BETT 17 in review – Part 2 – Capita SIMs, Epraise, Home Access & Registration

I went to Bett 17 with some specific tasks in mind. For a few years now, at my home school we have operated Tasc Software’s Insight – allowing parents to contact staff, update personal information, view reports and book their parents’ evening slots.

On the whole, this has gone well, uptake is high and we have now gone paperless – meaning for the vast majority of parents this is the only way they can get at booking slots and their reports, for example.

Lots of schools shy away from these systems, worried about those without internet, and forcing parents to use the internet to access vital information – but without such an all or nothing approach, uptake would be too small to make it worthwhile and gain savings. Of course we cannot exclude those without internet access, however, the actual numbers of those without access to any internet enabled device is incredibly low, and so, by doing it this way – we simply only have to cater for the very few (if any) parents without connectivity.

The key is accessibility and simplicity. Two things I think our current setup misses – we have Epraise, Insight and ParentPay, all with different usernames and passwords. This is overload for most parents, and certainly when they approach us for support, they are often confused as to which system they need access to and why.

So, at BETT one of my key aims was to simply the experience for parents. This would either means combining and therefore reducing systems or ensuring the systems are unique enough, and had some way of sharing login details.

Of course, sharing login details comes with problems between systems that you need to ensure are verfied accounts, you couldn’t, for example, allow Facebook login which would be the ideal!

So, my idea was to try and combine all these aspects into one. Also to find a system that visually was appealing and accessible, and that took less time to manage.

I found a solution in two ways – firstly, a very timely email from Epraise founder and developer and all around nice chap Ben – about a potential parents evening add on for the already fantastic Epraise product. Epraise, an online points based achievement system is already well liked and used by staff. The system has some unique touches in terms of teaching tools that staff love – parental access is already enabled, and the parents evening module would be an extension of this, albeit a till under development feature, I have high hopes. This would mean, we could get rid of Insight if we could find an effective way to manage and change parental details.

And along comes the new SIMs parent app. Now, like Microsoft in my previous blog, I have always avoided Capita at BETT, they make SIMs, and for the most part, I have had to go on a steep learning curve with SIMs. However, over the years I have been impressed with what I have been able to achieve, in what is clearly a complex area to be an MIS supplier in. Let’s not hold back, the interface of SIMs is terrible. Users hate it. And with good reason. But the thing is, Capita know this.

It may have taken sometime, but I actually sense this has been known in the backround for a while. I got to speak to Phil Neal at BETT, and listen to the presentation on the future of SIMs, seeing an online version of SIMs set to launch late 17/early 2018 – which clearly shows the hardwork going on to make the system easy to manage (web based) and more visually appealing. Phil confirmed that this has been something they have been working hard on.

The thing is, though, if you have been using some of the add ons to SIMs, for a while now, you will see that UI has been improving. Indeed, Discover has a very nice UI and is a fantastic visual tool. Even Intouch, for sending a message, its a usable and fairly intuitive UI, if a little ugly – but the apps have been very visually appealing, the UI and usability of the staff app has actually been its major selling point.

In other news, I am putting forward plans to stop using biometrics for registration – and look to user the class teacher app. It is now tried and tested, and offers other options (like behaviour logging and assessment) all in one app. As all our staff have iPads, will be much quicker registration then bio, and also encourage iPads to be in every lesson and so use the Epraise app too.

Back to the new parents’ app – it simply makes updating personal information, seeing attendance information, reports and behaviour very easy. I have always found it hard to be sold on an app, because of its availability to all – but Capita have this covered with android, Windows and iOS versions ready to go made this another timely release for us. Meaning we can, over the next 6-8 months transition from 3 systems to 2.

There is still a market for a product that can do it all, and do it all well. But I don’t think that has been developed yet. I would rather have 2 systems doing it well, then one doing it bad.

It’s great to see that Capita are working on the interface issues and usability being a central theme of their development. I look forward to the day of no more rolling SIMs out, with updates just being done, like we already have with epraise.

In that respect, I had a fantastic talk with Ben from Epraise (ironically we met on the capita stand!) – it’s great to be able to meet and talk about developments with him. What Epraise has achieved in our schools is one of the biggest success stories of my time there. The system has engaged kids, parents and staff and made achievements visible. But it’s great to see the system always in development, and those developments actually being useful.

BETT 17 in Review – Part 1 – Microsoft

After spending 3 days at BETT 2017, I feel like I have walked up and down the aisles of the excel centre too many times to count. But was it worth it?

