Systems that simplify: Airhead, GroupCall IDaas, Google Edu, Microsoft Azure & RM Unify

One log-in is enough for most people – it’s certainly enough in schools when your brain is spinning and creaking with a million other things.  On the market just now are a growing number of technical solutions that are designed help you and the children sign in only once (or thereabouts) and get access to all your stuff from anywhere.

social log in
You’ll have seen how with some sites you can log in using your details from Twitter, Google, Facebook.  It’s pretty clever and it makes life simpler in the non-school world.  Unfortunately it’s less straightforward, or rather there’s more to consider, to enable this sort of authentication in schools.  Google has an impressive solution to this mentioned later in this post.   On a practical note,  having a log in option for younger users via social media is contra to the policies of pretty much all providers.

With the dream is always to make life simpler for users (while simultaneously keeping things fully usable, secure & customisable) here’s a whistle-stop tour of some available and proven systems that are here to lower technical friction and free up your brain space for learning.  They’re in no particular order other than alphabetical.



AirHead caught our eye at BETT 2016 as a very nicely done and deeply integrated web based desktop.  Your apps follow you whatever device you’re on and there’s some clever stuff under the hood that allows children and teachers to greatly reduce the number of times they have to log in to different systems.  If you want to bring in behaviour, attendance and all that gritty stuff you can do that too with all the big MIS systems listed here.


Google Apps for Education

Google has taken simplification to heart and wrapped some of the most powerful web based productivity tools around it you’re likely to see.   Want children to work/write/draw/survey or whatever together online in real time?  This will tick those needs off very nicely and wherever you or your children are working it won’t matter.  Well worth exploring if you’ve not already done so as us the Chromebook – a technology of which we’re huge fans hence the Chrome Extension we built of Blippit IO.



If you like the tech, then one of the smartest fish under the waterline is GroupCall’s IDaaS (Identity Management for Education).  It’s a bit like the magic golden thread that ultimately lets you zip seamlessly and share data securely between systems.  Purely for education it has to be a good thing.  It does more but check them out for more info on their website.


Microsoft Azure

Microsoft Azure may be starting to appear on your peripheral vision if you’re not directly involved in tech at school.  Your network support experts will be well aware of it.  One among the many things Azure does is to integrate lots of tools and services that are commonly used across your organisation such as email, where you keep your files and securely manage single login to multiple systems. Microsoft is operating a more open shop these days and MS non-fans may want to check out what is now being catered for under Azure.  Chat to Virtue Technologies in Skelmersdale – they know Azure well.


RM Unify

RM Unify is a single sign-on method that curriculum tools such as Blippit allow teachers and children to gain access with.  School users log in to RM Unify just once.  If user details are updated at school level this is synchronised automatically across all other systems including Blippit if necessary.  No more “I’ve forgotten my password!” & plenty of customisation at a local level so schools can point to bought and free stuff at will.  It’s also a shop window so if you’re using RM’s MIS you can try, buy and deploy from the browser very easily.

Going back in time…


In 2005, yes that’s 11 years ago, I came across and played with a web based information dashboard/desktop product called ProtoPage.  It’s not so much for schools but the whole web based customisable desktop ‘thing’ is right there and has been for the last 11 years. Worth a play if only to fix in your mind, should it need fixing, what a powerful thing having web based desktop can be.


Using social media to engage and communicate with parents

If you’re a Head Teacher, SLT member of Governor then you may want to read this blog post from Head Teacher Rachel Orr.

Her first-hand experiences of impact and reach are insightful with something for everyone to think about.

Read about this well nurtured Social MediORR savvy school community as they continue to ‘normalise ‘ the use of social media for parental engagement.

You can follow Rachel on Twitter.

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Sabotage – the love of learning

One of the saddest things to see in children, a teenager in this case, is a seeming loss of the love of learning.  There have been other incidents but this one happened today.

Today, over lunch, we were eating a delicious alternative English breakfast that included spiced up beans  courtesy of chilli powder and Tabasco.  It was a great success however our eldest reminded the family about the time Dad (me) seemed to sabotage the last time we had this by adding way too much Tabasco.

I refuted the accusation but, being still basically a teacher, I was impressed with her use of the word ‘sabotage’ despite it being an outright fib.

“Great word.  Did you know that it’s a French word in origin?”

