Microsoft Underground Part 1 #redefinelearn
A few weeks ago, I received an invitation in my mailbox for a special opportunity from Microsoft. Teachers get e-mails like this a lot… nominate a student, sign up for a free trial of our math tools, subscribe to our newsletter. I almost deleted it, but instead I looked inside and was intrigued at the invitation. They were asking me to come to Seattle for an educator’s workshop and underground tour, to have a conversation about education and technology. The topics sounded right in my wheelhouse: Skype, coding, Minecraft, and engaging students in curiosity and innovative practice. I made the trip to Microsoft HQ this weekend to check it out. Their write-up is here. That’s me in the cover photo! In short, it was an incredible experience and I was blown away. I was very engaged in their tech products and really interested also in their corporate philosophy, culture, and attitudes toward education. I’d like to use this post to talk about my experience with the technology, some of the interesting products we were introduced to in this ed tech landscape.
At the Underground workshop, we used a Surface Pro loaded with OneNote.
The OneNote pages were already populated with the content for our workshop. Each session had its own tab, with embedded images, videos, links, and a bio and contact information for all of the speakers. There was a page for us to add our own notes. I’m a note-taker and I happily used this little personal space to jot down what I heard in many sessions.
I enjoyed tabbing to the live doodle page where an artist created comics for every session we attended. These were a creative summary of the work we did.
My school district currently uses Google for Education products, and there are similar features here – collaborative realtime work for you and the kids, tools to manage your classes, embedded multimedia. I was talking with one of the workshop leaders about how much I like Google Classroom, and she told me that she was a fan as well, but has since been sold on OneNote because the process of grading and giving feedback to kids has been greatly streamlined. I am curious how this looks and would love to try it for a semester to see if I like it as a classroom tool.
Two awesome add-ons to OneNote were Office Lens and the Immersive Reader. Office Lens is a step up from a scanner – it uploads existing documents to Word and makes text and images editable separately. Super helpful for updating old worksheets in your new tech-rich life. Immersive Reader is the result of a companywide hackathon – it scaffolds text for readers who need larger text, syllable breakdowns, parts of speech, phonetics and such. Students who might struggle to read an article or text could get support from the Immersive Reader. Adults too, for that matter.
We all know and love Skype. Great tool for families and friends to communicate with each other, and the occasional business meeting. What was different about our use of Skype in this workshop was that we used it purposefully to make the world a little smaller and accomplish goals for students.
Skype for global connections and service: Andrea Friend, a middle school educator and presenter, uses Skype to connect her kids with a community in Kenya and help them obtain water filters. Her students were challenged to meet a fundraising goal in cooperation with a company called LifeStraw. In my own school, students Skype with friends in Uganda to find out about their needs and use the school’s makerspace to create tiny rechargeable lanterns to send them. They also consult with a high school physics class in Canada to create the lanterns. This kind of experience makes social studies and science so real for the kids. They have read about Africa. They colored their maps and they know the physical geography and the GDP of each country and the major religions. But until they have talked with kids their age in Africa, and have seen where they live and found out they want lanterns so they can safely use the outdoor toilet at night without being bothered by lions (!) – they don’t really understand. It’s profound when the connection creates that understanding.
Another great use of Skype was the virtual field trip. Microsoft’s education website lists many virtual field trips you can schedule with your kids. We went on a live virtual field trip to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and we video-chatted with a real pygmy hedgehog, a baby alligator, and a tarantula. We got to ask questions and learn interesting facts about the special adaptations of these critters to their environment. What a clever and engaging way to teach your kids ecology – and practically free. While there’s nothing that can replace a real field trip, a Skype is something you could do on a regular basis and still get the interactive learning.
Our final Skype experience was a real crowd-pleaser. We were introduced to Maria from WonderGrove, a cartoon character that can Skype with you! She connects with young kids in ways that adults can’t, and she’s amazing for teaching the little ones basic social skills and more. In real life, Maria is a voice actor and a joystick control that’s converted to an animated character – but she had us all fooled for a long time and even I was asking myself “can Maria really SEE me?” Kids love her and she’s a nice addition to the Skype portfolio for the younger set.
Minecraft and Coding
We attended a workshop on Minecraft that segued into a discussion and workshop on coding. Minecraft is one of my favorite computer tools. My daughters taught me a ton about it over the summer, and I am using the MinecraftEDU version of the program in a couple of my classes this year. Many of my colleagues had never worked with Minecraft before, and I learned some new things about the possibilities of this platform that I’m so glad I experienced.
