With all the new Windows 8 products coming out of Microsoft, Alan Richards advises network managers on 'keeping up'
SurfaceMicrosoft Surface: sign of changing timesMicrosoft is changing as a company but, more important for those of us working in schools, it's changing all the software and introducing new hardware in the shape of the Microsoft Surface digital tablets.

So with this raft of new software, from Windows 8 to Windows Server 2012, and including most of the server systems in between, how do we keep up? What changes do they bring? What new skills do we need to learn? And what are the benefits for education?

But that’s just the software. Probably one of the biggest changes in recent times for Microsoft has been the introduction of the Surface to the market place. How does this fit into education, how is it going to play its part in the goal many schools have of 1:1 devices for students?

Let’s look at some of the key Microsoft changes, piece by piece, starting with the one that will affect the largest number of your, Windows 8.

Search is king with Windows 8

Windows 8 is drastically different in appearance to any version of Windows that has come before and to some this could be quite frightening. But have no fear, Windows 8 is actually quite simple to use once you have mastered a few techniques. The Start Screen is what greets users once they have logged in to Windows 8.

This new interface groups together programs, or apps as they are called now, into sections that you can manipulate to suit your own working style. The built-in apps that are packaged with Windows 8 cover a variety of topics including news, weather, music and communication, along with the mail and messaging apps.

The biggest question that I get asked is "Why can’t see the program I want?" The answer to this is that search is king with Windows 8; typing a keyword while looking at the Start Menu will invoke an automatic search and present you with apps or documents that match your search criteria.

For the more technical among us Microsoft have given us a nice Windows key shortcut to get to some key technical apps, using the combination of the Windows key + X will open up a menu giving you access to some key IT manager functions

Installing Windows 8 can be done using the same techniques that, as network managers, we used to install Windows 7. You can use third-party tools but I would highly recommend taking a look at the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, a free tool that gives a great deal of control over how Windows 8 is deployed. For the network manager who likes even more control, then System Center Configuration Manager 2012 would be the tool of choice.

Another big change for a lot of users is going to be around the onPrem (on the premises rather than in the cloud) versions of the server systems that make up Microsoft's cloud offering of Office 365. Office 365, if you don’t know, offers users the ability to run Exchange, SharePoint and Lync in the cloud and as the cloud versions are scheduled to be upgraded to the latest versions in the coming year, the onPrem versions will be available soon.

Major changes in the collaboration scenarios possible

These new versions bring with them major changes in the collaboration scenarios possible just using Microsoft software. Combining the latest version of these server systems brings social to SharePoint 2013, Instant Messaging and click-to-call using Lync from any Lync-aware application, such as Office 2013. Integrate all this with Exchange 2013 and you have systems that finally bring collaboration and social to the Microsoft application set.

For network managers the changes will be significant and the hardware specification requirements to run all of these powerful tools is quite demanding, but the benefits they will bring to your users is well worth the effort. And virtualisation can help here too, although some may need new servers to exploit all the potential.

So as a network manager you have slaved away over the summer break and installed all the latest systems for your establishment – what we really want now is for everyone to use it, and the best way for that to happen is for everyone to have a device that is designed to run Windows 8 and access all of the fantastic collaborative systems you have put into place.

What better device that the Microsoft Surface? In my opinion a very misunderstood device. The first thing to mention is that the Surface comes in two flavours, the RT and Pro versions. The Pro version is basically a Surface device with Windows 8 Pro installed, you can do everything with it that you can do with a normal laptop with Windows 8 Pro installed. The RT version comes with Windows RT installed; this is a fully functioning version of Windows 8 in most ways apart from one key area and that is that you can only install software to the Surface with Windows RT from the Microsoft Marketplace.

The RT version of the Surface does handily come with Office Home & Student 2013 RT Preview installed which means you have access key Office applications, upgrade to the full version Office Home & Student 2013 when it is released will be done by Windows Update. This version of Office comes with Word, Excel, PowerPoint & OneNote, in my opinion everything a student needs.

The builetin apps in Windows RT are the same as Windows 8 and allow the user to get to their email, photos, music, weather, travel and their data on their Sky Drive if they have one.

The Surface, I think, could give the iPad a run for its money

The Surface RT device, in my opinion, is exactly what schools that are thinking about 1:1 plans should be looking at. Until now most schools have gone down the route of the iPad as there really wasn’t an alternative device of a similar size and ease of use. The Surface, I think, could give the iPad a run for its money, it has an operating system that is easy to use and familiar to students, and it gives them access to Microsoft Office which most Schools use on their networks already. The built-in apps lend themselves to different parts of the curriculum.

The Surface RT is also a very sturdy piece of kit and with the additional touch cover acting as both a keyboard and screen cover it certainly ticks all the boxes that schools will be looking for when it comes to those 1:1 device plans.

Windows 8 means that we will have to think a lot more about exploiting touch with our computers. You wouldn't think touch would be necessary for most users for the usual Office applications but there are others, graphics for example, where touch could become a lot more important. Changes in use will probably emerge as the technology is used more. We have a few all-in-one PCs that have touchscreens but have made no policy decisions as yet.

So in this article I have outlined some of the changes coming about very soon that will affect most network managers, I unfortunately can’t cover everything as that would require a book not just an article, but what I hope I have done is whet your appetite for the changes coming and given you something to talk about with the Microsoft people if you are visiting BETT this year. It's all change and the best people to ask are the people who make and use the products. As usual Microsoft will be at BETT this year with some Windows 8 devices to take a look at and also some great speakers to listen to who know about all these great new products.

Alan Richards is Information Systems Manager at West Hatch High School in Chigwell, UK. He has worked at the forefront of education technology for more than 17 years, and in that time been an advocate of using the latest technologies to enhance students learning experiences. 
Alan is also a regular blogger and speaker, attending events around the world to share is knowledge. Alan has also been a Microsoft SharePoint MVP (Microsoft Most Valuable Professional) for the past ast two years. The award is presented by Microsoft to IT professionals who show an exceptional technology knowledge but also who contribute to the wider IT community.
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Twitter: @arichards_Saruk

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Alan Richards is at BETT working on the Microsoft stand showcasing the latest and greatest with Windows 8 devices, and giving presentations on using Office 365, SharePoint 2013 and other technologies in the classroom with fellow MVP Alex Pearce

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