I spent two days this week in Redmond at our 8th annual U.S. Public Sector CIO Summit. I like these annual events because they provide us with the opportunity to deeply connect with customers. I also love them because the event serves as an annual reflection point, so we can see year-over-year what things have changes, how perceptions have changed, and learn what we can improve. I really enjoyed talking to our K12 and Higher Education Advisory Councils. These groups are great because we have consistent conversations and they give us honest feedback on where things are going, where we need to do a better job, what’s working, what’s not working, etc.…their feedback is always great, refreshing and redoubles our commitment to education.

One thing we heard consistently in meetings with higher education customers is that there are real concerns around financial setbacks. Institutions are facing tremendous challenges with budget and staff cuts, while at the same time meeting increasing expectations from students and faculty…so doing more with less has never been more true in higher education. I think one of the things that is resonating is the focus on real practical solutions…so give me solutions that I can deploy in my existing environment, solutions that can be added at low, incremental cost, and provide the flexibility to provide a modern infrastructure and support environment for schools.

One of things that link the higher education conversations with K12 is this focus on learning management systems. There’s a great need for innovation as well as leverage of learning management environments. So, as we think about content repositories and the way in which assessment is evolving, institutions are looking for great opportunities to exercise that with learning management systems…and there were a lot of conversations at the event about different options, as well as the way in which people are thinking about building off the Microsoft platform.

For the K12 audience, I think the conversation has really been focused on a number of core things. One, how schools are continuing to push on the usage of data to drive effective decisions. Two, thinking about how we can increase the language on employability in schools about how we can make learning more relevant and connected to students. And three, the other topic of discussion was the gap between where we are and where we need to be with regards to 1:1 access in the US. We really need to think differently about new models, new concepts with regards to PC acquisition…we need to start having a better dialogue about it in the United States. We’ve got to move from an acquisition or device-centric world to one that is much more holistic and more focused on learning…but we also have to be much more creative with regards to funding structures and tax structures. We need to take the PC procurement burden away from a school and put it on a state, city or federal level to think about tax breaks and funding options for making technology acquisition easier for poor families, thereby returning the focus of schools back to improving learning and creating rich technology environments for students.

I also spoke to a lot of customers about things like Xbox and game-based learning to get kids more excited about learning. We see some early examples with the integration of Kodu into curriculum and the classroom, but folks are also looking at things like Project Natal and other innovations happening in the game world and are pushing on and are curious about the potential to impact classrooms and make learning more exciting and interactive for students…that was a good side conversation.

Like I said, these meetings are a great opportunity to reflect on where we need to go and we got some good feedback on creating programs and providing resources. We heard that we’ve got to simplify and make sure people are aware of the things we are doing. We’ve got a lot of things going on, lots of programs that provide tremendous value in education, but people often remark they wished they knew about them earlier. So clearly, we have to do a better job of making resources easier to find, to better connect with schools, students and teachers…and that’s something we’re working on to simplify and scale the impact we can have in education.

I was able to catch a couple of my conversations with customers on video…and I will be sharing those over the next week.