Microsoft Showcase Schools: Visionary Leaders or Corporate Shills?

Disclaimer: I have anonymised the details of the people who took part in the Facebook discussion below, and redacted some of the comments for legal reasons. However, as information about the individual school and its implementation of the scheme is published on an easily accessible public website,  I have chosen not to anonymise these details.

Showcase Schools. Innovative Educator Experts. Student Ambassadors

There are currently only 21 Microsoft Showcase Schools in the UK. Microsoft describes these as “…premier schools where the school leader has a strong vision for change. These leaders have created a whole-school innovative learning environment enabled by technology, where students participate in their own learning and achievements to make learning more exciting.”

Sounds great!  At least, it does until you begin to unpick the rhetoric.

Are there really whole schools in the UK, tech-enabled or not, where students have no participation in their own learning and achievements? Is this an appropriate benchmark for the definition of visionary leadership?

I recently came across the following Facebook post by an old friend from my home town in Lancashire. She was angry, because her child, due to start at the local High School in September, is required to have a Microsoft Surface 3 as part of his essential school kit. She linked to an Australian newspaper article, which can be accessed here: Computers in class ‘a scandalous waste’. The article argues for the near total rejection of computers in schools; a diametrically opposing viewpoint to that proposed by my friend’s local school. The comments below the line reflect an interesting range of views and I highly recommend reading them.


Comments on her discussion thread were derogatory about very specific details of a payment plan in which instalments didn’t add up to a promised discounted price and something about it made me want to dig a little deeper. As a Higher Education Practitioner, I know that new practices established in schools and FE could have a huge impact on my own work in the future. In the shorter term,  I also have two children due to begin High School in the next few years, and, if true, this may be something that I need to prepare for as a parent.

So, I visited the website of the school in question, a High School in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley, where I found this introductory page describing the scheme. You can explore this at your leisure, although if you’re at all bothered about SPaG in school literature, you will find it very irritating. Ironic, for scheme that is sold as raising standards in literacy.

The Cost Breakdown has ruffled a lot of feathers, and it’s easy to see why. A 30% discount has been secured, parents are told, but only within a very limited time-frame, and, more importantly, only for those parents who can afford the one-off, up-front ‘donation’ (a questionable euphemism to say the least) of £479.29. Parents who must choose one of the instalment plans face an increasingly expensive tariff, apparently inversely proportionate to their disposable income. Those who opt for the £17.99/month option end up paying a total of £647.64 – £24 more than the school’s version of the undiscounted full price. That’s before the ‘New Extra’s’ [sic] of insurance coverage are added to the cost.

A quick scan of the Argos website reveals that this might not be quite the bargain that the parents are being encouraged to invest in, particularly in light of the fact that such devices are often already covered by home contents insurance policies. The lack of the pen in this package makes no significant difference; the second-hand market for such items is cheap and robust.


Subsequent Facebook comments drew the following observations between myself, two secondary teachers also from the Ribble Valley, and the parent who raised the original objection:


This turned into an extended discussion, involving a wide range of parental and professional educator views, none of which could find any benefits to the scheme. Many made points about inclusivity and safety which, while insightful, unfortunately couldn’t be edited to make them suitable for a public blog.

I then started to consider some of the pedagogic implications of such a project. If I were writing a formal critical evaluation of the scheme, it might begin like this:

A growing body of literature is emerging to contradict the notion that technology will bring about a long-awaited revolution in education. De Bruyckere et al (2015) have argued that the most recent technological device to cause a genuine educational revolution was the blackboard. They also note that, as far back as 1983, pioneering thinkers such as Richard E. Clark (cited in De Bruyckere et al, 2015) were already arguing that instructional media were “mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition.”

