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Microsoft Education Exec. on Ed. Tech During Coronavirus

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we'll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Dan Ayoub, general manager of education at Microsoft, works on mixed reality, artificial intelligence, higher ed, and STEM education for the software giant. Prior to this, Dan spent 20 years in the gaming industry, most notably as studio head for the iconic title Halo. I reached out to Dan to ask about Microsoft Education's response to coronavirus and to get his take on how to make virtual learning engaging. Here's what he had to say.

Rick: What has Microsoft done in response to the coronavirus to help schools and districts?

Dan: I have been immensely proud of how Microsoft has responded to take care of its customers, community, and employees in this time. We have been helping schools, districts, and countries around the world get online and teaching. Not to promote products here, but Teams in education has exploded. For those unsure, Microsoft Teams is a collaboration tool for an organization or school that combines video chat, file and app sharing, etc. There are also specialized education features like tools to manage your class and distribute assignments.

In addition to funding initiatives and donations, we've opened up access to our software and added new tools and features to our products based on educator feedback. We've provided free cloud resources, workshops, and training to educators; helped institutions migrate online; donated hardware; and created online curriculum and virtual camps for educators and parents, to name a few.

Rick: What are you hearing from teachers, principals, districts, and parents about what's going on?

Dan: At an educator and district level, it feels like we've transitioned from, "We just need to get online right away and use what we have," to more deliberate thinking around what to use and how to approach things when schools open up again. Many educators are preparing for a second wave of shutdowns in the fall and are designing "blended learning" strategies around what it looks like to have students come back to school, then potentially be back at home. With the benefit of being able to plan more deliberately, I think many educators will take what they've learned from this rapid transition to distance learning and adapt to be as effective as possible going forward.

Rick: What have you seen come out of the ed-tech space that's got you excited?

Dan: As a general rule, I think you're seeing ed tech step up to the plate here, and that's exciting. Folks working in ed tech genuinely believe that technology is transformative for education, but in many cases, I think it was easy for people to procrastinate over the implementation of new methods. Now people who were hesitant to adopt ed tech are doing so in droves and seeing the benefits. Millions of users are now engaged and giving feedback on what they need.

Rick: What are the most helpful things that ed-tech companies could be doing?

Dan: I think we should look at three key areas:

Reducing friction:  You have got kids and parents at home trying to cope with this "normal," and making the technology easy to use and adopt is key.

Accessibility: Think about students with learning differences or who speak multiple languages. Remote learning exacerbates the need to think about accessibility in everything you do, and I'm proud that this has been a focus at Microsoft.

Listen to teachers: These are our warriors out there, and they know what they need. Hear them when they ask for features or call out things that don't work, and give them access to training.

Rick: Is there anything that you've seen going on that is unhelpful? What would you caution against?

Dan: If I had a word of caution for ed-tech companies, it would be to not be ambulance chasers and to remember that people are overwhelmed and trying to cope. I believe that the role of ed tech is to service teachers, students, and parents, and while there is opportunity right now, we shouldn't be opportunistic. Priority one needs to be finding ways to help.

To educators, I would just say make sure you do your homework before adopting technology. Privacy and security are critical now, and it's important to understand how these things are handled.

Rick: You spent years designing Halo and have probably thought more than anyone else in the ed-tech space about how to make online learning engaging for kids. What advice would you offer to teachers doing virtual learning for the first time? Any insights they should keep in mind?

Dan: There are a lot of concrete best practices being shared out there right now. I think the first piece of advice would be to remember that we're all learning here. It's OK to try things out, and not everything is going to work.

Beyond that, as you say, it's about engaging your students while they are at home. While limiting in some ways, this is freeing in others. One of the best things I heard from an educator is that it's great that you don't have to pack everything on a specific subject into a set time frame since you don't have another period coming—you can spread things out. There are also opportunities for self-directed learning and allowing students to pursue topics that they are interested in.

Finally, remember that your students are probably immensely comfortable with technology; maybe experiment with things outside of your own comfort zone. Video games are an amazing tool for education, and a number of educational game companies have made their resources free. Minecraft for Education has released a number of modules, and I am also a fan of Prodigy.

Rick: It often seems like game designers have figured out some things about engaging youths that have yet to show up in educational software. Have you seen any progress being made on this front since the entire nation has transitioned to distance learning?

Dan: I think most of the progress has been about making distance learning feasible and realistic at scale, and there's still a lot to do there at a practical level.

The best examples I've seen so far are those experiences that are built around what students are already enjoying doing today. There are great educational tools that take advantage of kids' comfort with short-form videos, like FlipGrid; and educational games are amazing at taking a child's love of games and play and using those mechanics to help them to learn.

At the end of the day, I think educational software developers can learn an immense amount about student engagement from game design. Games do very basic things exceptionally well: teaching skills, reinforcing those skills over time, building tolerance to risk and failure, and building social skills. 

Rick: OK, last question. I know you're home with kids of your own. What are you doing with them right now to keep them learning and engaged?

Dan: It's a challenge to say the least, and my genuine hope at the end of all this is that more folks see the ridiculously important role that educators play, and how difficult it is!

Our district recently started remote learning, but prior to that, I was effectively pulling standards-aligned content and creating a daily schedule for them, while starting to expose them to the next grade level as it was pretty clear that school was not coming back into session this year.

This meant I would pull some basic classes and worksheets for core subjects, then I would get them to go outside and play, and then come back and write about what they'd seen and what was interesting to them. We also did week-long projects on subjects they got to choose, so the engagement was there as they were digging deeper into topics that were of interest to them. It was hard to limit screen time, but I tried to keep it limited to some learning games, and Bill Nye the Science Guy! I also took the opportunity to do some dedicated French classes for them. My favorite memory of all that has to be their first gym class, where I took them outside and they realized I'd bought a whistle and they were doing shuttle runs!

Lastly, I wanted to make sure socialization wasn't missed. My kids are five and eight, so that was something they'd really miss out on with school closed. We booked lots of video calls with friends, and I found some co-operative play games like Roblox and Minecraft that my 8 year old could play with his friends.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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