Friday, 19 September 2008

Becta and Microsoft Kiss and Make Up - Not Quite

As yet limited reaction in the section of the blogosphere I roam through, to this announcement from Becta in relation to the long running disagreement between Becta and Microsoft. Just be clear that there is still a complaint from Becta to the EC about Microsoft and this latest announcement hasn't made that go away.

The ongoing bustup was over two issues. First licensing. Now Becta say MS is going to loosen the very tight threads of Schools Agreement Licensing, but in six months... oh and as a pilot.

Microsoft's own Schools Blog reassuringly states "The Becta release is very specifically comparing the new scheme to Schools Agreement, even though the majority of schools don’t use it. So don’t panic – after reading their news release, you might think you’re being forced to license computers you don’t run our software on! You’re not." Phew, what a relief! This blog says nothing about the other dimension of the dispute about ODF document format.

Meanwhile the more balanced Merlin John (of TES Online fame -God Rest Its Soul) reports "If you were to deduce ... that licence payers were spending more than they needed, that would not necessarily be correct. Licences are often catch-all to give users a free hand across a range of possibilities. They are better value for some than others. And the licensing pilot that Microsoft is undertaking will check out different possibilities to increase flexibility for schools."

So not much of a change then. The other dimension to the dispute is around MS Office 2007 and the ODF format. First MS didn't have Office 2007 open or create ODF documents. Now MS are saying that this will be reversed. ZDNet,1000000121,39488825,00.htm quotes Mark Taylor, chief executive of Sirius Corporation and founder of the Open Source Consortium "[Sirius's view] is that Microsoft has been forced to this position, and that the term 'clear commitment' should be read 'dragged kicking and screaming'. If not for the stance of Neelie Kroes and the European Commission, if not for the OOXML roadshow and the ISO controversy, if not for Becta's OFT complaint, does anyone believe this would happen?"

But Becta welcomes the limited moves Microsoft are making.

I just wish Becta would press a well known MIS supplier as hard...

Thursday, 18 September 2008

SWE London Research

Full title is "The Interactive Whiteboards, Pedagogy and Pupil Performance Evaluation: An Evaluation of the Schools Whiteboard Expansion (SWE) Project: London Challenge" from the Institute of Education, University of London. This came out last year and not surprisingly I missed it.
There's some very useful and tantalising pointers in the research.
These stand out

"Discussion of pedagogy should precede and embed discussion of the technology. Successful CPD is most likely to be effective if it supports individual teachers exploration of their current pedagogy, and helps identify how IWB use can support, extend or transform this. Discussion of the relative strengths and weaknesses of different ways of using the technology for particular purposes should be part of the on-going work of a department." [page 4]

"When creating their own texts, many teachers struggle to incorporate principles of design which can establish clear reading paths for pupils. Lack of familiarity with such principles of design may make it much harder for teachers to create and share resources that can be used independently of their author." [page 5] There isn't, as far as I can see, any reference to these 'principles of design' and how you'd find them in the main body of the research.

"The literature suggests a continuum in which new technologies initially support, then extend and finally transform pedagogy as teachers gradually find out what the technology can do. Familiarity, confidence and time are assumed to be the keys that unlock this gradual process of transformation." [page 6] AND "the introduction of an IWB does not in and of itself transform existing pedagogies." [page 6]

"The use of an IWB does not of itself automatically alter the dynamic of whole class teaching in secondary core subject areas. It does offer up an opportunity to think about the strengths and weaknesses of whole class teaching and how else it might be organised. Where we observed best practice, departments or individual teachers were aware of this dimension and had consciously set aside time to reflect on the most appropriate use of the technology in their own context." [page 7]

"More open-ended discussion between colleagues needs to take place about how IWBs can be used to support, extend, and transform existing practice. Each of these uses has a value under the right conditions. Teachers should be encouraged to consider when it is appropriate to use the technology for any of these purposes and which aspect of the technology might be most appropriate to achieve that aim." [page 8]

"the real value of IWBs for teaching and learning in different subject areas of the secondary curriculum is not yet fully understood" [page9]

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Becta Report on Managed Services

These are a big part of what is being leveraged into schools through the Building Schools for the Future programme. Schools get nice shiny new buildings and in return they pretty much have little alternative but to accept a managed ICT service for their school. So since BSF was first announced in 2003 (or earlier possibly...) it's a bit surprising that in March 2008 Becta publish research addressing how much benefit schools can realise through procurement of a managed service. (now available here)

Since it is a key part of Government policy within the one of the most expensive capital projects of the administration forgive me for being a little sceptical about the findings of this research. The research team certainly included reputable academics but also Becta representatives. The researchers contacted 400 sites running managed services collected online survey data from 79 and then 29 sites were identified to be visited. Inclusion of some sites that had considered and then rejected outsourcing or some that had outsourced and then moved back to in-house provision would have added some balance. The description of the methodology in the report does not indicate if these approaches were even considered. The final list of sites visited is as below

Site, Visits/interviews, Case studies
Primary 5 2
Special 0 0
Secondary 14 4
Academy 1 1
College 4 2
Local authority 4 3
Adult community learning 1 1
BSF 0 0
Target 30 13
Actual 29 13

(Page 16)

Secondary schools made up less than half the sites visited and they were less than a third of the case studies. It is also interesting that the research team note "In discussion with Partnerships for Schools (PfS) and Becta it was agreed that it is too early to draw any conclusions from the experiences of BSF schools beyond that published elsewhere as part of broader BSF evaluation." (Page 17) and so BSF schools were not included. This is odd given that this research will almost certainly be used to support the use of managed services within BSF and given the immaturity of the outsourced services that were examined. (See below)