First things first, BETT is not a trade show, if used right – the seminars and meetings it creates are all about how to utilise technology better in education. Sure, some solutions you might not know and want to buy afterwards, but the show is firmly focused on how to enrich teaching and learning by IT. There is actually very little infrastructure presence at the show, and on the hardware side, I don’t actually think I saw any stands just selling bog standard PCs.

I am going to be writing a few blogs, including about the future of Capita SIMs, their apps and a few other bits from them, as well as VR and it’s place in education – but this blog is focusing on Microsoft @ BETT

This year I managed to sit in on a range of seminars, mostly at the Microsoft Education stand. I remember when I went to BETT a few years ago, I always avoided the MS stand. Microsoft made windows and office. I knew about it, and how it worked.

Apart from I didn’t, and to be fair, I am still only scratching the surface. The developments Microsoft are making in terms of their software, and how they can be used in education are immense. I have talked about One Note before, and it appears I haven’t even scratched the suface of what it can do, but the collaboration options in office online, the safe space that is Yammer, Microsoft Forms, Sway. Office 365 and One Drive itself are all incredible bits of software, that I don’t think many schools are really embracing yet. We certainly aren’t.

 

 

There are lots of reasons for this, that I have tocuhed on in other blogs – but briefly they come down to the fact teachers have priorities now that don’t make trying new things easy and as a team, we have been tasked with growing our support base and the service we offer to more and more schools.

In fact, the vast majority, of what staff should be using and doing on a PC can be achieved in the MS products.

Windows 10 is a key link in this, but the fact is, MS products can be used over a whole host of devices and operating systems, utalising the cloud, but working well with onsite solutions. I know there are plenty who will want to compare with Google solutions, but, I don’t think you can when it comes to user satisfaction and adoption. In my case, moving to Google apps would cause that much disruption, that in the current climate, I simply wouldn’t be able to do it. But apps such as One Drive, One Note and their online variants and built in to the current eco system, and therefore use of them is so much easier to enable right now.

But these tools are not just tokens or one hit wonders,  they are incredibly powerful, Microsoft have really stepped up a gear, and I am totally, unashamedly, buying into their ecosystem. All the products are linked, the familiar layouts being replicated allow the wealth of indepth new features to be useful and used without even realising.

Another huge benefit is as a school these are being part of our EES subscription and that makes them a cost effective solution.

The thing is, these tools are moving so fast, but my users are still thinking about using Smart Notebook or Active Inspire – they still rate them as being great pieces of software – when if you look at the software coming out of MS, and the speed of developments – they are missing so much.

So I have come away from BETT thinking about how important it is to make sure staff get the CPD they need, all year round, non stop. Not just when they have a spare hour on the TED day or a new system.

Without this, we can’t expect staff to take advantage of the new software available to them and therefore use IT better in the classroom. Simply put – thats not on their agenda right now – so we have to make it so easy for staff to get and pick up these skills – in small chunks that make a real difference and makes their day to day life easier – if we are to get them adopted.

Being able to use One Note and class pages to decimate information, mark work quicker and easier on any device, to allow and support less able children to get more from their class work. To make lessons more engaging that behaviour issues are reduced. To make staff excited about using the tech again, and making it just work on any device is key.

That’s why I am going to be offering regular CPD for staff at all the schools, with an ever changing catalog of skills. Staff will be encouraged to become Microsoft Innovative Educators with our support and the fantastic MIE website and we will offer inhouse training on lots of other software.

That is why I am going to take a step away from tickets, and focus on skills development in schools. By building staffs confidence in trying new things, they will need support less. But if we are focusing solely on tickets, that simply wont happen because schools need us to drive the new technology.

So there we are. I think that made sense. I am pretty tired!

 

Bett 2017

The time of BETT is on us. After a years hiatus, I am back for three days to take in the huge extent of the UKs largest Education IT show.

For many, BETT is a vital part of the year, allowing people to meet up, attend various events, or just browse the wide array of suppliers.

For me, BETT is a core part of CPD, infact, the only one the school provide. Everything else I source myself outside – but BETT, and being able to spend 3 days there is by no means a holiday.

I get ideas and contacts I utilise for meetings and development plans over the next year. Even now, 2 years after my last visit, I still refer to products and solutions I found whilst there.

It’s not really about specifics for me. It’s trends. It’s in depth conversations about potential. I have a pretty good grasp on whats here now, and a lot of stands that come and go are just reselling what has already been and gone – but there are gems of potential every year.