If we had experience with Minecraft, our task was to make a re-creation of our childhood home. The front view of my parents’ home is dominated by the garage, so I started there. I found myself asking questions I never had to ask about a house before. How many Minecraft blocks deep is a garage? How many wide? How should I gable the roof? What material best looks like the yellow siding on my folks’ home? When you’re given a creation task in Minecraft, you start from the end product you want to make. You drill down to some questions about it – dimensions, materials, tools. You drill down to even more questions. You end up with a pile of small bits of information and plans you’ve made.. your requirements. You start building them up into the small standalone parts and then backing up and tearing down and re-designing some of them because you messed up the first time. When you’re done, you invite a friend to tour around your creation and give you feedback.
You know what you just did? You engineered something, something difficult. In a video game!
Adam Clarke showed us some of the possibilities we can imagine with Minecraft. A scale model of a human body made in Minecraft blocks that you can dive inside and look around. A renewable energy plant. A temple of peace and hope. Famous works of art you can tour around and discover through hidden messages and signs and sounds. It’s an impressive world and it’s extensible beyond your imagination. Adam goes by The Wizard Keen in the Minecraft and YouTube world. My students were so very impressed that Adam has worked with “stampylonghead”, their favorite Minecraft YouTuber.
We moved on to coding. Microsoft opened with a pitch about the necessity to get every student coding and why. Jobs. Critical thinking. Diversity in tech. Opportunity. Change the world. Steve Isaacs gave us a tour of their new Hour of Code tutorials created with Minecraft. Great puzzles as Hour of Code activities always are. They introduce basic coding concepts embedded within interesting puzzles to solve.
One of the engineers demonstrated TouchDevelop and showed us how it interfaces with the BBC micro:bit. We explored a portfolio of software for coding. I would use TouchDevelop and SmallBasic in my world, teaching middle school CS. The micro:bit programming is really engaging and contains a simulator of the device. The more I play with the idea of this platform, the more I like it. Students today are used to having their own personal electronic, and here is one that is low-cost and has a small prototype of many of the systems in their smart phones – a display, inputs, sensors, embedded programming, output pins. I could see this device engaging a lot of potential electrical engineers.
Tony Prophet took us on a tour of IT administrative software and various 1:1 student devices. He emphasized that Microsoft is listening to the need for low-cost, high-performing devices for students and the software to manage it – and we’re making progress. There were some sturdy and powerful devices at the $200 price point.
Our final stop of the day was to a Microsoft science fair. The purpose of this, I think, was twofold: to showcase some additional technology, but also to show us the result of an innovative corporate culture. The culture is the subject of another post, but the technology was pretty cool too – I geeked out a lot here.
There were a great number of cool micro:bit projects that employees had set up, and I was so very excited at the potential of the little devices. Among the projects were a color sensor interfacing to a webpage (I called it a “banana ripeness tester” because it could show you the color of your banana), a two-player PONG game, a time and temperature sensor, and a homemade seismograph. Kids could create all of this stuff, and by the time they will have had a year or so of micro:bit work under their belts, I bet we’ll be amazed at some of the creative and rich work they produce. I work with embedded electronics with my kids and am constantly amazed at the cool things they think of – and how hard they work when they are creating something difficult that they came up with.
We saw several projects working with Microsoft’s Raspberry Pi IoT (Internet of Things) platform, such as a race car timer and an electronic piano. I liked what I saw and again love the openness and hackability of the Raspberry Pi. I have a lot of trouble wrapping my head around the IoT. One of my students and I worked on an IoT project with an Intel Galileo earlier in the year, and we were able to use a web interface to make LED’s light up and such, but the whole thing felt like a lot of work for very little payoff. The slot cars and piano didn’t have any special connectivity with anything, and you could have done the same experiments with an Arduino. What is the Internet of Things? How are we going to connect the things in our lives together? I’m still not seeing the whole picture there, but I hope to.
We enjoyed looking at other innovations such as data visualization tools and table-sized pinchable, rotatable screens, and HyperLapse, a timelapse video editing tool that is a vast improvement over existing timelapse software.
I enjoyed what I saw from Microsoft. Overall their tools for education are creative, open platforms that allow for a lot of personalization of the educational experience. They truly help connect people and ideas. They allow kids to learn deeply. I loved what I didn’t see as well. I didn’t see software full of practice problems or low-level test prep. I personally believe Microsoft is heading in a very good direction with their education products, and they may yet change the world again and win the hearts and minds of a whole new generation of young people.
In the next post, I’ll talk more about the conversations we had and the philosophy I experienced around corporate culture and the ed-tech world. In the meantime I have an awful lot of geeking out to do when it comes to hardware and software. I am going to give OneNote Classroom a try next semester, to see if I like it compared to Google Classroom. I am very interested in being one of the first classroom teachers in the US to pilot the micro:bit. I told my students about it and showed them pictures, and they were beyond excited and jealous of kids in the UK!