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It’s not easy being the big kid at the popular children’s pool. Yet that’s exactly where Microsoft finds itself with today’s launch of Office Mix into the now-hot education technology market.

Microsoft’s new Office Mix feature for PowerPoint includes features for building and offering quizzes.

However, it never hurts for a new arrival to bring treats. And Microsoft’s treat is that Office Mix is free.

Office Mix is an add-in to PowerPoint 2013 (either as part of Office 2013 or Office 365) that signals Microsoft’s push into online and interactive education. After visiting the Office Mix portal, educators (or anyone) can download the add-in that causes a Mix ribbon to appear within PowerPoint.

From that ribbon, teachers click buttons to integrate quizzes and videos into the PowerPoint, record narration or video, add whiteboard-like drawings, and essentially turn what might have been a static series of slides into a full-on multimedia lesson.

Then the link to the Mix-ifyed PowerPoint is shared via email and viewed by students in the cloud without using Office, as long as they have a supported web browser (at this moment, that includes Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari on laptop and desktop computers, but not yet Apple or Android tablets or smartphones, though that’s promised soon). Teachers are able to track which students have viewed the Mix and their performance on any embedded quizzes. For offline non-interactive viewing, mixes can be exported to MP4 video.

Office Mix is technically in what Microsoft calls “customer preview,” which is somewhere between beta and general release. The add-in has its roots in Microsoft Research work dating back to 2012, and as General Manager Shanen Boettcher of Microsoft’s Startup Business Group noted, “We’re not done with the product.” He told me he’s looking for feedback from educators on “how they’re using it, and what they wish they had.”

Office Mix LogoOn one hand, there’s a small bit of irony about PowerPoint being used as the Office Mix platform. PowerPoint is, after all, the poster child for delivering boring presentations in non-interactive settings. Often used by a “sage on the stage” (edu-speak for “droning instructor”) to read dense text on slides to captive students, PowerPoint has become the punchline to many jokes about poor communication.

On the other hand, PowerPoint’s own ubiquity makes it the perfect platform: by some estimates, roughly 90 percent of teachers have used PowerPoint in some way. As Boettcher observed, “This tool is something that’s familiar to them (and) that lets them lay it out the way they want.”

A final consideration is that Office Mix leverages Microsoft’s strengths. Microsoft over time has famously had several approaches to the school market, from simply encouraging teachers to learn to use plain-vanilla SharePoint and Office in the classroom, to highlighting very cool tools from Microsoft Research or Microsoft Education Labs like Worldwide Telescope. Not to mention the “playful learning” initiative for Kinect, and a heavily hyped 10,000 Surface RT tablet giveaway for teachers.

Office Mix takes a core strength – the unquestioned success of Office and its applications – and layers on education-specific enhancements. It even allows directly incorporating exercises and videos from well-known education names such as Khan Academy and CK-12 Foundation. While it’s clear Office Mix could be used by anyone (Boettcher admitted he uses it for status updates to his team), education is the primary target market. He says, “We really wanted to get the education scenario right. That’s really the North Star for the product.”

So is that Microsoft’s new education strategy, to extend Office applications in unique ways for education? “We’ve already had a lot of requests to make this capability available in other Office tools,” Boettcher said. “We’re thinking about the next scenarios here, for sure.” But no public commitments yet.

What’s clear is that with Office Mix, Microsoft is moving closer to the deep end of the learning pool and can either continue to follow through to make an impressive, elegant dive – or do a lot of noisy, disruptive splashing.

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