This year my focus is on MAC (the catholic equivalent of a MAT) connectivity (MPLS), MIS solutions for MACs, better software for engaging with parents (Is the Insight S/w we have from Tasc Software still the best fit?), Communication solutions (Is Intouch going anywhere in terms of development?) Computing resources – in particular Lego. Assessment management. OneNote on the MS stand and projection developments.

Follow me on Twitter (@msetchell) over the next week for my tweets, and I plan to write a blog post each night from my days there.

 

2017 Goals

Well, it’s a new year, and having read countless posts on facebook each starting with the phrase: “2016 has had its ups and downs” I wanted to look at some professional goals and some technical things to look for over the next year.

All that is made a lot easier now I have banished the lovely hackers from my WordPress install. But I guess that brings me to the first main aim for 2017

  1. Staying secure

It’s a simple aim to state, but unless you have been living underground for the last god knows how many years – you can’t miss the fact that hackers are getting clever and more successful.

The worrying trend in education, is that now more then ever we are being actively targeted, and, with users knowledge levels lower then ever whilst being able to do more – and their seemingly blind trust in something being legit because it’s ‘work’ – we are having to work harder then ever to provide optimal solutions that allow users to use the network, but not bring it down.

So in 2017, we are refocusing on security. Understanding the levels of access that we are giving people to enable broader use – and more then anything – educating our users. We can have as many technical solutions in place as possible, but we really need to educate users so they understand what is happening, and what to trust.

Even saying that, scammers and hackers are actively tricking users who follow our advice. It also impacts users confidence when we are…

2.  Getting users to try new things and self support

Half the issue we have now, is that users fallback to the easy way out. As soon as they hit a problem, no matter what the size, they call IT support. They know we can and will fix the issue, no matter how daft, and they know we will do it quickly.

The problem with that is, their skills do not develop. They can often fix things (loose cables, restarting machines) when we enter a school with poor IT, through necesity. Now they have an IT support team, they don’t have too, and so don’t. This is understandable, with increased work loads – but it brings with it a real sense of frustration to me. Users don’t try with IT anymore, they don’t try to fix it, and in my experience the vast majority don’t try anything new.

Whereas before, this was because they couldn’t – now it could almost be from saturation. Why learn something new when they have a reliable system that works?

It also leads to a sense of rudeness from some users at times, without, I suspect, even realising it. They are so used to it working, when it hasn’t, they panic and are not prepared, especially when IT is so relied on when implemented well.

When a manager covered one of our meetings and saw how tickets were worded – he was quite taken aback. It takes nothing to be polite in a ticket or an email – and our staff deserve to be treated with respect, I often wish people could spend a day in our shoes – I have live tweeted days in the past to show the workload, but now we are too busy to even do that – the business is not the problem, the lack of understanding, politeness, and useful information put into tickets often is – for example – no locations, no error messages, wanting instant responses no matter what the hour…

In 2017 I would like to fight a mindset, from staff besieged by deadlines and tough targets and challenging kids, that they know everything IT can do. That anything new is just a faff or a phase that will pass and that the underlying tech they know and love, can’t and won’t change. And that they cannot make it happen.

As the IT experts in schools, we need to be bringing targeted change to staff. We need to show them what is new, the benefits and not be afraid to tell them when they need to move on from outdated and no longer supported software. More on that in a moment.

We also need to be making sure that IT is available. That it is embedded, and that staff have confidence to use it. That’s something that needs to be supported from SLTs and SMTs. Importance should be placed on innovation and training. In these times of tight budgets, are schools using their IT effectively to get the outcomes they require? I can promise you the answer is no, to varying degrees of course.

3. Upgrade to new software, and get rid of the old.

We do not need to bend backwards to support legacy software. This is something that has got me into… ‘heated discussions’ recently. Staff afraid to move on, not understanding that just because a piece of software is working on their system now, that it always will.

We should be pushing staff to use lots of software, to harness new software and ideas when updating planning and resources. To do this – they need to have up-to-date CPD. To give them the confidence, the software should be engaging and relevant, and that takes time to research and implement and support – another reason why schools need teams, not individuals to run IT. This is a completely different job to fixing PCs, this is strategic, and, missing in a lot of schools. Event’s like BETT are not appreciated enough as being useful for a wide range of staff, not just IT.