The OECD, in a recent report on technology and learning in schools, suggests that:

“Ensuring that every child reaches a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics will do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services.” (OECD, 2015).
It seems unlikely, therefore, that the decision to pursue this scheme is based on a considered critical evaluation of the evidence base surrounding tech-enabled teaching and learning particularly given that, according to the school website, the learning platform, EduLink, is still under development. What other motivations could be at work here?
Several writers have recently delivered scathing critiques of the commodification and commercialisation of education. Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) clearly outline the differences between ‘professional capital’ and ‘business capital’ models of education. They observe that countries engaging with the GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement), which believes in objectives that are more characteristic of business models (market-driven competition, standardisation) are consistently associated with low-performing educational systems. The USA and UK are given a special mention here.
More recently, Roberts-Mahoney et al (2016) published a highly critical paper discussing corporate school reform ideologies designed to act as a production line for human labour units, in effect “an advanced form of digital Taylorism”, concluding that “without a clear ethical commitment to fostering the necessary conditions for human flourishing, cooperation, autonomy, equity and democracy in schools and communities, personalized technologies, combined with narrow neoliberal market imperatives in education are likely to do far more harm than good.”
But why would a UK school follow this route, if, as argued above, the only real beneficiaries are likely to be the shareholders of whichever large corporate instution has managed to shoehorn its way into a position of influence with school leadership?
One starting point is a consideration of the significant ideological and demographic differences between the two schools. Sydney Grammar School clearly states in its prospectus that its curriculum is organised around a liberal humanistic educational ideology (Morrison and Ridley, 1988). Annual fees are approximately equavalent to £17,700 a year; comparable with those charged at Dulwich College or perhaps Westminster School when cost of living differences between London and Sydney are factored in (The Economist, 2016). According to the newspaper article cited above, its students are drawn from ‘the sons of Sydney’s business and political elite’.
Ribblesdale High School, on the other hand, is one of two secondary schools in a small Lancashire town. The other school in the town is a selective grammar school. Ribblesdale is rated as a ‘Good’ school which takes pride in its long provision of skilled tecnhical and manual workers for the local economy. As such, it could be argued to have a revisionist ideological perspective (Morrison and Ridley, 1988). The catchment area is relatively affluent, and the school serves a community with a lower than average incidence of children living in deprivation as evidenced by its recent Ofsted report. However, it is, in no sense, an elite school, nor is its headteacher likely to be able to make decisions enabled by access to a large, private budget.
Dr Vallance and Roberts-Mahoney et al (2016) appear to share the view that human dialogue and conversation are critical to the development of human knowledge within a liberal, Freirean concept of education. There seems to be little overlap with an ideology that seeks specifically to train a workforce. The UK media frequently reports on the growing pressure on school teachers to spend their time evidencing, rather than fostering learning, and meeting ever more onerous targets, requiring them to spend excessive amounts of time on administrative tasks, rather than the planning, evaulating, diagnosing and assessing of quality learning – hence the frequent teachers’ lament ‘you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it’.
It is easy to see how a systematically demoralised yet genuinely well-meaning workforce could be seduced by the promise of tech-enabled solutions to lighten this workload, allowing them to spend time on the key professional activities of teaching, learning and assessment . However, they should beware. The word ‘efficiency’ often appears alongside ‘effectiveness’, but  it is not its sysnonym. Instant feedback does not automatically equal quality feedback. Learning is unlikely to be more exciting when carried out via computer rather than the genuinely revolutionary blackboard (De Bruyckere et al, 2015) if the teacher does not possess the skills required to teach and assess the subject like a professional (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012). Like many others writing on the topic of educational technology, I fail to see how the greatest achievements of multidisciplinary human endeavour: in science, philosophy, literature, art, music etc., can be ‘chunked’ into easily digestible units of information. If I am mistaken, and the Surfaces are to be used for time-management and record-keeping, then as a parent, I’d be suggesting that the school should fund its own administrative system. This view is echoed by the parent who contacted the local newspaper to express his concern (Clitheroe Advertiser and Times: Parents outcry at having to fund pupils’ tablets.)
Particularly noteworthy is his observation that he was unable to find any evidence for the educational benefits of the Surface that were not written by and/or paid for by Microsoft themselves.
Only time will tell whether Sydney Grammar or Ribblesdale High will be proud of their respective decisions in years to come, or whether they will have moved on to different approaches.
For me, some questions remain unanswered:
  • Is it fair to entertain the idea that an expensive, controversial piece of school kit is likely to serve as a convenient self-deselection policy for parents who may be less likely to co-operate in helping the school to achieve its strategic aims?
  • Has any consideration been given to updating the devices during the pupils’ 5 years at the school? The Surface 3 was launched in 2014 and has already been superseded. Will children currently in Year 6, who will leave Ribblesdale in 2021, have entirely lost any motivational benefit derived from using exciting new technology and be left working on devices that are slow and dated compared to what they might own at home?
  • What tangible benefits does the school receive from their ‘Microsoft Showcase School’ status?


