Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft Education series of blogs.

One of the first things I did when I decided to learn more about the capabilities of Office 365 Education was to have a meeting with Alex Pearce of BFC Networks.

Alex is always good value – generous with his time and knowledge. He’s also the kind of person who doesn’t raise his eyebrows and sigh when you ask the question that reveals you haven’t understood what he’s just told you. Believe me, I need people like that in my life.

Alex took me expertly up the Office 365 Education learning curve, and the first thing he reminded me of is that Office 365 Education comes free of charge to schools.

We all know that, don’t we? But it’s astonishing how many have apparently missed the good news. At BETT 2013, and at conferences since then, I’ve heard, first hand, visitor after visitor being surprised to hear that Office 365 Education really is free, gratis and for nowt. Everyone needs to be reminded all the time, or the ‘too good to be true’ factor kicks in.

That bit over, Alex went on to describe the various components of Office 365 Education – Exchange, Lync, SharePoint, and Office web-apps -- sketching out some scenarios of its day-today use in schools.

There will, in fact, be Office 365 Education scenarios and examples from various sources in these blogs as the school year goes on. For now, allow me to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned from Alex and friends within Microsoft.

Looking back over my time both working in schools and observing them. I can see no end of ‘if only’ moments – ‘If only we’d had Lync, we’d have been able to do classroom-to-classroom joint projects with our partner schools’. Or, ‘If only we’d had SharePoint we could have improved home-school collaboration.’

I have no doubt I’ll be writing about projects like that in the coming school year.

Ultimately, though, what I’m hoping for are examples where the combined resources of Office 365 Education have caused school leaders and teachers to tear up the rule book and think in a different way about the organisation of teaching and learning. That’s because, like all good software, each of the component parts of Office 365 Education starts by helping you to do familiar tasks, but will then go on, if you’re ready to grasp the opportunity, to completely change the way you work. The mission statement for my task, I suggest is, ‘From help to transformation.’

I have in mind the kind of thing I found at Barnsley College last year. There, Office 365 Education, with SharePoint and Lync, and other Microsoft technologies form a whole ‘eco-system’ whereby students can use Windows 8 devices to create their own personalised learning environments – ‘learning without barriers’, the College calls it.

 

Barnsley College Logo

 

Of course, not everyone needs or wants to copy what Barnsley College is doing. Everyone, though, can think like them, and go beyond, ‘How can technology help us to do what we’ve always done?’ and move on to, ‘How can we help students to learn more effectively now that we have this technology in place.’

It seems to me that with a comprehensive and free cloud environment like Office 365 Education, the transformation of learning ceases to be a problem of technology, and becomes a matter of will, imagination and leadership. The technology is ready and waiting.

Feet on the ground

It was at the apogee of this flight of fancy, zooming from ‘Help’ to ‘Transformation’, that I decided to call Microsoft Innovative Expert Educator Charlotte Beckhurst of Harstbrook E-ACT Free School in Tottenham. Hartsbrook has all of its IT provided as a Microsoft cloud-based service, and Charlotte uses Office 365 Education with her Year One class.

Hartsbrook E-ACT Free School Logo

One of her most intriguing projects puts Microsoft OneNote to work on what is effectively a whole-class, live, interactive ‘portfolio’ which also provides each child with a personal area. Charlotte describes it, significantly, with the same words -- ‘Learning environment’ -- that I heard at Barnsley College. It’s a term that shows how she, too, is thinking well ahead. At the same time, ever practical, she points out that it’s necessary to make haste slowly, taking colleagues along, moving a step at a time. She’s certainly walking the talk on that, helping teachers in other schools as well as hers to see how Office 365 Education can help them with their work.

Her ‘OneNote’ project, for example, is something that any individual teacher can do with their own class, and we shall certainly return to it as a scenario that will set out what’s possible.

That’s what people are interested in,’ she says. ‘Teaching is hard enough, and people want to know how to make it easier.

Charlotte’s right of course. So what we need to do in these blogs, I guess, is focus first on the ways that Office 365 Education can help teachers and school leaders to do their jobs. As we tell those stories, the possibilities for deeper transformation will emerge.