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Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    MOOR brings lab research capability to MOOCs

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    Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have become one of the hottest trends in higher education, providing access to high-quality classes from such elite universities as Stanford and MIT. MOOCs thus offer a new opportunity for self-directed learning for millions of students worldwide. However, most MOOC platforms have been designed around the conventional classroom-learning model, with short lectures followed by a multiple-choice quiz that reinforces what has been taught during the video.

    While this model works well for many subjects, it falls short in the sciences and engineering, where students need to conduct research experiments to support their study. Consequently, a major challenge in current MOOC systems is how to design a framework that effectively supports large-scale, self-directed learning as well as self-organized experiments and research. To meet this need, Beihang University, in collaboration with Microsoft Research Asia, has developed MOOR (Massive Open Online Research), a new cloud-based platform built on Microsoft Azure.

    The MOOR platform consists of three major components:

    1. A course-specific virtual lab facility, which enables remote access to the devices needed for experiments
    2. Course-management middleware, which coordinates both the online course services and virtual lab services, such as lab reservations, resource allocations, and lab assignment grading
    3. The MOOR portal, which integrates the virtual lab functions into the online learning interface

    The illustration below shows the relationship of these three pieces.

     The MOOR platform consists of three components, each of which plays an essential role in enabling lab experiments and research in MOOCs.
    The MOOR platform consists of three components, each of which plays an essential role in enabling lab experiments and research in MOOCs.

    Wenjun Wu, professor of computer science and the MOOR project leader at Beihang University, comments that “MOOR lets teachers design course-specific content and tasks and allows students to conduct research and creative experiments remotely—anywhere, anytime.” The MOOR system will make its debut during the autumn semester at Beihang’s MOOC Center, where it will be used in conjunction with an undergraduate course in computer networking.

    As noted earlier, MOOR is powered by Microsoft Azure—for good reason. As a massive online learning environment, MOOR needs to push high-quality video streams to tens of thousands of students simultaneously, a need that demands a cloud-based, elastic video streaming service. With its almost limitless scalability, Azure easily supports large-scale media streaming of MOOC lecture videos. In addition, Azure provides virtual machine (VM) resources that permit customization of the software environment of the virtual labs; by defining VMs, instructors enable their students to run course-specific simulations and logic verifications and to access virtual lab equipment. Furthermore, Azure tools facilitate Python-based web portal development for MOOR and support load balancing for the web application.

    Professor Wu and his team are continuing to collaborate with Microsoft Research Asia to enhance MOOR, which will be one of the featured demos at the Microsoft Research Asia Faculty Summit 2014 in Beijing from October 30 to 31. “We look forward to interacting with distinguished scientists and scholars from Microsoft Research and top Asian universities [at the summit],” said Professor Wu. “This is not only a great opportunity to let top-tier academics learn about our project, but also a chance for us to get their feedback and suggestions for future improvement, and an opening for exploring possible collaboration in the future.”

    —Xin Ma, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

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    Microsoft Open Letter to Academic Research Community

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    I would like to thank the broad computing research community which has taken the time to share its thoughts and concerns about the recent closure of our research lab in Silicon Valley. I share with all of you a strong belief in the value of fundamental research and its importance for the long-term viability of our company, our industry, and our society, and want to reassure you of Microsoft’s commitment to fundamental research.
     
    Unfortunately, no organization—governmental, industrial, or academicis immune to change and the technology business in particular is defined by rapid evolution. Technology businesses need to constantly adapt in order to survive.  In July, our new CEO, Satya Nadella, discussed how Microsoft would transform to be the productivity and platform company for a mobile-first, cloud-first world, and evolve its culture to be more nimble. This transformation included reducing our workforce by 18,000 jobs. Each organization within Microsoft, including Microsoft Research, is accountable for driving changes in culture and organization, and each has to participate in the job reductions.
     
    No one at Microsoft feels good about the fact that a significant number of our friends and colleagues were laid off. These people contributed to the success of Microsoft over many years. As one can readily imagine, the decisions made about how the cuts were implemented within Microsoft Research were extremely complicated and personally painful. We feel with you the sense of loss that has been evoked by the closing of our Silicon Valley lab. We also understand the concerns that have been raised about the impact of these layoffs on certain parts of the community. We appreciate the community effort in helping those who have been impacted in the process, and we will be part of this effort.

    Please understand, though, that despite these layoffs, Microsoft maintains its commitment to fundamental research at a historically high level. Microsoft Research still stands strong with more than 1,000 people in labs worldwide, making it one of the largest research institutions of its kind in the world, either industrial or academic. Microsoft Research continues to be one of the very few organizations in industry that does true academic-style open research. We will continue to partner with the academic research community not only in moving forward the state of the art in computing but also in developing computing talent around the world. 
     
    As he was retiring from his role as Chief Research Officer more than a year ago, the founder of Microsoft Research, Rick Rashid, said that what he cared about most was that Microsoft Research and its people would stay true to its values: a commitment to fundamental research and a commitment to creating a future, both for Microsoft, and for the field of computing. I assure you that those values have not changed.

    Harry Shum, Executive Vice President, Technology & Research

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Celebrating eScience and the contributions of Paul Watson

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    Congratulations to Paul Watson—Winner of the 2014 Jim Gray eScience Award

    In preparation for my recent trip to Guarujá, Brazil, I did what any tech savvy eight-year-old would do: I searched the web for information about my destination. One of the top search results was a site that offered “41 Things to Do in Guarujá.” But from my point of view, that website failed to mention the most meaningful thing to do in Guarujá: attend the Microsoft eScience Workshop 2014, October 20–22.

    Held in conjunction with the 10th IEEE International Conference on e-Science, the workshop provides three days of thought-provoking discussions and presentations on dealing with data-driven scientific research. But perhaps the most significant moment of the event for me came this morning when I had the honor of presenting the eighth annual Jim Gray eScience Award to Paul Watson, an innovative computer scientist who has made ground-breaking contributions to the field of eScience.

    Paul is professor of computer science and director of the Digital Institute at Newcastle University in the UK. His many contributions to eScience over the past 10 years include establishing a leading center in support of the UK e-Science Initiative. Since 2007, he has focused on the design of e-Science Central, a cloud-based, science-as-a-service platform that has become a main research vehicle in such areas as provenance, scalability, formal methods, and federated clouds. Paul’s 2011 paper, “A Multi-Level Security Model for Partitioning Workflows over Federated Clouds,” an incisive discussion of using federated clouds to meet the security requirements of applications,  won a Best Paper award at IEEE CloudCom 2011.

    Additionally, Paul’s work since the 1980’s as a designer of the Alvey Flagship and the Esprit EDS systems, together with his research projects in scalable information management, embody the type innovation in eScience that Jim Gray would have appreciated—and are exactly the kinds of achievements that the Jim Gray eScience Award was created to recognize.

    Well done, Paul.

    —Harold Javid, Director, Microsoft Research

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