gates quote

I will be watching this project with interest, relying on contacts in the local area to provide insider information. However, if even Microsoft’s own founder can state that ‘just giving people devices has a really horrible track record’ (Gates, 2012), then I don’t envisage this scheme becoming widely established in UK schools in the long term. Sadly, I fear that the pupils and their families will be the ones who lose out if this experiment turns out to be the inevitable failure that I suspect it will.

Reference List

Bita, N. (2016) Computers in schools ‘a scandalous waste’: Sydney Grammar head  Online at: [Accessed on: 18 April, 2016]

Chronicle of Higher Education, The (2012) An Interview with Bill Gates Online at: [Accessed on: 16, April, 2016]

Clitheroe Advertiser and Times (2016) Parents’ outcry at having to fund pupils’ tablets Online at: [Accessed on: 16 April, 2016]

De Bruyckere, P., Kirschner, P.A. and Hulshof, C. (2015) Urban Myths About Learning and Education London: Elsevier

Economist, The (2016) Worldwide Cost of Living Survey Online at: [Accessed on: 18 April, 2016]

Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School New York: Routledge

Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2013) The Power of Professional Capital Online at: [Accessed on: 16 April, 2016]

Microsoft (2016) Showcase Schools Online at: [Accessed on: 18 April, 2016]

Morrison, K. and Ridley, K. (1988) Primary School Curriculum Planning London: Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd

OECD (2015) Students, Computers and Learning Online at: [Accessed on: 16 April, 2016]

Ribblesdale High School (2016) Ribblesdale One to One Scheme Online at: [Accessed on: 18 April, 2016]

Roberts-Mahoney, H., Means, A.J. and Garrison, M.J. (2016) Netflixing Human Capital development: personalized learning technology and the corporatization of K-12 education’ In: Journal of Education Policy DOI:


TEL Resources: Reference Management

As an academic literacy tutor, I spend a lot of time helping undergraduates to understand why, when, and how to use citation and referencing in their written work.

My department currently insists on its own unique and idiosyncratic variant of Harvard referencing. I’m not sure of its origins; however, it is not supported by any reference management software or tool that I’m aware of. Thankfully, the Department has recently relented, and  from September 2016, any version of Harvard referencing will be acceptable, as long as it is applied consistently.

This policy decision opens up a number of options regarding the tools that my students could use to manage their references. I need to decide how best to incorporate this opportunity into the Year 1 Personal Development module on which I teach. This change also coincides with my own need to find a better way of managing all the citations and references that I am collecting for my Master’s degree coursework. I have therefore decided to experiment with 2 different tools – EndNote and RefMe, to evaluate which is likely to be most useful a) for my incoming undergraduate cohorts and b) for my own postgraduate studies.


I’d heard colleagues speak of EndNote before, but I’d wrongly confused it with EverNote and/or OneNote, neither of which I’ve managed to find much use for. Last week, I drove up to our main campus for an EndNote training session with our IT and Digital Skills Co-ordinator. There is something to be said about the fact that I’ve been in post at a ‘not-main-campus’ for three years and didn’t even know that we had an IT and Digital Skills Co-ordinator, but that’s a discussion for another day. I’ve also been introduced to the Web of Science, which is a whole new world of joy for someone with a reputation for being a bit of a referencing nerd!

The training session was thorough and informative, but now it’s up to me to go away and familiarise myself with what this very powerful bit of software can do. Some initial observations:

  • I really like the facility for annotating PDFs on-screen. Having reached a point where I have several lever-arch files full of research papers, it’s definitely time to move on from my pencil-and-paper approach to critical reading. I haven’t yet found an opportunity to share my annotations with anyone else reading the same paper, but can see potential benefits to collaborative annotation. I suspect that, for my undergraduate, this would be outweighed by the risk of plagiarism, however.
  • Linked to this is the very fast Find Full Text function, which imports both the direct URL and full PDF of the article into the reference list item. This will save a lot of time that I have previously spent on saving and printing PDFs.
  • It’s a shame that there is no app for iPhone; however, EndNote for iPad is quick and almost seamless. I prefer it to the website, for reading purposes.
  • That said, I’m aware that a number of students (including myself) do prefer to separate reading for learning from reading for pleasure. While we may have migrated happily to Kindles and tablets for reading novels, magazines etc. a preference seems to remain for hard copies for study. The impact of digital or traditional reading materials on comprehension and retention is a topic for another post; however, I’m delighted to report that my EndNote Web of Science search has just provided me with 27 research papers on that topic from the past 2 years alone!


