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.