The picture the research paints is of outsourcing commonly occuring because the in-house provision is poor and some event highlights the need for change. "A common picture emerged in all site visits of underinvestment in ICT prior to the introduction of the managed service. This was often compounded by the evolution of technical support roles and ICT management processes to a point where they were unclear or ill-defined. In some cases, school leaders did not fully appreciate the development needs of technical staff. There was also a tacit acknowledgment that technicians were not effectively managed with too much autonomy delegated without appropriate accountability. In many cases, a vision for the contribution of ICT to the overall mission of the school and the translation of that vision into practice was either missing or ineffective." (Page 19) To summarise the problem is too little money and poor management. What is unclear to me is how a managed service would change these underlying problems. For example how would a managed service enable a school to articulate a vision, or have more money?

I am also concerned about the immaturity of the relationships described in the report. 20 of the 42 services that the research examined were no more than 1 year old. (Page 27)

Headline findings that "the managed service does deliver improved value for money from that investment" (Page 5), dissolve into less impressive findings in the body of the report "The vast majority of sites in general felt unable to give meaningful comparative figures as the costs associated with ICT were so poorly understood before the managed service. Therefore, the evidence presented here is largely anecdotal and the conclusions that can be drawn are limited." (Page 27) Given also that the research states "Establishments considering employing a managed service need to ensure that a senior member of staff is given sufficient time and resource to oversee and champion the process ideally from procurement through to the final implementation." (Page 7) there are clearly a range of costs that might be considered within the question of 'value for money'. Sadly the report gives very little indication as to how the very tentative conclusions about this were calculated. As to headline spending "Of the 29 sites visited only 14 were willing and able to even approximate their change in financial expenditure linked to the managed service, with nine stating an increase and five no change or decrease. " (Page 108) Surely the key question here is whether this increased spending (on balance) resulted in a better service than increasing spending on the in-house support function? Making things better by spending more money on them isn't the kind of finding you'd want if you were driving through very large scale systemic change.

On page 110 the report makes the following strange claim in relation to the above "Most sites indicated a rise in expenditure. However, further (often anecdotal) exploration indicates that the majority of that spend arises from new hardware procurement and installation and is therefore not intrinsic to the managed service." Anyone with the slightest experience of ICT systems knows how much ongoing costs can be reduced by the procurement of all new and consistently built hardware. This comment along with many others in the report makes me very dubious about recommending its conclusions on outsourcing to schools I work with.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

ICT Self Review

There's a very complex and interesting debate to be had about the role students take within state education in the UK. Are they partners, consumers, commissioning agents, subjects or employees? Probably the one thing most educationalists would agree is they are definitely not employees. Are their parents the customer? Are the local employers the customer as they will be consuming much of the finished product?

In terms of IT services, perhaps there might be a case for considering school students to be employees but I’m not convinced. They don’t, perhaps shouldn’t is a better way of putting it, negotiate with IT about the services they require. The school hierarchy does that in their interests. They are, after all, for most of their compulsory education, children, minors and therefore not fully capable of determining what is in their own best interests. I am completely convinced that their views must be listened to, don't think otherwise. But one of the things schools need to do whether they have a managed IT service or not, is to determine what IT services the school wants and what priority each should have.

This determination is close to the heart of the self review process and so it's very important. As I'm starting to work with three schools on the SRF journey these thoughts arose about what the involvement of students might need to be.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008


Schools Interoperability Framework - Becta have recently published a of proof of concept pilot that was run in Birmingham. ( This got much much less attention than even I anticipated. After all school information data structures are not exciting, probably not even to those working on them.

So why is this worth anyone's time and interest?

Capita and the SIMS monopoly. The company have had a very easy time of it - hauling in school finances for their product and not much competition out there. They even charge third party suppliers of products that leverage SIMS to access a schools data.

A couple of years ago Becta fired a salvo across their bows with the catchily titled "Research report: School management information systems and value for money A review with recommendations for addressing the suboptimal features of the current arrangements." ( The criticism of Capita therein was surprisingly hard hitting for a quango. And yet not much has happened subsequently.

The SIF if adopted may unlock the potential of the schools data management market. Becta want it as the standard for all MIS systems for schools. The standard will allow software producers to create add-ons to any MIS without proprietary lockins or issues with interoperability. Instead of a SIMS competitor needing to come to market with a fully comprehensive, mature MIS for schools they could develop one incrementally. Replace one 'suboptimal' element of SIMS with their own every so often until all that's left of SIMS is a stub. Schools could mix and match from a number of suppliers. The potential is enormous as up to now, in my humble opinion, schools data management systems have been lacklustre and unhelpful in the task of automating administrative and other tasks for those working in schools.

Interesting to see what happens...


When starting a blog what is the protocol, appropriate form?

The intention is that this will be the place where I offer my point of view on stuff to do with technology in UK schools. What would anyone get from this. Honestly probably not that much. I read a good deal of material and lead a City Learning Centre that has does some pretty groovy things with technology in schools. But the credit for that goes to my staff. I pick up some good ideas from them.

Mind you the stupidity of ideas contained herein is entirely my responsibility. Finally the thoughts, ideas and opinions in this blog are personal and do not represent any of the organisations I work with or for. Phew...!
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