On a bigger scale, the reliance on the safety net for many staff of their old favourites – mainly down to the gap in between upgrades from Windows OS’s and office versions means a shift to Windows 10, and in another hop, upgrading to Server 16 over the next 12 months need to be handled sensitively. Staff do not feel they have the capacity or the need for change to the OS that works. But that is not a reason not to change, if anything, it is the opposite.

Someone asked me on twitter today: why upgrade to Windows 10? – answer? Because if it works effectively and there is no reason not too – we shouldn’t not move forward.

Our users will be using Windows 10 at home, and we should make that common place in our schools, because that is progress. We should find reasons to upgrade, because the more people moving forward, the better. The more of us on Windows 10, the better it gets, the more we can support each other.

I am not advocating upgrading for upgrading sake – but I am rather saying find a reason not to upgrade, rather then ask for a reason to upgrade.

4. Saving money and giving the best service

In 2017, we need to be showing value for money in everything we do, budgets are tight for staffing and infrastructure. We cannot push forward with innovation blindly.

We should look at ways to save money, MAC/Ts should be looking at how they can get the best out of staffing to support their network. Getting the best out of staff is more important then ever. This may mean higher pay to keep, promote key staff, but a well motivated IT Support person, with career progression, respect and drive – is worth 2 low paid and unenthusiastic IT staff.

Creating teams, that support more people and devices, but in a more efficient environment and structure is key to this. We can support, in my team, over 3000 users, with 6 people. 6 people? Over 8 locations? If you look back at BECTA guidance, you would cry. But, we do it, and we do it well. We do it with some 300 tickets a week closed too.

These teams then streamline infrastructure. There are so many ways schools can benefit from this, from just getting the most out of purchases, to continual upgrades and updates to create robust and growing networks that fit to, and help shape, education in 2017.

5. On a personal note

This year is 5 years since I have been working at my current school, growing our supported schools by 2 a year, increasing the team year on year and making more impacts year on year. I have learnt so much, and I find myself growing professionally and personally all the time, be it from the positive environment at my schools and within my team or the fact I am making headway out of a really rubbish personal situation.

I have had professional goals in previous years, whether it be growing the team, growing the schools and the income, but this year I am just focused on making a positive impact. Will I manage more schools? Probably. More people? Yes. Will there be new challenges? Yes.

And that’s why 12 years later, I still enjoy my job. Because I cannot, and won’t sit still with it. I don’t always get it right, but it’s not through lack of trying!

Of course, like most bloggers (if I can even call myself that) I actually want to blog more. I will give it a go. No promises on that one though!

No comments whilst I deal with locking down this blog, but, feel free to discuss with me on twitter – @msetchell

 

Surface Pro 4 + One Note = About time!

I know, I know, I haven’t blogged for ages. And I do actually have lots of things to blog about – what with launching a whole new school’s network recently, and our new offices and a fair bit more, but, the thing is – none of them compare to this.

I took a plunge the other day, well, work did on my behalf, and I got a Surface Pro 4 for myself. But, whilst the hardware is impressive, its how Microsoft has developed the One Note app which is making it money well spent.

My role has developed now so much into meetings. Meetings about meetings, pre meetings and after meeting meetings. Earlier this year I found myself really struggling to keep afloat, I would be in meetings all day, get home, sleep occasionally and wake up the next day and have forgotten the important bits of meetings. Often I had scraps of paper everywhere, and I would never find them or look at them again.

So I brought myself a notebook, and I stole a pen. This worked well for a while, apart from one thing: I would never had the notebook at home or on the move. And I ran out of paper anyway. And some things were confidential and not really good to put in a note book.

All that, and I am a network manager. I am supposed to get people excited about IT. And I had a notebook and cheap pen.

One Note has been on my radar for some time, our support teams Wiki was replaced by it over the summer, and we trained teachers in it earlier this year. The idea of being able to add a range of content, quickly and easily and share at ease on any device is very powerful. But, how do you get that data on there?

I have an iPad. But, I don’t take it to meetings, I can’t take notes on it – and even if I could they are on my iPad, unless I have another device that can read the note file, or they are just a boring email to myself.

I have a laptop, but that is heavier then my notebook, and the battery wouldn’t last as long as my pen.

I have a windows tablet. But, it doesn’t work that well. Doesn’t have a stylus. It’s a wannabe laptop, that struggles to perform. It’s keyboard is a compromise.

