Education is setting agendas at Microsoft – new products for schools at special event in London

A slew of recent product announcements from Microsoft in the US underlines the intensity of competition in the schools technology market and the company's success in making education a core business, building on what it learns from its partnership with its global teacher and schools communities. Next week (June 13) its UK education department stages a special "Edtech 20/20" event in London as part of London Tech Week.

The announcements includes a new 'light' version of Windows 10 — Windows 10 S. It's an operating system that is easier to manage and keep secure, supported by key management features, including Microsoft 'Intune for Education', with 'Teams' for collaboration. There's also an impressive new Surface Laptop at the vanguard of a range of affordable and light new student laptops for 10 S (from below £200), new features for its popular Minecraft Education Edition program and exciting new possibilities for augmented and mixed reality.

Microsoft’s education people in the UK, including education director Ian Fordham, will spell out the changes and what they mean for education customers at a special half-day symposium in London, “Edtech 20/20 – Where next for education, skills and learning” on June 13. Set up by Microsoft and EdTech UK, the Wapping event starts at 12 midday and runs until 7:30pm. The strategic view will be explored by Sara French, head of the Mayor of London’s International Business Programme, Ian Fordham, Cecily Morrison, from Microsoft Research’s innovative Project Torino, Minecraft Education Edition mentor Simon Baddeley, Ty Goddard, CEO of Edtech UK & The Education Foundation, Microsoft’s accessibility evangelist Hector Minto and Pearson’s global director of immersive learning Mark Christian.

Educators will be members of Microsoft’s own innovative experts network. The line-up includes Jose Kingsley-Davies, digital leader at ARK Swift Primary School and Geoffrey Fowler, CEO and principal, London Design and Engineering UTC.

Microsoft's tardiness in getting into the mobile revolution meant that many schools wanting to use tablets opted for Apple's iPads and Android tablets before the company responded with Windows 10 and its increasingly popular Surface hybrid devices (they include detachable keyboards) along with other Windows tablets and hybrids. But the biggest challenge has come from Chromebooks, supported by Google's own school management software, which has led hardware sales in schools in the US.

Not just a response to increased competition

However it would be short-sighted to see the new developments purely as a response to competition from irivals although it is that too. Even educators more associated with Apple and iPads have acknowledged the widening choice for schools (see Dominic Norrish's "What does Windows S mean for schools?"). The announcements represent a statement of intent from a clear and coherent strategy based on feedback from its own communities of teachers and learners and lines up some of its most exciting technologies for education.

For example Microsoft has been careful not to 'sell' its Hololens mixed-reality technology to schools — the benefits it brings emerge more naturally through focused partnerships — but visitors to BETT 2017 in London were stunned by demonstrations of its new applications for education and industry (using a perfectly designed and lightweight headset that allows users to walk around and explore 3D worlds while also seeing and hearing what's happening in their real worlds). Visitors to Edtech 20/20 will see current Pearson developments for schools.

As with any strategy there's an element of risk. There are no hand-on reviews of 10 S and the devices designed for it as yet, and some schools may wish to stay with the Windows 10 they know and are managing perfectly well. Windows 10 S devices can be upgraded to 10 free of charge for a time — education licensing will always allow this — although the process is not reversible. But there has always been great appeal in technologies that are easy to manage for schools where the focus is always on the learning and teaching. And increased choice is always welcome. 

Ian FordhamMicrosoft's Ian Fordham

Ian Fordham, Microsoft's UK director of education (pictured right), said this week, "Microsoft's mission in education is to help empower the students and educators of today to create the world of tomorrow. Whether that is via devices, software, games or 3D, we are deeply focused on helping to create more inclusive learning experiences and driving better outcomes for all.

"The simplicity and performance enhancements of the recently announced Windows 10 S, with a range of new affordable devices, combined with the elegance of 'Intune for Education', means that educators and students can rely on devices that support their learning and are safe, secure and easy to manage."

He also flagged up Code Builder for Minecraft: Education Edition, created to get more students coding using Minecraft, and was particularly excited about 'Microsoft Teams' in Office 365 for Education. "It's a game changer for teachers in the classroom," he added, "a conversation- and collaboration-based platform designed to extend and enrich learning in and out of the classroom. It's been designed by and for education and, critically, is the same platform used by thousands of businesses — giving students the experience they will meet in the modern workplace.

"MS Teams brings conversations, content and apps all together in a digital hub that helps develop the communication and collaboration skills they need to be successful in the future. It has powerful classroom management capabilities that teachers are going to love, such as creating and grading quizzes and collecting assignments all in one place." 

Schools interested in lighter, quicker, cheaper laptpops

The overall intention with Windows 10 S is to 'streamline the user experience' – speeding up response times while ramping up security. Devices using it should boot up more quickly and their owners get their apps from a carefully controlled app store just like Google and Apple customers. They will get the usual Microsoft and popular education software they use but not the whole range available for full Windows.

It's a trade-off that many Windows users in education may find perfectly acceptable, and if they don't they have the option of Windows 10 and traditional 'x86' apps by upgrading to Windows 10 Pro. A new generation of Windows 'light' laptops and tablet hybrids that are easier to manage holds promise for those taking a fresh, hard look at total cost of ownership as the financial crunch hits schools harder. These devices wouldn't just be cheaper to buy – they would also be less expensive to manage due to lighter staff overheads.

Microsoft wants these machines – from partners like Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Samsung and Toshiba – to be part of a new ecosystem based on Windows 10 S. The prospects are good because even before 10 S there were signs of a similar trend starting to happen. At BETT 2017 there were already well-designed and budget 'Windows light' laptops from nimble and innovative companies like Avantis with its 14-inch Classbook that sells for just £200.

