Parliament’s Education and Science Select Committee has launched an enquiry about education needs for the country’s future. The enquiry seeks to identify possible savings in technology and buildings, to develop recommendations regarding optimal learning environments, and to identify the skills required for teachers and students to achieve their full potential in the modern world.

Nikki Kaye MP says, “Through the inquiry there is an opportunity to hear from stakeholders across both the education and technology sectors about how we ensure that New Zealand children can become even more digitally literate.”

The New Zealand education achieves excellent results based on international measures. We should be proud of that, but there is more to be done.

Every child needs to have a safe and supportive environment that respects and fosters learning. Those who understand how education can help them achieve more will naturally be motivated to achieve, at any stage of their life. An expectation of what the future holds can be transformative, and we believe that articulating career pathways to learners is an important component of this.

Technology makes it easier than ever to give all learners the opportunity to excel, no matter who or where they are.

Microsoft has invested in communities and technology to support learning over many years, as we see it as a critical component of a smart, connected and competitive New Zealand.  Last week, we were honoured that the Committee took the time to hear from Anthony Salcito (Vice-President, Education) while he was in New Zealand. 

Investing in educators

Microsoft’s education investments are guided by research on the needs of teachers and learners. Through this, we have found that one of the most important contributions we can offer is to support teachers in sharing their work among themselves, to nurture innovations that were incubated in individual classrooms and bring them to the world.

Partners in Learning is about teachers helping one another, and it’s free to join. Earlier in the year, we were pleased to be able to host teachers and education leaders from 19 countries in Auckland to share innovation at the Partners in Learning Asia Pacific Forum 2012. We encourage all teachers and education leaders to explore join Partners in Learning and explore the resources on the website.  

Finding a shared vision of 21st century learning

Education leaders around the world are working through similar challenges as they adapt learning methods to 21st century requirements.

Consultation and data analysis are a critical component of this work, and to simplify this for schools and the wider community, Microsoft offers two free toolkits that education leaders and communities can use to help them develop a shared vision.

Partners in Learning School Research provides an easy way to survey teachers to help schools better understand existing teaching and learning practices and understand what innovation means for them. It can help establish a common vision for innovative teaching and learning, and ways to measure that innovation.

The Innovative Schools Toolkit provides survey tools and a practical guide for the wider community of school stakeholders to begin the journey of innovation through consultation.

Technology that supports learning

Microsoft is often asked about how technology can help.

Given that technology by itself has not been shown to enhance learning outcomes, we caution against focusing attention on shiny gadgets as an end in themselves. Technology’s role in general education should be first and foremost in the background, as a tool for education.

However, put in the right context to genuinely support learning outcomes, technology does of course play an important role in 21st century learning. Here are some examples of what we see schools using around the world.

Classroom tools. In many countries, Microsoft’s Word and Skype products are the two top technology tools used in classrooms, with PowerPoint, Internet Explorer and OneNote for note taking also being extremely popular. The free Māori language packs for Microsoft’s Windows and Office products have proven to be popular in language immersion classes and schools.

Anywhere access. With Microsoft’s free SkyDrive service, documents created in Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote can be stored, viewed and edited in the cloud without losing document fidelity, making anywhere access available to all students through a web browser.

Making the best of broadband capacity. The BranchCache technology in Windows 7 Enterprise has proven to be effective at helping schools overcome spikes in bandwidth demand – for example, when all the students in a class launch a single online resource at the start of a lesson, a common scenario that can challenge even the best Internet connections. BranchCache allows resources to be cached locally so that only the first Windows 7 PC needs to use the external Internet connection to download the content.

Supporting tomorrow’s innovators. To encourage and foster STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning, Microsoft provides complimentary access to professional software engineering tools through the DreamSpark programme. Students enjoy learning programming concepts in the context of Microsoft offerings such as Small Basic – which encourages sharing of source code for learning, Kodu Game Lab – which allows learning of programming concepts through creation of games using a visual interface, and of course the Kinect sensor.

In the last 12 months, there were 82,000 downloads of these tools by New Zealand students.

Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, attended by over 1,000 people in New Zealand this year, encourages students to take the next step, to form teams and develop technology solutions to help solve the world’s toughest problems.

Collaboration in the cloud. To help schools enhance collaboration and for students to own their own portfolio of work, many of Microsoft’s enterprise grade cloud services – which place emphasis on student rights including data ownership and privacy – are available to schools at no cost. The free Office 365 for Education A2 plan includes browser based access to Microsoft’s cloud services for email, online conferencing and messaging, document storage and collaboration, and Office web apps. Optionally, for just a few dollars per student per month, students can also be given the option to use the latest Office Professional suite on up to five devices.

Saving on device costs. Few schools or parents can afford buying separate gadgets for consumption and creation. Unexpected costs can result from issues such as short support lifecycles, or the lack of support for multiple user accounts or the multitude of Flash-based learning resources.

With Windows 8, Microsoft is creating the foundation for devices that are equally capable of acting as a touch-based slate, or a traditional Windows desktop PC, depending on what the user needs at the time for the task at hand.

Like its predecessor, the upcoming Windows 8 operating system will have equal or lower system requirements and a long support lifecycle so that many existing devices can be upgraded to the latest technology.

Access to a device like a PC is not an education solution in itself, but in the right educational context it is an important component of 21st century learning as it enables learners have anywhere access to technology, including the many wonderful resources such as the Khan Academy and others that are now available free of charge, enabling students to do more of their learning independently. A country like New Zealand has the means through partnerships for education between Government, communities, and businesses to ensure that all learners have access to a device that will enhance their learning and help to close the opportunity divide.

Saving on infrastructure costs. Cloud services also play an important role in helping to save infrastructure costs. Schools can share private cloud resources based in New Zealand, or use a hybrid model that shares identity and access with global public cloud services. Education systems around the world are beginning to take up cloud services such as Windows Azure to run customised applications such as examinations, and to gather and analyse education data to support evidence-based decision making.

Digital Literacy and Digital Citizenship

Regardless of which technology is being used, digital literacy and digital citizenship are important for productive, safe, secure, and private use of all that the Internet has to offer.

Microsoft offers complimentary resources to teach basic technical skills that are needed to get by online, and also relating issues such as online safety, security, bullying, and privacy. We commend NetSafe's excellent work in New Zealand schools on the latter issue.

Beyond these basics, Microsoft also offers a more advanced syllabus through the IT Academy eLearning programme for those who want to gain deeper technical skills. Many schools and even Governments around the world are making this syllabus available to students.

Towards a smart, connected and competitive New Zealand

Microsoft believes in the importance of education for all New Zealanders. Education is a critical element of building a better opportunity for all New Zealanders. As an employer we know that we – and others in hi-tech industries – desperately more people with 21st century skills, including digital literacy, collaborative and critical thinking skills, and expertise in the whole spectrum of STEM subjects. 

We are encouraged by the enquiry into 21st century learning, and we would urge everyone to get involved with this important work.

I look forward to building on Microsoft’s long term partnership with education leaders and schools in New Zealand to play our part in building a better future for this country.

By Waldo Kuipers, Corporate Affairs Manager, Microsoft New Zealand Limited

Additional resources:
Microsoft Education Hub