Microsoft’s Big Bett Updates: Free VR Curriculum and Using a Pencil as a...

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Microsoft’s Big Bett Updates: Free VR Curriculum and Using a Pencil as a Stylus

By Tony Wan     Jan 23, 2019

Microsoft’s Big Bett Updates: Free VR Curriculum and Using a Pencil as a Stylus

More than 600 exhibitors and 34,000 attendees are expected to descend on London this week for the annual Bett show, where some companies come with a barrage of updates befitting one of the biggest education technology trade shows in the world.

Among them is Microsoft, whose list of announcements for Bett reads almost as long as the conference agenda. (Or so it feels.) But there’s a method to the all new devices, features and curriculum updates, say company officials: to reinforce Microsoft’s position in the education market with tools that make learning more affordable and accessible.

Some of the updates are fairly standard for a big technology company at a big tech expo—more devices and gadgets. On this note Microsoft didn’t disappoint: seven new Windows 10 devices from Acer, Dell and Lenovo that range from $189 to $300.

But one of them is particularly noteworthy: the Lenovo 300e, a 2-in-1 device with a screen that students can write on with any No. 2 pencil, instead of a stylus. This functionality offers a practical alternative to styluses, which require batteries or charging. And at prices ranging between $40 and $100, styluses are as expensive as they are easy to lose, as several educators told EdSurge last year.

On the software side, several new grading functions have been added to Microsoft Teams, the company’s version of a learning management system. (Its interface resembles a mashup of Slack and Google Classroom.) One new feature, Grade Sync, will automatically send grades from assignments done in Teams to the school’s student information system (SIS). Grade Sync is compatible with most popular SIS, including PowerSchool, Infinite Campus and Capita SIMS.

Managing and grading assignments in Microsoft Teams
Managing and grading assignments in Microsoft Teams. (Image credit: Microsoft)

In addition, an update to the Teams mobile app will let teachers grade assignments from iOS and Android phones. A new integration with Turnitin will also make it easier to check assignments for plagiarism with one click in Teams. (This only works with schools that have a Turnitin license.)

It’s no coincidence that these Teams updates come after Microsoft acquired several edtech startups last year. Justin Chando, now a product manager for Teams for Education, hails from Chalkup, a company he founded in 2013 to build classroom collaboration software. Microsoft is also teasing updates to Flipgrid, a video-discussion platform it purchased last June.

A Microsoft official did not disclose how many schools or users use Microsoft Teams for Education, only offering that usage has grown 251 percent in the last year. By comparison, Google claims more than 30 million users for Classroom, a likely competitor to Teams.

Microsoft is also pushing forth on the virtual reality (VR) front, offering 25 hours of free VR curricula on subjects spanning anatomy, biology, geology and physics to anyone who buys a Windows virtual reality headset (which currently range from $199 to $499.) This content is available through a partnership with VictoryVR, a provider of VR educational resources. Also available in VR is Immersive Reader, the company’s assistive-reading technology that supports learners with dyslexia.

Code Jumper
Students using Code Jumper. (Image credit: Microsoft)

Back in the tangible realm, Microsoft plans to transfer its technology behind Code Jumper, a physical programming language, to the American Printing House for the Blind, a nonprofit that supports learners with visual impairments. (Think of Code Jumper as “block-based programming” in physical form, with softball-sized blocks that offer haptic feedback and which can be connected to create commands.) Code Jumper traces its origins to Project Torino, an effort led by Microsoft’s research team to create a coding language accessible to learners with visual impairments. The American Printing House for the Blind plans to distribute Code Jumper across the world over the next five years.

Accessibility and inclusivity have become a guiding principle for Microsoft’s product development under CEO Satya Nadella, who has a son with special needs. Over the years, the company has continued to refine its Learning Tools, a free suite of tools that provide dictation and audio-visual supports for reading and writing.

Across this flurry of updates, Microsoft is making clear its ambition to regain ground in the education market—lost to competitors like Apple and Google. Company officials won’t say that on record. But in the past, the company has verbally taken aim at competing products, like Google’s Chromebook, which remains the most popular device purchased in U.S. K-12 schools, according to market research firm Futuresource Consulting.

K-12 mobile device shipment share (Apple, Google Microsoft)
Source: Futuresource Consulting

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