Walking A Tightrope: A Closer Look At Microsoft Education
If you’ve read my past two stories on Game-Based Learning and exciting projects at the intersection of video games, CS and education, then you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been on the lookout for positive examples of novel approaches to learning and teaching, especially those involving digital technology.
Incidentally, I came across the docudrama The Social Dilemma yesterday, which reminded me why it’s so important to have online platforms, products and software that are designed in a way so that their use and content is of benefit to the user. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that the creator can’t make profit or can’t use certain design techniques to capture people’s attention more effectively, but it is a balancing act that can quickly spiral out of control, which I thought The Social Dilemma illustrated quite well.
So, are there any examples that seem like they’re successfully doing this balancing act? Being a student myself, I have primarily been working with Zoom and Moodle. The former is a tool used for online lectures as well as video/conference calls in general and has only recently come into play for me, together with COVID. The latter is primarily used for information exchange between educators and students (e.g. upload of lecture slides or updates regarding exams/homework) and has been in use since the beginning of my studies.
As college and university students are expected to be well-organized and autonomous for the most part (rightfully so), the Zoom-and-Moodle-approach seems to be working well in most cases — it did in mine. As far as I can tell, students as well as educators have quickly adapted to blended and/or online learning, with the exception of some initial difficulties when it came to figuring out all the software/platform features (muting your microphone seems to be especially complicated).
However, the needs and capabilities of people in higher education obviously differ from those of people in primary and secondary education, one simple example being that students at lower educational stages require much more guidance. This got me wondering, what solutions have we come up with for that specific group? One of the go-to tool and resource providers seems to be Microsoft Education, which is why I want to take a closer look at that today.
What does Microsoft Education entail?
Entering Microsoft Education’s website, there’s a paragraph that says: “A focused learning environment can be a challenge in hybrid learning. Microsoft Education is here to support multimedia experiences that keep educators, students, and families connected.”
Looking through the navigation bar, there’s a wide range of options and offers, from training courses for educators (e.g. on special education and accessibility in remote learning) to lesson plans for STEM (e.g. project-based activities for remote learning). I can’t speak on the exact content of these offers since I neither have access to them nor am I an educator myself. Instead, I conducted a quick search on empirical studies that pick up on Microsoft Education’s effectiveness, but it came back with no results. Taking into consideration that the COVID situation is still ongoing and such studies sometimes take years until they’re published, this isn’t exactly surprising.
Fortunately, Microsoft Education has a case study section on their own webpage, from which I was able to gather some (qualitative) insights:
Case studies and Feedback on Microsoft Education
There are dozens of case studies and reports available from schools all over the world. Many of them include interesting stories, so if you’ve got the time, you should go have a look for yourself! Here’s a rough outline of the feedback from a few select institutions of primary, secondary as well as higher education:
- Primary education institutions such as Omnimundo from Belgium mention how OneNote and other apps like Lifeliqe help students stay engaged. A primary school in France mentions having used tools like Skype Mystère (description below) with success.
Skype Mystére is a game that allows kids to learn about art, culture, the environment and geography and sciences. The way it works is that a game is played between two different classes, who strive to reach a simple, common goal: each class must guess the geographical location of the other by asking the class’ members questions. A good practice for this game is to assign a specific role (whether the role be that of a detective, thinker, cartographer, etc.) to each student. There is an element in the game’s difficulty in that the questions asked must always be closed, meaning that they can only be appropriately answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
- One implementation that is especially remarkable to me is the usage of the Minecraft Education Edition (game-based learning!) in 8 primary classes in France to digitally reproduce an archaeological site. The project got teachers as well as students very excited. Here’s the result:
- Institutions of secondary education, e.g. ones from Hungary  & , Portugal and France which tested some of Microsoft Education’s products more extensively (sometimes in form of year-long fully digital classes) report having had mostly positive experiences. Some of them voice rather steep learning curves in getting to know all the features
- The use of some tools in Higher Education, such as Microsoft Azure in research at the University Leiden in the Netherlands and Microsoft Teams in teaching, e.g. at Imperial College London, UK, has resulted in positive feedback on usability and effectiveness
I’ll let you decide what to make of all that, considering that the case studies were conducted by Microsoft Education themselves. A remaining challenge seems to be the conduct of fair and effective online exams, which the reports have not touched on. Other obvious issues would be dependence on (stable) internet connection and financial barriers (what if the parents can’t afford to buy the needed devices?). On the upside, some of the schools state that they pay for the needed devices, at the very least when it comes to using them in the classroom.
Overall, I gained a positive first impression of Microsoft Education. I’m looking forward to reading future (independent) quantitative studies, possibly looking at educational outcomes, effects on motivation, attention, creativity, problemsolving and other relevant aspects — the list is long. I also hope to get to test some of the mentioned applications and products myself, possibly by using them for my own studying.
If you happen to have any thoughts on this matter, personal experience with Microsoft Research or links to relevant research, let me know! That’s all for today — thanks for reading and see you next week.