And there were plenty of schools that weren't tempted by what Google and Apple have to offer. Avantis marketing director Huw Williams comments: "We identified that schools had an appetite for the Chromebook price point and specification but wanted all the convention of a Windows set-up.

"The Classbook struck a chord with our schools that are looking at a more affordable way to replace their laptops and tap in to all the benefits cloud computing has to offer within a familiar, tried and tested operating system. The inbuilt wireless charging has been a revelation and this simple innovation has taken away a friction point of using this type of technology in the classroom."

Surface Laptop – attractive design with cheaper siblings

Surface Laptop
MacBook Air rival? The Microsoft Surface Laptop

Microsoft's announcements will reassure those customers. The new Surface Laptop (pictured left and top) is already turning heads, not because it's necessarily a classroom purchase but because it raises the bar formerly set by Apple's laptops, particularly the MacBook Air. It's beautifully designed, lighter, quicker and cheaper, and is attractive for both students and teachers. However, it is more likely to be bought by students in higher education.

It has been generally welcomed by media pundits with some caveats about connectors, but these options have been determined by what Microsoft's customers are already using and the company acknowledges that these are already in transition. 

Featuring in the new Microsoft product demos have been examples of virtual and mixed reality. That's because the company will be making developments from its Hololens mixed-reality platform available for use through ordinary Windows computers and alternative viewing devices. The demonstrations at launch were astonishing but it's best to bear in mind that these are new developments and are not immediately available (however, partnerships with some education publishers like Pearson are already in place so expect to see some of the fruits later this year).

With 3-D and Windows Mixed Reality, Microsoft intends providing educators with new tools to create engaging materials for their students. One new announced feature for Windows 10 is View Mixed Reality. This lets users see 3-D content on their screens as 'mixed reality' (ie not totally immersive), using a simple RGB camera.

Freebies and temptations

As you'd expect with major announcements, there are freebies and temptations for teachers and students. These include:

  • New Windows 10 education PCs starting at around £150;
  • Free one-year subscription to Minecraft: Education Edition for new Windows 10 education PCs;
  • Free Windows 10 S for all schools on any current Windows Pro PC;
  • Free Microsoft Office 365 for Education with Microsoft Teams;
  • Free trial of Microsoft Intune for Education.
  • Of course, all these developments are fully integrated with Microsoft's core offerings of its Office products and the increasingly popular OneNote, all of which can be used collaboratively online. And they allow schools to bring in rich content from other education supliers like busuu, Canvas, Flipgrid and Kahoot.

What is the reaction from Microsoft's education community? Kevin Sait is an independent Microsoft teacher ambassador well known for his work at Wymondham High School in Norfolk. "I think the arrival of Windows 10 S shows that Microsoft has put working with education at the heart of its business," he says, "and I guess when you listen to Satya Nadella's opening speech you understand why. It's clear that, for Microsoft's CEO, education is a passion that underpins a lot of decisions from Seattle.

"Windows 10 S is an OS that boots up in under six seconds, is easily managed through Intune for Education and is being rolled out on devices with pens that are affordable. This is a great call for education customers. For too long Microsoft has been regarded by many as too complicated or simply just too hard from a classroom perspective. With a new range of affordable devices, teachers now have the ability to manage their own class devices effectively for the first time.

'A great fit for education'

"Are we not just revisiting Windows RT [the discontinued operating system for the first Surface tablets]? We are very much living in the app world now and the idea of Win32 applications, installed from a DVD drive or elsewhere is a diminishing one. With full Office 2016 coming to the Windows Store, do I need the ability to install legacy apps and bloat my devices? I honestly believe Windows 10 S is a great fit for education. These are now good times for education, and Microsoft recognises this has to fit in a world of ever decreasing school budgets."

Kevin Sait is also pleased by Microsoft's support for STEM with its continued developments for Minecraft Education Edition and the inclusion of a year's subscription for the software with all new Windows 10 S devices. "This will allow students to immerse themselves in the world of creativity, problem solving and collaboration," he added. "We also had the news that through Microsoft's STEM site you can now code in Minecraft directly, another great tool to engage and enthuse students in the world of computer science. However there is still a long journey to bring teaching staff in to the same world that our students live!

"Then we have the new Surface Laptop. As with everything Surface, I believe this will be the model that other manufacturers will aim to copy. A device quicker, lighter more powerful than a MacBook Air, which is touch enabled for students to engage in their work, it supports the Surface Pen as well. Do I see the Surface Laptop as a mainstream school device? Probably not! Do I see this device offering more power, lighter, Windows 10 S, the ability for Windows Mixed Reality headsets? Well it might just become a market leader for the next generation."

Microsoft back? 'They've never been away'

Sitting in the BETT press office back in 2016, discussing education technology and the increased interest and activity on the Microsoft stands with veteran journalist Jack Schofield, I commented, "It looks like Microsoft is back." "They have never been away," was his instant response. I was referring to the recent inroads by Apple and Google but Jack Schofield had his eye on the long game and that is worth reflecting on.

Microsoft's buoyancy is reflected by UK education director Ian Fordham: "We are looking forward to working with, and supporting, the education community to help accelerate all of these tools, plus the upcoming release of Windows Holographic Mixed Reality devices, to build brighter futures for every student and help them create and shape the world of tomorrow." Edtech 20/20 will give UK educators a glimpse of that vision to evaluate for themselves in an environment of ever-increasing choice.

More information

“EdTech 20/20 – Where next for education, skills and learning”, June 13, 12 midday to 7.30pm, at Microsoft @ Studio Spaces, Unit 2, 110 Pennington St, London E1W 2BB
Microsoft Education UK on Twitter  
Microsoft Schools Blog  
Microsoft MakeCode for Minecraft  
Panos Panay unveils the new Surface Laptop with Windows 10 S (full keynote)