RM Seminars – a return visit

The RM Seminars are now in their 25th year. That’s quite an achievement. I can even remember some of the early ones…

Back then, I was an English teacher also running a Windows NT network, having just migrated the school from a BBC/Acorn Econet system (apologies to younger folk for the references to the Stone Age). In those days, the Internet was just a distant rumour and not the potent force it is today. And if, like me, you were untrained in the ways of Microsoft, the only way to learn and share new skills, information and resources was to physically meet up with others. That’s why attending an RM Technical Seminar was so important.

Today though, the Internet has become a dominant and central part of our personal, social and professional lives. We can email, Google, Tweet, Skype, Hangout, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram… and the list goes on. There are so many ways to find out information, to share skills, to learn from/with others, to share resources…

So given the ease, speed and knowledge-richness of the Information Age, why are RM’s seminars still going strong? Aren’t they a bit of an anachronism in today’s connected world?

Ironically, I think it’s this wealth of information that makes a conference setting even more relevant. The amount of information may have increased but the time available to us to access this has not. Many of us have become knowledge-rich but time-poor. Search engines themselves are amazingly powerful tools but we all know how difficult it can be to find relevant results.

I think that’s one possible reason why so many technicians, teachers and senior leaders had turned out to the Birmingham seminar I attended in November this year. It was a good opportunity to take time out of school to have up-to-date, concise, and relevant presentations of key ICT issues facing schools. What RM had put together was an exhibition area, networking opportunities, presentations and discussion groups to meet the needs of technical and educational staff. The seminars provide a very efficient use of time.

RM, of course, is a business organisation. However altruistic it might like to be, there is, no doubt, a solid business case for RM Education to run these. Venues such as the National Conference Centre in Birmingham don’t come cheap and the associated costs of staffing, marketing and preparation must be significant. So, for RM itself, this must be an equally good opportunity to meet existing and prospective customers.

It’s a good opportunity too for RM to launch new products such as RM Buzz, RM Inform and RM Connect. For schools, that’s another good reason to attend – to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in technology. In particular, how technology is designed and engineered specifically to meet the needs of education. Of course, there’s still that focus on helping schools to make the technology work as effectively and efficiently as possible. The two technical streams help meet that need for a schools’ technical team to learn from sessions such as “How to make the best use of PowerShell with Office 365 and Windows Server” or “Navigating the route to the cloud.” But this focus, over recent years, has widened to help schools ensure the technology creates educational impact. That’s why the ‘Educational Stream’ has become as important a part of the seminar programme as the “Technical Stream.” It’s something that wasn’t there all those years ago when I first attended.

The educational content this year concentrated on practical implementation in the classroom. In these sessions teachers were given the chance to program robotic devices using the BBC microbit, learn how to use Apple devices for greater productivity and efficiency, and really get inside G Suite for Education.

RM is a Google Premier Partner. The strength of that partnership could be seen in an engaging, practical and informative session run by RM’s Mark House and Google’s Jason Leonard. Here, in less than an hour, small groups of teachers used Chromebooks, G Suite and Google Cardboard to work collaboratively to produce a class website. All with lots of laughter, handy classroom tips, and much learning.

The seminars seem to be developing in other ways too. At Birmingham, and two other venues, an interesting addition was a whole-day online safety event: “Sexting in schools and colleges”. In attending the main seminar, I missed the morning presentations from the police and members of the child protection community but I was lucky enough to catch some of the concluding discussions led by online safety expert Charlotte Aynsley. Given the technology temptations and issues facing our young people – and the challenges this presents schools – this additional stream seems to me to a very welcome development from RM.

So, a thoroughly worthwhile and informative day. Coffee and lunch breaks provided further opportunity to network, visit exhibition stands or, in my case, bump into and chat with a former ‘A’ Level student of twenty years ago – now working for Apple Education! It was a nice reminder of the past and a reminder too of how far the RM Seminars have developed in those twenty years since I first visited.

The RM Seminars continue through November and return in spring, 2017. Find out at www.rm.com/seminars

The Future of Educational Technology?

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Nils Bohr

Among the many treasures of the excellent Public Domain Review is a collection of illustrations of possible future technologies, as seen from the 19th century.[1] The collection includes this vision of technology in education.

school-of-the-future

Here the role of the teacher seems to be to select texts and, via some mechanical text-to-speech device, have the content of these directly piped into students’ headphones. It’s mildly laughable but it’s also interesting in the way that the picture also illustrates some of the ways educational technology has often been used.

First, there’s a focus on the novelty of the technology, as a new shiny gewgaw. Technology here also serves to support existing models of teaching. In this case, where students are passive, seated in rows and have no contribution to make to the direction of their learning. Then there’s the inference that education is merely knowledge-delivery and that the role of technology is to make this more efficient. If technology is to have a key part in education in the future, it will have to avoid these assumptions.

But the 19th century illustrator has also captured something important. The picture shows a large single device in the classroom and a crude infrastructure of wires to enable the contents of the device to be distributed. The illustration thus shows how technology can provide access to learning. In painting this picture, the artist is both right and wrong: right in that infrastructure will be important; and wrong in the emphasis on the classroom device.

Schools, now and in the future, will require fast, reliable and secure Internet connectivity. With this, schools have access to the cloud – and via the cloud – access to resources, tools and anytime/anywhere learning.

These tools exist now. They have the potential to develop even further with an emphasis on ease and speed of use – for all users. Google Classroom, for example, already enables teachers to allocate, collect and respond to students’ work online. For students, this means instant access to teacher comments, learning materials, timely support and peer collaboration.