(Teenager returns a *bad smell* face)

“Yes.” I direct my words to the youngest who, though only 7 years old, seemed to be very interested in knowing exactly what it meant.

“What do I need to know that for?” asked the teenager.

“Well, with your love of language and words I thought you’d be interested to know a bit more about the origins of such an interesting word – seeing as you used it.”


Reaching for my iPhone6 I Googled for more while our plates were still warm.

“Ahhh!  It’s believed to have 16th to 19th century roots….” I read from Wikipedia.

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“When am I ever going to need to know all that? It’s not like someone is ever going to test me on it is it? I just don’t need to know all that.”


“Listen.” I said. “This isn’t about being tested.  It’s about learning something new just for the pleasure that comes with knowing and understanding it.  Just because someone won’t be testing you on it does not mean it’s any less valuable.”

(Teenager returns the *bad smell* face again)

“But I’m never going to be assessed on it so what’s the point?”


“Wow.  Do you know what art is? You love art right? Well a lot of art exists for no other reason than just to ‘be’. It may serve no real purpose or practical application, it may not even be exhibited, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable or valid to the artist for having created it – it’s still art.”

(Teenager returns a *where the hell is he going with this?* expression)

“What I’m saying is that you can still learn something, like what a ‘sabot’ is, and it can still be really valuable as a piece of knowledge without anyone actually testing or assessing that you know it. Do you see what I’m saying?”

(Teenager returns a *Kevin* noise)

“Forget it.” I look, defeated, over to my wife.  “Has it left her already?”

The above is a true story.  I hope that it’s “just a phase” and that our adventurous learner with an insatiable appetite for language and wider knowledge returns one day.

It strengthens my resolve that the best I can try to do for her, other children and teachers is try to create opportunities where the love of learning cannot be easily sabotaged by testers and measurers.  Whether it’s making apps, exploring code or school engaging with mums and dads, it’s a driving force for me personally that everyone is entitled to love learning and I for one hope to never stop.

Green Park Primary School – Change for all the right reasons

Yesterday, thanks to a random tweet about Chromebooks by Green Park Primary computing lead Pete Rafferty (@Raff31), I had the great pleasure of spending a morning there with the children, teachers & Head Teacher Mrs Hains.


One of the areas I’m always really interested in is how schools make things happen, why they happened in the first place and what’s the outcome at the end of it all.  The time spent in year 3 & 6 was so interesting that many things, though not necessarily in this order, shot through my mind
  • if Ofsted walked in now, unannounced, where would they put themselves & how would they begin to understand what was happening
  • technology is often seen as an isolator of children; a shutting down of a child to those around them. Not so particularly in the Year 3 lesson. The level of conversation leading to division of labour and ongoing review of improvements was really quite special.
  • the children can choose the right tool for them; they use a white board to jot down the essence of information from a web page then the Chromebooks to edit and add it into their work. Less & less copy & paste
  • distributing leadership across the class is a much-hammered phrase down the years but when the teacher ‘believes’ and hands over the reigns it’s a powerful thing in a one-to-one situation
  • shift happens; peer review/AfL is non-threatening here and being shared to the big screen is no biggie
    • children invite others to collaborate on their work including the teacher
  • risk taking is a gradual process but clearly the Head has, with teachers, nurtured a culture with Pete where mistakes can happen but that’s life and so long as they’re learned from that’s fine.  The lesson is not to not take risks again.
  • they’ve done it the right way round; network wireless infrastructure is bolstered to take the demands of busy children & teachers
  • lives are touched by tech where it’s advantageous for it to be so e.g. Google Drive enabling job shares to work seamlessly on report moderation


Miss Lewis-Brown (Yr 3) was the guide on the side not the sage on the stage.  Capturing notes on her iPad during the lesson and I believe filing them away using Evernote it was pretty inspiring that though the technology was so conspicuous it wasn’t the star.

