"Kinect Sesame Street TV" is part of Microsoft's recently announced "playful learning" initiative, using its Kinect sensor. (Photo: Microsoft, Sesame Workshop)

In the Seattle area there is a powerhouse co-founded by Bill Gates, dedicated to using advances in technology to change education.

And then there is Microsoft.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has, over the past several years, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into education reform in the U.S. With grants to, and through, initiatives such as Next Generation Learning Challenges and the Shared Learning Infrastructure, Gates has tried to see if technology can be part of the equation to transform K-12 education.

Results have been mixed. As Stacey Childress of the Gates Foundation told a conference of education technology execs in May, “We’re willing to fail. We’re willing to be criticized. But that’s only okay if we’re willing to learn from our mistakes.”

Despite the missteps, Gates has had a clearly articulated strategy.

Frank Catalano

But as for the Foundation’s sibling across the lake – well, it’s hard to discern exactly what Microsoft’s education strategy is. And you’d think this would be the time to forcefully put one forward as upstarts like Startup Weekend EDU, Imagine K12, Salman Khan’s Khan Academy and, yes, even Gates are working hard to be the disruptors or darlings of reforming education digitally.

So I had high hopes when I was asked to take part in the general session featuring Cameron Evans, Microsoft’s U.S. Education Chief Technology Officer, at the Software and Information Industry Association’s annual Ed Tech Business Forum in New York City recently. My role was to listen to his talk on “the new normal in technology” and comment on what he said, what I wished he’d said, and what surprised me.

I should have taken it as a sign that my first surprise was that, even after 15 years of consulting largely in edtech, I had no idea Microsoft had an education CTO.

Cameron Evans, Microsoft U.S. Education CTO

This is not a slam against Evans. A smart representative for Microsoft (he’s a former school district CIO), he made several good points and laid out pieces of what could be called a vision for education. Such as a definition of “mobile learning” in which the focus is on mobile students, not mobile devices, and creating technology to make sure the data follows the student. Plus flatly stating that, when it comes to the urgency of applying appropriate technology to K-12 education, traditional long-term government and corporate timeframes for measuring success don’t apply: “We don’t have five to ten years to see the return on tech investment in schools.” (Evans’ entire presentation is archived on the SIIA Ed Tech Business Forum website.)

Just as great snippets of dialogue are not a completed screenplay, a piecemeal high-level vision is not a corporate, product or leadership strategy. The closest Evans came to articulating one for products in his talk was when he spoke about using sensors like those inside Xbox Kinect to create “immersive learning environments.”  It was the only Microsoft product Evans mentioned, apparently a timely marketing nod to Microsoft’s recently announced “playful learning” initiative.

Is a lack of a public Microsoft education strategy a surprise? Well, not really. Viewed from the outside, Microsoft appears to go through education strategies and execs as fast as Kim Kardashian goes through spouses. Every year or two there seems to be a new structure and a new approach. I recall when I was once told that the lynchpin of Microsoft’s edtech strategy was to get Sharepoint used more by schools. Or later, at a major education technology trade show, that Microsoft’s entire K-12 strategy was to train teachers to use Office and Windows in the classroom.

Yet there are seeds of an undisclosed and creative strategy embedded on Microsoft’s own education website. Though the only products offered for sale are the usual one-size-fits-all suspects – Office, Windows, OneNote and now, notably, Windows Phone and Kinect – digging down to “free products and services for teachers” uncovers potential random gems. Microsoft Mathematics 4.0, a visual math calculator. Chemistry Add-In for Word, a way to integrate the language and symbols of chemistry into documents. Worldwide Telescope, Flashcards and Math Worksheet Generator are also among the many free education tools from Microsoft Education Labs or Microsoft Research.

Indeed, Microsoft lists more free products for teachers than paid ones. (Though one has to wonder how important this effort is to Microsoft by how up-to-date the page is kept: the link to Kodu Game Lab, a visual programming language for kids to create games, results in a 404 error.)

One not-bad K-12 product leadership strategy? Formally and officially create a coherent series of free, cool, must-have education-specific add-ons that build on Office as a platform, provide tools for educators to easily create and share their own add-on applications, all while selling the crap out of the old warhorses.

Another for corporate leadership? Evans hinted at one, implying Microsoft could be the glue in education (similar to how it would like to be in health care with Microsoft HealthVault) enabling connected education across settings, locations and devices. There are probably other strategies, too, that tie together and leverage Microsoft’s market and mindshare.

