Editing a book on Windows 8 helped Gerald Haigh get his head around the Microsoft 'new wave'
Windows 8Wootton Bassett students use touchscreensThis summer, Tim Bush, Microsoft UK’s education marketing manager, asked me to work with Alan Richards and Ollie Bray on producing, between us, a Microsoft ebook on Windows 8 in Education. Alan wrote the technical section, Ollie contributed the material on teaching and learning, I did the editing, and the book became available at the end of October.

Although I’d done many writing assignments for Microsoft's education team I knew little about Windows 8. Then I realised that I was not alone, with the official release still several months away – the expert stuff would come from Alan and Ollie.

I’d worked with Alan Richards before. Together, for example, we produced the Microsoft ebook on the cost and efficiency benefits for schools of server virtualisation with Microsoft Hyper-V. Like Tim Bush himself, Alan’s an easy person to work with – wise, confident and knowledgeable. He’s worked wonders as information systems manager at West Hatch High School in Chigwell, Essex, and has to ration the requests for his services as a contributor and presenter on all aspects of the network manager’s learning support role.

Ollie Bray, I knew more by reputation. We’d never met – still haven’t actually at the time of writing. Ollie’s a depute headteacher in a school in the Cairngorms, Scotland, but of course he’s much more than that – pioneer and guru of educational technology, formerly a national adviser to Education Scotland on ICT, also in demand internationally. So we set about the task. Or rather they did, while I waited for the copy to come and set about doing my homework on Windows 8.

The separation between ‘technology’ and ‘learning’ is artificial

We worked pretty well together considering we were all so far apart. Ollie did the teaching and learning half of the book, Alan did the more techy stuff, which he enriched with lots of explanatory screenshots. We always knew, I think, that we need not have run the two halves separately. The separation between ‘technology’ and ‘learning’ is an artificial one, because everything in a school is about learning. Good network managers like Alan are among the school’s decision-makers, with eyes and ears open ready to provide the level of service – and the positive contributions -- that today’s teachers and learners deserve.

Alan RichardsAlan RichardsStill, we did keep to two halves, partly to keep the structure simple and to give people the option of using the parts that seemed most relevant to them. My job was to make sure the parts complemented each other, taking a ruthless pair of scissors to the enterprise in order to keep it manageable, and tidying up the odd bit of style. Tim, and other Microsoft people, breathed on the ebook, making sure the priorities were right, the designers worked their magic, and it became available at the end of October

As we worked, and I read the incoming contributions, I learned a few things about Windows 8, some of which have really only sunk in after a period of thought and more conversations with other pioneers. There is, for example, what the ebook calls the ‘multi-layered’ quality of Windows 8 — its availability on a range of devices, PCs, laptops, netbooks, tablets. Add full integration with Office 365 and you start to think of what that means to the user, a student perhaps, who starts a piece of work on a PC in school, continues on a laptop at home and then swaps to a tablet later in their room when everyone else is asleep. And as long as you’re logged in, the apps you want to use are following you from device to device. That makes it a potentially significant breaker of barriers to learning.

Then there’s ‘Windows to Go’ – effectively a way by which you can carry your own school Windows 8 environment on a memory stick and run it on virtually any device. Because it locks out whatever is already on the machine it’s plugged into, all the management and security issues disappear. The significance of Windows to Go for 'anywhere anytime' access, to say nothing of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is huge, and will surely impress users more and more as they start to become familiar with it, and begin to see how it will enhance the work in their own institutions.

'Touch technology is proliferating across every conceivable scenario'

At least as important is the way Windows 8 is configured for touchscreens. Talking to people since the book came out I’ve realised just how significant that is for schools. Touch technology is proliferating across every conceivable scenario where a screen is involved, and I’d say that those who see it is as useful mainly for very young children are missing the point. At Capita’s recent Partnership Schools Conference, for example, I realised how a management information system such as Capita’s own SIMS becomes so much more engaging and useful when it’s available to teachers on a touch-enabled tablet.

Ollie BrayOllie BrayAnd in the classroom, imagine three students, say, at any level from key stage 1 to postgraduate gathered round a 23-inch screen discussing something that they’re designing or developing together. With conventional technology only one of them is operating the keyboard and mouse. The others can only get their suggestions up on the screen by giving instructions to the ‘mouseholder’ or by reaching for their own turn with the mouse.

In this situation, and in many others, the mouse and keyboard form a barrier to effective creative collaboration that’s removed by touchscreen technology. Students will take to that kind of collaborative work around the touchscreen PC like ducks to water. In any case, children are growing up with touch screen. Toddlers are happily using tablets, and they have an engaging habit of rocking up to the family TV and trying to pinch-zoom the faces of their favourite characters. They’re going to expect that kind of engagement all the way through to college and work, by which time we’ll be well into the world described in Microsoft’s ‘Productivity Future Vision’ video, that you can see embedded in Tim Bush's blog

An interesting development for many teachers will be apps for students

For many teachers, though, the most interesting step forward is going to be the way Windows 8 works with other Microsoft technologies for app development. Already, there are schools where young people are developing their own apps – take a look at Apps for Good for example. Now, with Windows 8, and the Microsoft professional development tools available free to students through Microsoft's Dreamspark, the whole process can be more accessible and structured in the education context.

The implications for computer science are clear. Universities are already realising that, and I’ve spoken to computer science course leaders at UCL and Derby University for example, who are well ahead with Windows 8 in their computer labs, and modifying their courses so that students can build real apps with development tools such as Microsoft Visual Studio and deploy them to the Windows Store. It’s surely a way ahead for the many teachers who are looking to add real motivation and purpose to their computer science curriculum.

More information

Read Gerald Haigh's Microsoft Schools guest blog on students using Windows 8 with touchscreens at Wootton Bassett Academy

Gerald HaighGerald Haigh is a former teacher and headteacher and a long-established freelance writer of articles and books on education. Currently, a major part of his work is to write case studies, ebooks and blogs for Microsoft UK.

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