On tech note, I’m a big fan of Chromebooks in schools for some practical reasons to do with reducing

  • technical support burden on ICT people i.e. you can forget about updates & antivirus
  • waiting time when people log in to the Chromebooks i.e. you’re talking about seconds
  • cost overheads and worries about ratios e.g. you’re looking at around £160 ex vat per Chromebook
  • the digital divide i.e. some of these children asked for a Chromebook instead of an iPad this Christmas


Managing ongoing change that leads to the kind of images you see here takes nerve and leadership but it’s definitely achievable.  With the support of the Head, Pete has gently guided his colleagues along a path driven by need and potential which I could imagine influencing the secondary school provision.  One of the feeder schools has in fact recognised this already and is laying the ground with Office 365 where the children’s collaborative working skills will be transferrable.  Just some of the challenges will be in
  • exploiting the opportunities Office 365 this has to offer
  • nurturing digital leadership as a desirable attribute in students
  • ramping up the network infrastructure services in a larger setting (££)


By coincidence the BBC published a story today about a campaign by employers that puts a value of £88 Bn on soft skills.  Food for thought.

ICT Use Divides Schools

Last night I was handed an article from the latest copy of the SEN Magazine which we read at home with both a professional and personal interest to try to keep up.

The article is very short (scanned into this post below) but unusual in this magazine because the piece has an ICT focus and comment from both NAACE Chief Exec Mark Chambers & the British Education Suppliers Association BESA on a critical issue in schools.

Typically it’s another flavour of the ‘digital divide’ theme but critically it is absolutely right in saying, I paraphrase, that where technology is least loved & appreciated you’ll find poor infrastructure (cables & clever boxes) and little hope in ICT as an enabler at leadership level & I’d add, almost by default, class teacher level too.

 This conjures up a rubbish Christmas tree in my mind.
Nice baubles - pity about the tree
Nice baubles – pity about the tree
This following scenario isn’t unheard of

A school buy a class pack of iPads and then try to hang these new ‘shinies’ onto their aged school network. It’s an unwelcome surprise when their investment appears to lack much impact over time as people get fed up with slow speeds online, wi-fi unavailability, time consuming app management, printing fever and more. Kit starts to go home and usage drops.  School leaders begin to wonder; “What can we do to make people use this kit on a daily basis?”

Why might this happen?

Nice baubles-pity about the tree.  The impact of the ‘boring cabley bits’ not being right is far reaching.  We know cables & clever boxes are sometimes overlooked for understandable reasons like the fact they’re invisible and parent’s can’t see them like they can see a shiny iPad.  Let’s be honest. “School Gets Latest Super Router 1.9” doesn’t exactly get parents’ juices going compared to “1-1 iPads in Year 6”.

Time for a reality check par’dner

  1. There have been times when the education ICT Support/solutions industry has been like the wild west. Schools made decisions in good faith and were often guided by wider LA strategy that may have been a compromise for their setting.  Where school leadership was more confident they’d go independent with ICT support and sometimes it’d work and sometimes it wouldn’t but either way the responsibility fell to the school to sort it with the service provider.
  2. Schools who opted to stay with local authority infrastructure support did/do, I’m told by some Heads, still feel a level of reassurance that no matter what the Authority will always be there to be accountable.  If things aren’t ideal in school then it’s because they’re with the Authority *rolleyes*.  It’s a challenge to avoid inadvertently slipping into a semi-comfy position of learned helplessness as opposed to grabbing the thing by the baubles when you know deep down that change is needed root & stem.
  3. Not being able to speak techie has always been a bug bear for many school leaders. It’s not what they joined up for.   The answer to this is to communicate in scenarios.  “I want all all our children to be able to easily keep evidence of….”  A good provider can interpret, understand and also offer scenarios based on experience that maybe school has not arrived at yet.  If they can’t speak so you can understand what they’re offering or bring ideas and innovations based on experience – find someone else who can.
  4. TRUST. Some schools have had quite a run of having their trust, shall we say, abused?  It’s a horrible word to have in the same sentence as ‘schools’.  Trust is something that an official framework can’t magically create. It comes with people doing what they say they’ll do and maybe doing a bit more besides without soliciting a red carpet thank you for doing it. It’s a human thing in my mind and honestly you should get a good feeling from every point of contact with a  supplier – not just a ‘front man’.
  5. ICT and it’s boring invisible bits are only one part of a large, complex and pressured environment in school. However, done right it could really help everyone shine.
Who’s out there?

It’d be pretty crass to name names here but do email me if you like and I’ll pass you details of at least one thinking company doing, in my opinion, a class leading job in the north west and beyond. [Update 6/11/14: I’ve had a re-think & decided life’s too short & people are too busy so here’s a nugget for you: Virtue Technologies ]

Here’s the SEN Magazine Article
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