right deployment means we may be about to enter a time where, in education at least, the vast majority of schools run the same OSs, making collaboration easier, software and hardware better and changes and development more focused and faster.

We can hope.

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Project #000000001

Well, at least project #000000001 that I have blogged about. It’s a biggie too.

That OS, everyone has been moaning about as being a failure – Windows 8.1 – well, I have a plan to role that out. To some 387 tablets.

I have a plan that puts 16 of these into every classroom. With the option of booking an additional 16 into the lesson to make 32.

Gone are our laptop trolleys. I have always hated laptop trolleys.With a passion. From a support perspective, they are everything you are told to avoid. But from a teaching and learning resource perspective, they are everything you want in a classroom.

Instant access to technology, to user areas, software and work shares. All in a familiar environment that everyone is used too. This is pretty much what our staff Network Development group told me as we sat down to a pizza.

Schools have tried to replicate that instant access, with tablets, especially iPads, us included with some 200 deployed. And until now, I can promise you, every type of tablet solution fails in some way. You might win some people around to your fantastic iPad setup, but I bet it has its limitations, I bet you have had to train staff in new ways to achieve things that laptops could do easily.

Now, some might argue – that is progress, that is using new technology and people need to adapt, and to an extent – they are right. But at what point does adapting to new technology, which has no future upgrade path or development, stops becoming progress, and starts becoming hassle? When do you count the cost of additional training and all the additional bits to get it to do what a laptop already does with ease.

Don’t get me wrong, there are places and times for these technologies – the app stores and apps themselves, their build quality and ease of use, their battery life are all fantastic, but they are not the only answer to mobile technology in classrooms. They are a great resource, but teachers are looking for more then that. They want integrated IT in their classrooms with no hassle. They see iPads and Android tablets as too far away from their windows desktops to be integrated IT, time and time again we get asked, across all schools, to get iPads to do things that  a laptop could do straight away.

But laptops are not tablets, and tablets have clear benefits to them. Cost, battery life, cameras (the most used features on our iPads, weirdly) among some.

So the answer is clearly Windows tablets then, isn’t it? Windows 8.1.

Our new demo tablet

Well, yes and no. I am walking into this deployment quite blind. 8.1’s deployment in domain environments on this scale are somewhat limited. Tablets which run Windows are still new products, and Windows 10 is on its way (I am sat here writing this on a Windows 10 laptop)

8.1 has been criticised time and again for being a crap desktop OS, and it is woeful, but stick it on a tablet – and understand that it can achieve, with ease, what staff want, and it starts to make sense. More so, when Windows 10 is only going to enhance the solution and hardware further.

In simple terms – people can login and access their files, they can use fully fledged Office programs, no watered down apps. Cameras save straight to user areas for editing on a desktop, and windows runs Chrome, Chrome has flash.

Software deployment is cheap and easy using existing solutions. Site wide licences and EES already cover us. Performance is good, login times under 10 seconds (which Windows 10 should improve on) and office, chrome response times are all acceptable. We don’t have to train staff or support staff again.

Devices? The terra unit’s we are going for, from MillGate and VeryPC, come in at sub £200, with a mouse and keyboard.

I may be mad, but the order is in. 16 in every classroom, and additional trolleys of 16 to make class sets when needed. Even PE are getting 16.

I plan to blog through the process, so take a look at those when they arrive.

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Blogs are so 1999

I started this website in 1999. So, some 16 years later, after it being the home of my own company for the last 7 years – I am giving it another shot as a blog. 120 characters on the twitter (@msetchell) just doesn’t seem to be enough sometimes.

And I have something I can talk about as well now. I have a job. A job that has evolved over 10 years, into something that I now actually, usually, enjoy.

I have done my stint as toner changer, and done my stint as the bloke pointing out to ever more perplexed teachers that their projector is in the ceiling, and is integral to something displaying on their IWB, and so should really be switched on. Whether they like it or not.

I avoid that on a daily basis. Avoid is probably the wrong word. It doesn’t happen any more. I work across 5 schools managing every aspect of their IT and I pride myself on making IT work in classrooms and in SMT offices. I manage a team that prides itself on making exciting IT a reality.

So that’s what this blog will be about. About things I/we are doing, and things we have done, or not done. I don’t expect people to pay attention, so feel free to carry on, or become part of the conversation.

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