  • We do need to think about how we manage on-screen and tech-related distractions. When I was an undergraduate in the early 90s, I had to do all my reading and research from hard copies either in, or borrowed from, a library. 21st Century students need to master an entirely different set of techniques for self-management when using 21st century tools.  A number of anti-distraction apps are available to help with this; I have never used any of these, but it may well be the case that students now need to deal with issues of focus and self-discipline in entirely new ways.


Squirrek screenshot

  • It’s not a particularly intuitive user interface in the first instance. This has had a significant negative impact on the speed at which I’ve been able to read, critique and write for my own coursework this week. I suspect that it will be worth the effort, particularly when it comes to writing my Master’s dissertation. However, I also know that many of our undergraduates, (like me) must balance their studies with complex work and family responsibilities, but (unlike me) without the benefit of several years of higher education and the resulting meta-cognitive and digital skill sets that I’ve developed. I’m not sure they’ve got the luxury of time (or, in many cases, the patience and tenacity) that it takes to master this software in the first instance.
  • There is quite a difference in specification between the desktop (on campus) and online (off-campus) packages. I am still negotiating the intricacies of these, but still find it essential to have frequent access to the desktop version. Many of my students do not live on campus, and it is essential that they can develop seamless access to and navigation of their TEL tools, regardless of whether they study on or off campus. My main wishlist item for this would be the ability to annotate PDFs online or via the app.
  • I’ve also managed to import my libraries from previous flirtations with Zotero and Mendeley. I really liked both of those packages and only I stopped using them because our library has been promising us Talis Aspire, and they’re not compatible.
  • Access to the software (both desktop and online) relies on institutional credentials and privileges. My EndNote account is linked to my employer, and I can therefore use it to access anything to which they subscribe. This leaves me with 2 questions that I need to raise with my trainer once I’ve become more confident with the basic operations:
  1. What would happen to my reference library were I to leave this job? (Reimport to Zotero or Mendeley, or buy my own desktop version – but would ability to use it still depend on a specific set of academic login credentials?)
  2. How can I link my student credentials from the University at which I study to the same account? Similarly – would a student or employee who transferred universities be able to easily transfer their reference library?

In conclusion, EndNote appears to be an impressive and very powerful piece of software. I suspect that it is probably better suited to postgraduate students and professional researchers, than to new undergraduates. It would therefore be useful to find an alternative better suited to beginners, that they can transfer successfully to EndNote at an appropriate stage in their academic careers.


I’ve been dabbling with RefMe for a while now, although not in any systematic way. This system has lots to recommend it to referencing novices. For example:

  • It’s free, cloud-based and not linked to institutional privilege (i.e. highly transferable).
  • There is a very handy free mobile app
  • It supports a number of popular referencing systems, widely used in UK universities
  • The user interface is incredibly intuitive
  • Collaboration is possible – you can share your library with anyone, as long as you have their email address

Some other very useful features in more detail:

  • My favourite feature is using your mobile’s camera to scan a book’s barcode. This instantly pulls the reference into your reference library not only on your device, but directly into your web account too. It’s also very easy to search by ISBN number or DOI to instantly create a reference list item.
  • The capturing of article metadata from internet sources is superb and, on initial testing, appears more straightforward and complete than EndNote’s ‘Capture Reference’ facility.
  • I’m also very happy with the ability to set up different reference lists, known as ‘Projects’ for different purposes. This feature would work well for undergraduates (or even this postgraduate!) trying to manage small reference lists across different assignments or modules. Again, copying a reference list item from one project into another is very intuitive and easy, with instant updates on all connected devices.

refme screenshot

  • Exporting references from RefMe to EndNote is easy, although I suspect some extra leg work would be needed to pull in PDFs for annotation etc.
  • Exporting a reference list into Word is also very easy, although I haven’t yet worked out how to manage in-text citations.
  • Unlike EndNote, there is no facility to search, store, access or annotate articles online. It really is citation/list item management only. While this is a limitation, I think that for undergraduates working with approximately 30 reference list items per 3,000 word assignment, this should be sufficient in the first instance.