What I needed was some hardware that was a tablet form, but as powerful as a laptop. Something that would let me use the pen and touch features for quick use in a meeting (I type faster then I write, but sometimes writing in a meeting is a lot more polite then sitting there and tapping away)

What I needed was a piece of hardware and software that combined all of these elements, and didn’t have a compromise in sight. I wanted what I had been promised for years, I wanted the future and I wanted it now.

The Surface Pro 4:

Is a mean piece of kit. Not cheap, £700 ex VAT with the KB (not sold with it apart from educational bundles) – but it is quality, the screen is of a quality I haven’t seen before. The right size, the right ratio.

The touch screen element, and the pen – just work. No caveats. The pen is everything you have hoped all the previous pens for tablets could be. It’s not just an after thought, and it’s not just hanging by a piece of string for you to tap the screen, no, your finger is the blunt point device, the pen allows you to write like on paper, to build pages of notes effortlessly on your device, and if you are an artist, to draw some fabulous things I would imagine. As it is, my stick figures are doing well.

The folding keyboard feels as good as a laptop keyboard, which was important for me, because it a) cost £109 and b) is something I will be using a lot. It has taken almost no time to adapt too, and it had large keys for my fat fingers.

So the hardware is pretty good visually and to use, inside I have 4GB and an i5, which is the base model, and it runs well. Not noticed it being slow at all. It is also silent!

The Software

Windows 10 is now well established, I have to say, it’s annoying as hell for me at times, but I believe that is mostly down to intial bugs, and when I have updated the OS it does get better and better, I had to do a few updates to the surface to get it to work well, but 10 is built for tablets, and the suface is built for windows 10. Of particular note is Windows Hello, the fact that I just have to look at the screen for it to know its me and unlock.

However it is One Note that steals the show, and turns this into a nice to have tablet come laptop which is all about the hardware, to hardware that is about the software and the end user.

One note is best described as a … well, I am not sure what category of software it fits into, as there is nothing else like it. My colleague has been raving about it for months. “Look” he will say “that’s on one note!” with his iPad in his hand, and yes, it will be on there, but my notebook wasn’t very good at opening One Note, because it was made out of paper. And the pages made on the iPad, looked not great and were difficult to work on. I needed something I could create on.

With One Note, you make a collection of pages, and each page is like a page in my notebook, I can write and type on it, but I can also draw. I can take a photo with the Surface Camera and import it into it. But I can also take snippets of web pages, build linked pages, I can embed documents and lots more I don’t even know about yet.

For example, today I had a performance Management meeting, I had a collection of reference documents, and I wanted to make notes. I did it all in One Note, and, its already synced to my PC and Laptop, to my phone and my iPad.

I just opened my page, and I could see the documents. I can share those notes with others for collaboration – it just works. It does everything I need it too, without the hassle.

392efec6-1f94-412e-a5aa-526ca39e6881So why am I really excited about the Surface and One Note? Because it just works. Because, its built for content creation on the move. it’s built for collaboration and its built for multi purpose. And it does it in style, with a battery that can last a day. It is not a laptop with a pen, or a tablet with a keyboard. It’s all of those things, and it does them all well.

For someone who spends all day on the computer, and is used to running the very latest spec computers, my bar of interest on hardware is pretty high. I manage something like 2500 devices of various forms. So a new bit of kit is normally functional and boring, it does what it does well.

But the surface is exciting, it is challenging, adaptable and different whilst familiar in that it brings together many different forms into one device. And it does it well, without compromise.

Now here is the bit where I might suggest alternatives, maybe an iPad Pro? It doesn’t come close. And it comes closer then anything else. The iPad Pro is a tablet trying to be a laptop, on iOS which is a tablet OS. The Surface beats it, hands down, as this review ends it:


VERDICT

The iPad Pro is the most capable tablet Apple has ever produced, as a well as a massive canvas for creative types.

But let’s not kid around here – it’s not even in the same category as the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. Whether you gel with Microsoft’s 2-in-1 vision for Windows 10 or not, there’s no denying that it’s a much more capable and flexible device than the iPad Pro.

The Surface Pro 4 is something that you might consider replacing your laptop or even desktop computer with, under certain circumstances. The iPad Pro is something you might consider replacing your iPad Air 2 with.

Both are fine devices, and Apple’s peerless tablet-optimised app ecosystem and peerless hardware design continues to impress on its own terms. But Apple is pitching it as much more than a mere tablet, and it doesn’t quite match up to those laptop-replacement ambitions.

