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my chair of governors role and contacts I know this applies to primaries as well) their networks are a mish mash of outdated technologies and products the school got sold by some flashy sales guys, but has never been adopted or integrated when they realised either the limitations or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.



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:

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.

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.

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.