Where the 19th century illustrator got it wrong was in the emphasis on the teacher-controlled classroom device. Looking at the experience of today, there’s a reasonable chance that in the future we will see more use of mobile Internet-connected devices in a blend of school and student-owned appliances. These will remove the need for students to be tethered to their desks, unlike they’re shown in the picture! Mobile connectivity enables technology to be integrated into every part of the curriculum and for learning to take place outside of the classroom. This ready access to resources and learning provides an opportunity for schools to personalise learning to a greater degree than today, and to develop a more independent approach to learning.

It seems clear that robust, speedy and safe Internet access and the adoption of cloud-based technologies will be the means by which educational technology will develop. Already, it means that, schools are not far from successfully adopting the following approaches:

  • Social Networking: Schools use social media tools for group teaching, and teach students how to use these effectively to develop learning networks; to connect with experts across the world; to build safe online profiles of achievement; and to support others. Teachers regularly use these tools and principles for their own professional and career development.
  • A Wider Campus: Schools become a combination of physical and virtual spaces. Students beyond the catchment area join specific classes their physical school is unable to provide; schools employ teachers from distant parts of the country and overseas to fill gaps in expertise, and provide classes that would otherwise be economically unviable.

But technology is disruptive. Across all industries, technology has displaced long-established, even cultural, practices and completely changed the way the industry works. In some cases technology has created completely new industries. Disintermediation (the name given to a process that provides a consumer with direct access to a product or service) has already transformed the way we buy insurance, holidays, retail products – even grocery.

It’s much less clear how this phenomenon of disintermediation will apply to education. Professor Sugata Mitra famously observed children using technology to teach themselves in his Hole in the Wall[2] project but an education system that minimises the role of the teacher seems unlikely (certainly at primary and secondary ages) – in any future. As one famous technologist is quoted as saying, “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.”[3] Perhaps the biggest conundrum when looking forward is how much the role of the teacher will continue as it currently is and how much it will adapt.

Painting a picture of the future brings the danger that it is as inaccurate as that of the 19th century illustrator but, in closing, here are a few technologies that perhaps we will we see schools adopting in the coming years:

  • Virtual Reality (VR): VR headsets will become a staple technology across the curriculum in providing rich, sensory experiences of real, historical and imagined places.
  • 3D Printing: Students will regularly design, prototype and make models, products and artwork using 3D additive manufacturing tools.
  • Internet of Things: Technology will be embedded to create ‘intelligent objects’. Buildings and devices will become ‘smarter’ in automatically recognising students, teachers and visitors for access authentication. Eye-tracking technologies will provide insight into student’s learning strategies, information gathering and the effectiveness of commercial and school-created resources.
  • Disintermediation: Since parents have online access to their children’s progress data, Parents’ Evenings have become much more consultative. Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cloud-based systems, enable students to access learning materials and resources independently of a teacher.

[1] http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/france-in-the-year-2000-1899-1910/

[2] http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/

[3] http://sourcesofinsight.com/lessons-learned-from-bill-gates/

Cost saving as a Multi-Academy Trust

Let’s take that question of capital costs. Typically, schools and academies provide services to students and staff via hardware-based server systems. Adding, upgrading or replacing servers often requires considerable capital expenditure. By moving to Cloud-based systems, academies can shift that burden to free or low-cost software, and much more friendly revenue models. Added to that, there are sizable savings to be made in electricity costs. It might even be possible to free up the server room as an extra teaching and learning space!

This move to the Cloud is one that’s driven by commercial vendors themselves. Recently, Microsoft and the DfE announced a new ‘Education Cloud Transition Agreement’ to extend the current Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that gives schools and academies substantial discounts on Microsoft licences. Microsoft say this will enable its “UK education customers to transition to the cloud and take advantage of Microsoft free Online Services e.g. Office 365 Education.” There’s a bit of a stick behind this carrot as the current Volume Licensing discounts for existing customers expire after July 20182 . In other words, if you’re a Microsoft customer, move to Office 365 soon or be prepared to pay more.

Pleasingly, this is one of the rare occasions where saving money can also bring benefits; cloud-based systems enable students and staff to access learning materials, documents and means of communication on a wide range of devices – no longer tied to specific devices on internal networks.

Google for Education or Office 365 both provide free suites of tools that, regardless of the device being used, enables all users to get the same experience. Students and staff can work on documents both individually and collaboratively as everything is easily accessible, regardless of the location or device they are using. Using cloud-based services in this way can help to improve the speed and ease of access to materials in the classroom, extend learning beyond the classroom, improve student-engagement, and even support new models of pedagogy – such as ‘flipped learning’. Furthermore, moving to the cloud frees up budget to buy more low-cost mobile devices such as Chromebooks or to develop Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) schemes.

So, from a gloomy start, have we found a pleasing symmetry of reduced costs and improved learning and teaching tools? Possibly. But not without a clear ICT vision and strategy. Your Strategic ICT Plan will provide a clear route to achieving your vision; for example in planning not only for the removal of server technology but also associated costs such as technical support. This latter aspect of ICT spend can be considerable. RM Education’s 2015 research3 suggested that an ‘average’ school, with 693 pupils on roll, spends at least £93,555 per annum on ICT support – that’s £135 per student! Because cloud-based solutions have no local servers to support and repair – there’s an opportunity to save ongoing costs here too.

These opportunities to reduce costs extend beyond the single academy. There are potential benefits from the economies of scale that an academy chain can bring, for example in sharing ICT support across the Trust, volume purchasing and negotiating preferred ICT agreements. RM Education is the preferred ICT provider to The Academies Enterprise Trust (AET). For the past few years, RM has worked closely with the Trust to move some its academies to server-less and cloud-based solutions. The expectation is that, over five years, the Trust will save £900,077 in costs as well as a staggering £7,701,044 in additional benefit savings4.

First published May 2016 at RM Education

Making the Most of Cloud Technologies… a non-techie view