The Surface Pro 4 is simply the more capable, flexible, and downright useful device of the tablets

I am sure there will be niggles. But, right now I do not care. For the first time in years I am excited about the technology I am using, I am taking it to do what I wanted to do with and it is not letting me down or disappointing me somehow like lots of kit has in the past.

This is the real deal. This is how technology should be.

When is a break, a break?

I am all packed up, and ready to depart on a much needed holiday. In 4 years the longest I have had off was a 2 week holiday, which involved me ultimately leaving my car in France, along with a lot of money, a dog dying and 6 hire cars amongst the headlines.

I have booked a week off with my kids and me, being a single dad now, and having a job when I am actually more busy in the school holidays left me having to risk a fine for taking my son out of school for a week.

The orders from school have been clear: have a break, switch off. I understand this, and in an ideal world I would do just that. But I’ve been doing this job long enough to know that my best option is actually to manage contact with me whilst I am off. 

There will be times when my team need to talk to me. I get on well with my team, and know they would only contact me in critical situations. They know they can email and I’ll reply when I can, or if it is a disaster recovery situation, call. 

Of course I have used our tools to delegate roles and work and updated the rota, but even if I didn’t, I am confident the setup we have ensures they don’t need me. (At least for short periods 😉 )

This is where having a team, and particularly an admin assistant work wonders. They know how I want things to work, and they can self manage. They can handle people who want to speak to just their favourite tech and ensure they speak to someone. It’s critical to have these policies in place 24/7 to make holidays easier. 

Doing this means I know jobs won’t be missed in my absence, because I know staff are aware if they don’t ticket, it doesn’t get done – so I know if it’s a ticket it will get seen and not lost in my mailbox. Staff only have the helpdesk number, not my direct line number or my mobile, so I know calls will get answered.

Of course, some people try to get around this, or bemoan it – but I can prove easily the system works. I fact I send out weekly stats that prove it, schools with more tickets are happier – they can see us supporting them. Those with less are more of a concern, they are not using us.

So, whilst I’d love to switch off next week. I know I can be contactable to help my team mates, but not be contactable to the rest of the 7 schools. Will I watch tickets? no. Answer helpdesk calls? no. Emails? Only from team when I can. Why? It helps me relax knowing things are doing okay. And I look forward to returning refreshed and energised knowing where I am and what I need to do. 

Besides, I have no wifi and just a tablet and an iPhone, and I’ll be 3 hrs away. I won’t be able to do to much anyway 😉

Leading out first TED day

Thursday was an important day. I’d been telling my team this for a couple of months. But in a short term where we have battled staff unexpectedly leaving, unbelievable pressure, our highest ever ticket numbers and organising the biggest network rebuild we have ever done in the biggest middle school in the UK – I was nervous if we had the chance to prepare the day I was hoping for.

Right now teachers and management are under more pressure then ever before. Results, finance, staffing, recruitment and retention and many are finding their ways at some point in a conversion or life after conversion to academy.

Indeed, in all of our own schools these issues are being faced.

ICT is, now it’s working effectively in our schools, taking a back seat. This is fine, we can deliver and manage a robust network with support that impresses and cheers up with fast response times. (And I have the figures to back that up – 96% believe we deliver a fast and efficient service. 60% strongly agree we do. )

So Thursday was a TED day at our home school agreed in place of twilight and volunteer sessions. It’s the last day of term and staff were tired and counting down hours.

With these in mind the aim of the day was simple- excite to innovate. Remind staff of the huge resources we have in terms of equipment and staffing. Hands on sessions that provided useful help and allowed time for staff to get to try it and learn it. Nothing too complicated.

Starting the day off with Disney tunes – on the preface of it was different and made people smile = we entered into a 1hr intro. Get the important info in before breaking off, network and staffing update, survey responses.

Then, into Twitter for staff – real CPD opportunities and support for staff already working above and beyond was, I hoped welcomed. No action required but an insight to possibilities.

Followed by three sessions, with groups divided by ability.

WordWall and tablets.

We have had wordwall for 2 years and use is very low. We have since rolled out at first schools and deployed 400 tablets, so a whole new angle to come at. With tablets in classrooms instantly available – wordwall is THE solution to integrating IT into lessons easily. Collaborative working and sharing materials again lessens the burden on tired staff.

OneDrive, OneNote and Skype for classrooms.

 All our teaching staff a TAs have iPads. We have 110 for students. The ability for onedrive to to now simplify the sharing and editing of documents across platforms and the offer of free office for staff and students really went down well with staff. Combined with a demonstration of OneNote staff could see the future, now. Collaborative anywhere working to suit them with minimal hassle.