Further concerns

This post represents a brief and cursory overview of these two very different tools, and I still have lots of questions and exploration ahead of me. Some key areas to explore include:

  • Becoming fully operational with EndNote from a remote location. It works beautifully at my on-campus desktop, but I’m still finding remote working to be challenging. The problems seem to be linked to a) my current inability to remotely access my on-campus desktop and b) the current ability of my home PC to work with .RIS files.
  • Operating the desktop version from different on-campus PCs. I have the luxury of a staff desk and PC, but my students do not.
  • Working with each tool in MS Word, including in-text citations and reference lists, and other writing tools.


It seems to me that a useful undergraduate pathway might be to master RefMe first, with a view to exporting reference libraries to EndNote once citation and referencing skills are secure. This also means that I can transfer support for my students to the appropriate Skills Co-ordinator, rather than having to do it all myself. I don’t mind providing help and information on some of the digital and academic literacy skills required for referencing, but I don’t have the capacity to act as an ICT helpdesk!

From a personal point of view, I’ve slightly resented the time that I’ve had to spend on setting up and learning EndNote, although I’m confident that I will change my view in due course. In the meantime, it’s possible that I’ll continue to use the mobile version of RefMe for ‘on the go’ harvesting of potential reading material, and switch between the 2 services as my own skills develop.


Self-Directed Learning Resource: Unit Conversions for Drug Calculations

SI Unit conversions are consistently problematic for student nurses. This appears to be due, in part, to gaps in students’ fundamental understanding of decimal place value (Pierce et al, 2008).

Medication errors involving decimal place value can have serious consequences; a decimal point misread, misunderstood or in the wrong place is likely to result in at least a 10 times under or overdose, as in the following news reports.

Pensioner died after too much morphine adminstered, inquest told (Get Hampshire, 2014)

Mother of four dies after blundering nurse administers ten times drug overdose  (Daily Mail, 2011)

I use a range of strategies to teach and to reinforce student ability to convert accurately between a range of weights and volumes. However, due to limited contact time that I have in the classroom, I have started to focus on developing online resources for self-directed learning that students can use to consolidate their understanding and skills. Self-testing resources are not only very popular with students, but are also supported by evidence that this is a very effective way to improve learning and retention (Rawson and Dunlosky, 2012).

Inspired by the work of Neil Goldwasser at City University, I set out to develop a self-testing resource that would help students to practice their unit conversion skills. My VBA coding skills are pretty much non-existent, so this resource – a self-marking macro-enabled Excel spreadsheet – was constructed using Neil’s advice and guidance, and a  variety of ‘trial and error’ that I now refer to as ‘Google, Runtime Errors and Swearing’. I don’t recommend it as a time-efficient way of working, but in this instance, I managed to end up with a robust resource that appears to be making a real difference to students’ ability to tackle unit conversions. At some point in the next couple of years, I’ll write a research paper on it, but for now, here’s a link to the resource.

Unit Conversions – Test Yourself

Excel screenshot

A couple of notes:

You’ll need to enable everything – editing, content, macros, make it a trusted document etc. I can only give you my word that it isn’t going to empty your bank account! Excel Online isn’t keen on protected workbooks, so you’ll need to open it in a full version of Excel. It’s intended to be completely student-proof!

Please credit me/let me know about any usage; I worked very hard on this, and would love to know if others are finding it useful.

Additional Reference List

Pierce, R.U., Steinle, V.A., Stacey, K.C. and Widjaja, W. (2008) ‘Understanding Decimal Numbers: A Foundation for Correct Calculations’ In: International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship 5(1): 1-15

Rawson, K.A. and Dunlosky, J. (2012) ‘When is Practice Testing Most Effective for Improving the Durability and Efficiency of Student Learning?’ In: Educational Psychology Review 24(3): 419 – 435