What Microsoft, unlike the Gates Foundation, hasn’t done at a time when significant attention is being focused on K-12 learning is openly declare if it will lead – or simply cheerlead the good work of others.

Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose columns taking a practical nerd’s approach to tech appear regularly on GeekWire. He consults via Intrinsic Strategy and tweets @FrankCatalano. He has never had Microsoft as a client and, honestly, never expects to.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    “Another for corporate leadership? Evans hinted at one, implying Microsoft could be the glue in education (similar to how it would like to be in health care with Microsoft HealthVault) enabling connected education across settings, locations and devices.”

    I would take this to mean the “learning archive”, which would be a tremendous help in large parts of the world:

    http://www.zdnet.com/blog/microsoft/microsoft-to-build-an-education-vault-inspired-by-healthvault/10091

    Tie it into Facebook!!!

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      I recall that announcement – thanks for linking to it. Interesting in how there are several initiatives trying to get at parts of the same whole: the Gates Foundation has invested in the Shared Learning Infrastructure initiative, the U.S Department of Education recently launched the digital Learning Registry (primarily for educational content). But neither are designed as student-focused over a lifetime of learning. There are a lot of student-centered ePortfolios out there, but they tend to be tied to a specific course or institution and have a limited lifespan. 

      That would be a interesting leadership strategy, however, for Microsoft – especially if it were to tie into other related efforts.

      • Anonymous

        I live in an area of the world where paper is enormously expensive, and where hour long bus rides to deliver or sign documents to administrative centers is the norm.

        Yet, if people are on the internet, they’re on Facebook.  Considering Mr. Zuckerberg’s admirable investment in the Newark school system, and considering Microsoft’s investment in Facebook, I think some sort of system that creates a simple electronic file that could be easily accessible would be wonderful!

        • Anonymous

          Like http://docs.com/ I guess.  But it needs to be marketed better.

        • Anonymous

          Like http://docs.com/ I guess.  But it needs to be marketed better.

        • Anonymous

          Like http://docs.com/ I guess.  But it needs to be marketed better.

        • Anonymous

          Like http://docs.com/ I guess.  But it needs to be marketed better.

      • Anonymous

        I live in an area of the world where paper is enormously expensive, and where hour long bus rides to deliver or sign documents to administrative centers is the norm.

        Yet, if people are on the internet, they’re on Facebook.  Considering Mr. Zuckerberg’s admirable investment in the Newark school system, and considering Microsoft’s investment in Facebook, I think some sort of system that creates a simple electronic file that could be easily accessible would be wonderful!

      • Anonymous

        I live in an area of the world where paper is enormously expensive, and where hour long bus rides to deliver or sign documents to administrative centers is the norm.

        Yet, if people are on the internet, they’re on Facebook.  Considering Mr. Zuckerberg’s admirable investment in the Newark school system, and considering Microsoft’s investment in Facebook, I think some sort of system that creates a simple electronic file that could be easily accessible would be wonderful!

  • Anonymous

    Well, that was fast.  I see the Kodu Game Lab as being up:

    http://fuse.microsoft.com/page/kodu

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      I think the problem is that the page for free teacher resources from Microsoft links to a different, non-functioning page, and has yet to be updated:

      http://fuse.microsoft.com/project/kodu.aspx

      Good to know the resource is still there, of course.

      • Scott Fintel

        Thanks for the link, will look into it.  We continue to support Kodu, including launching a community site to showcase levels and creativity of Kodu creation:  http://www.kodugamelab.com

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

          Glad to see that Microsoft has fixed the link. The page appears to have good resources and it’s useful to the education market and educators to keep it current.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ElizabethCorcoran Elizabeth Corcoran

    Frank, as a long-time MSFT watcher, your comments point up one of the great challenges the company has had over the past decade: empowering people within the company –then using their inspirations to drive change. I remember the days when MSFT developers marvelled that the lines of code they wrote would be used by millions around the globe. That sense of an intimate connection is harder for MSFT now: a lot of process, checks & balances lie between developers and their customers. As you suggest, a simple start might be a cleanly designed page of what MSFT offers to educators for free. When a company has the sweep and scale of MSFT, it can be hard to remember that most revolutions still start with tiny steps.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      Thanks, Betsy. I think Microsoft may be doing more in education, but if so, the efforts are scattered and not well communicated because of the company’s structure and apparent lack of focus on this market. One step forward would be a bold statement that “THIS is our role” (whatever “this” is) and pulling together proof points of existing and planned efforts to support it. But I haven’t seen that yet. It’s especially stark in contrast to what the Gates Foundation has done.

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