Skype for classrooms was as simple as a video introducing the possibilities. And the offer of us doing everything else to set it going for staff.

And then came our final session: minecraft edu.

Minecraft edu is a future learning tool. There are no clear, quick and easy uses at a middle school, but there are exciting possibilities to use the tool within existing scopes of work now staff are at least aware of it.

An easy session, where you can easily see those open to possibilities and those who hide behind a shroud of “it’s beyond me”

The thing is – in our school ICT is integral. And I reaffirmed that our support team, 7 strong with 3 tiers is theirs for use.

My principal have me the best compliment the other week- “you are not like normal network managers”

Gone are the days where we can hide in our offices. We are part of the learning system, our systems enable – and we can’t deploy and expect we should teach and develop.

The techs were well out of their comfort zone doing these sessions – but now relish the opportunity of seeing their ideas help pupils learn.

I’ve never been prouder to see the ideas I planted 4 years ago on Monday reach this stage. The impact we have is immense, the success rarely celebrated – the failures thrust into us and remembered for much longer.

Am I proud I’m not a normal network manager? You better believe it. My staff are not normal technicians. We pick the people and train the tech because the people are what you can’t train. That’s why celebrating success with them is very enjoyable and as good as when we rally around each other when we fail.

Budgets, or the lack of…

For lots of schools budgets are being squeezed like never before.

IT expenditure, like all departments are being cut, in some cases obliterated and in some cases were never a lot to start with.

The thing is, you don’t have to spend all your budget on new kit, on new software to make IT work for your school.

First things first – rationalise that budget. Look at the whole picture. You will probably find there are many hidden costs to your IT expenditure – what websites do subjects buy a sub too without telling IT? Can they be combined into one platform offering multiple subjects at a cheaper whole school rate? Do purchases go via your network manager to check for cost, compatibility and whole school overview feedback?

What about departments buying hardware? Does it fit into your whole school plan? Did 5 classes or departments buy headphones last year? Why not buy a whole school set and place them on a booking system?

Spending on CPD just because the head of computing fancies finding out more? Have you asked your network manager for their view? Can then provide expertise or experience, or know a school that can cheaper then the CPD? 

Are staff even using what you have? Can you measure usage? Can you see impact on outcomes because of that spangly new kit? Have staff been trained? Was it relevant? Did you combine a technical overview and a t&l overview of benefit?

Did you buy kit according to a budget plan? Being ahead of the curve of failures reduce the spend on repairs – increase usage and means staff don’t loose faith in old kit. If someone has told you to replace but you still see the kit still working, don’t assume it’s fine. 

When you do buy kit – do you have suppliers who know you and your school? Do you know your schools needs? If you have no one onsite, do other schools? I have saved schools thousands by knowing the right suppliers.

Do you fall for sales pitches? Most educational software is crap. Most sales people know the words to use. 

Does it replicate something you already have? Does it integrate well? Does it force another username and password? Does it require Staff time to migrate data where another product imports existing data? How does it role out? Does another school need it? Can you combine and get a better price? 

Can you lease? Lots of schools I work with are having their eyes opened to flexible ways to buy kit and have it updated. Its not always the answer – but consider it.

Lastly – do you use your biggest IT cost? Your IT staff? Do you trust and involve them? You never know, they might have the answer you need. 

Tools of the trade

I have been trying to work out how we are going to keep in touch with people off on 4 different sites a day if not more and the logistics of not missing issues across 8 sites now. It’s so important we continue to work as a team. This is for a number of reasons:

  • So if someone is off we can cover
  • When people call up the helpdesk we sound like we know what is happening
  • So that nobody feels isolated when off site
  • Professional development

And probably a whole load more that I have forgotten. So I have decided to write a blog about the tools we use, or will use from January.

Helpdesk: Web Help Desk

We have been using WHD since I started, other then Impero, it is the only thing I have kept. I wont lie, I probably would have switched to another by now (FreshDesk is my favourite) but cost has been an issue, and how to purchase for a UK School. WHD is not cheap (Its about £450 a seat) and then a yearly support cost.

However, it does what it says it does. It copes with the different locations, and allows us to sort people by their email TLD, which makes life a bit easier. It’s not that easy to use – but the ability to write tech only notes is very useful. We work on a strict ‘no ticket no help’ policy. We have too. We support 2300 people, so our helpdesk is a critical tool, and the one thing that keeps me using WHD, is that it hasn’t let me down yet!

www.unipress.co.uk 

Call Handling

We use several tools for the phones. We all have mobiles, nothing fancy – but it saves us having to phone school receptions and have them find a techie on their site.

Obviously the phones can also pick up emails, and the helpdesk has a mobile version as well, although I may be the only one who uses it!

We have a physical landline dedicated to us at the school, which is piped through the PBX to call all our desk phones – but we don’t give out this number – we use Switchboard Free, which ironically, isn’t free for us, to distribute calls if the landline is not answered. They give us a 01527 number as well, so nobody knows.

It also means we can work remotely, so great for DR if Bede’s is down for any reason because the switchboard also redirects to mobiles if we are busy on the phones or  out of the office – we have also just increased our capacity to have two incoming lines on the same number as well. If nobody answers, calls are sent to mobiles in a specific order. It also helps us in the holidays, allowing us to all be out of the office.

The great thing about Switchboard Free, is there is an IOS app (even works with my apple watch), a webpage which allows me to see live incoming calls, and more importantly, those we have missed and much more.

www.switchboardfree.co.uk

Live Chat

We have live chat for our clients, via livesupporti – just a chat option on a page (which will also pipe up via a windows client)- but today I also wanted to set something up for the team, with some many people in so many different places, including me now being in a different office – I wanted to make it as easy as possible to talk, banter, ask questions and a moan if required!

I found a great tool – that is free to boot! Hip Chat allows unlimited amount of people to join your private chat area, create rooms and more. It comes with Windows, iOS and Android apps as well as being web based, and allows file and link sharing. For a small month amount of $2 each, you can even share screens and more. I can’t wait to launch this with the team on Monday, and see it being a great tool in keeping the team as one. Possible uses outside of the team exist as well, for example we could allow each school to have access to a room where they can pop in and out for chat, probably more for admin staff, but lots of possibilities.

www.livesupporti.com
http://hipchat.com/

Professional Development – Wiki

The great thing about the team is we have people with different strengths and different ability levels, we also have 8 different networks that are constantly evolving, we don’t sit still! It’s therefore a real challenge to ensure any staff member (and any of them could answer a call for any site) can quickly get the answers they need, without having to bother someone else.

So I downloaded Media Wiki, and installed it locally – which I plan to open up shortly, when I am sure it can be protected – and the team can create their own pages or edit others with additional information to ensure all our notes are in one place.

The critical thing will be making sure all the team add to it, so thats my job to make sure it happens, and I have made sure I have followed that up with targets for the team.

https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/MediaWiki

1620372_10153208794816691_3405208158670381271_nAll of these tools help us work together better as a team, and I have now got most of them reporting to me live on my TV screen which is great for me too! What do you use? How can we do this better?

Moving day

When I turned up at my latest school I was shown to a cupboard, which housed the central switch, stock, spares and paperwork and all the servers. No desk, and no space for a computer. No air con.

I had seen it briefly on the walk around, and hadn’t thought much about it, but in reality, on my first day, when I couldn’t place a laptop on the desk, I went to my new headteacher and highlighted the issue. Luckily for me, he agreed, especially as I was about to appoint a technician, and within a few months I had a server room, with aircon (and now two!) and an office fit for two, with a handy repair area.

 

saying goodbye to the old office
 
I know how lucky I was, especially when the office was air conditioned last summer. 

Back in the day the office was made for two, te team grew to 3,4 and now 7 of us. Bar our weekly meeting, we won’t all be there at the same time – but still the office was cramp. Whenever anybody came in, it knocked the poor person at the end desk, meetings were impossible, and the ability to be able to concentrate with everything a Helpdesk serving 7 schools brings was not possible!

So, with this in mind we have moved over Christmas, to the old caretakers bungalow. It certainly has more space, we can now fit 5 desks, I get my own office and the techies don’t have to work on a chair with their laptop and no desk! 

   

  

 We had to increase compactly from a 1GB UTP link to a 10GB backbone extension, upgrade power and phone lines coming in (we use an online switchboard but we only had one incoming line, we now have 2 lines to handle extra calls, and from 2 internal lines to 5 before calling out to mobiles), but new furniture was also needed with the extra people!

It’s not all roses, we will have to share with music rehearsals daily, but hopefully that is a temporary thing.  It’s been great to get the support now we are supporting so many schools, and the recognition that  any investment to the team allows for extra benefits overall for the home school.