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The Australian Education Blog
Ray Fleming's take on what's interesting in Education IT in Australia

  • Education

    Education Partners at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference



    The Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) is in Los Angeles this year, from 10-14th July. If you've been before, then you'll remember that it's one of the key times of the year when we announce new information - and specifically focus on where it fits into our partner's business strategy.

    Last year's WPC had quite a few education specific sessions, including a very deep-dive into the Learning Analytics market, as well as looking at the wider opportunities for developing solutions for today's education market across schools and universities.

    At the moment, you can still get the early-bird rate on the 5-day All Access Pass (which works out at less than US$400 a day) until 25th April.

    I'll get more details on the education content shortly, but I'd definitely recommend registering to the conference, and considering entering yourself into the WPC Awards too. If you're looking for a great way to reward a valuable member of your team, a trip to WPC would definitely be a memorable experience which would deliver significant business benefits back to you too.

    Learn MoreLearn More about the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference

  • Education

    One in six schools block Wikipedia - the real reason


    Two weeks ago, when I wrote the "One in six schools block Wikipedia" blog post, I was obviously not thinking outside the box. I was thinking that it was a bad thing, and that it denied students access to valid and valuable information. But then somebody added a comment on the post that turned my thoughts upside down:

      On the flip side you could say that banning Wikipedia in schools is the best publicity that it could get... What better way to get kids to want to go home and illicitly read an encyclopedia, learning secretly hoping they don't get caught! I think you can put blocking Wikipedia up there with banning rock & roll and abstinence-only sex education as effective strategies, they only cause the opposite to occur.  

    So perhaps that's what's really going on - that by making learning seem somehow illicit, it makes it more attractive?

  • Education

    Examinations need to use the skills that students develop, and employers need


    I have a daughter who is 15-years old. Since the age of 11, my biggest recurring worry has been that she'll not achieve her full potential in life because of the exam system. Because she suffers from hay fever, which might drag her down on the day of her key exam. Because she might lose a boyfriend the day before her exams. And because she is living her life digitally - communicating and collaborating with friends and classmates using technology. Getting and giving help to her school friends by text, email, Facebook and instant messenger.

    But in the summers of 2012 and 2014, she'll suddenly have to give up that mode of learning. She'll be stuck in an exam hall with a pencil and paper. She'll be told to stop working with others. She'll be told not to refer to any external information. And she'll not be expected to use a computer.

    How fair is that? Not just on students, but also on teachers. And also, critically, on employers.

    As students, they've worked collaboratively, communicating constantly, and learning through that. And once students become employees, they'll be encouraged to work with others, communicating and collaborating constantly, and be able to research information, use reference sources, and use other people's work to build their own. She'll never be put in a room with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and told to solve a business problem alone.

    We know employers need students with skills of communication and collaboration. They are looking for people who can manage projects, keep to deadlines, work well with teams etc.

    So it's about time we saw more passionate pleas from people, like the one from Isabel Nisbet (retiring head of the UK's education qualifications quango Ofqual) to change the exam system:

    "My generation and the next have a lot to learn from today's pupils about the centrality of technology. They use IT as their natural medium. Yet we are even now accrediting new GCSEs, due to run for several years, still taken largely on paper. This cannot go on. Our school exams are running the risk of becoming invalid, as the medium of pen and ink increasingly differs from the way in which young people learn."

    Judging by the comments on this TES article from last week, my views aren't likely to be popular, but I strongly believe the exam system has to change, because today the principal use of a high school exam is to get into university, and the principal use for a degree for many students is to get into the job interview. (I don't mean the courses, or the learning journey - purely the exam process at the end of it). But not many employers spend much interview time looking at exam results - instead they focus on exploring experiences, skills and attitudes to make the right decision.

    Last year one of my colleagues was quoted saying "We are witnessing the death of teaching and the dawn of learning". I wonder what the epitaph should be for paper-based exams?

    All of this is just my personal opinion, not a reflection of anybody else's. You can add your opinion in the Comments section

  • Education

    IT Security in Education


    A newly published page on the Microsoft Education site in the US might be helpful to you to get an overview of the different aspects of IT security in education that we can provide answers for. Topics covered include:

    • More secure email messaging
    • More secure portal and document collaboration
    • More security for endpoints - laptops, portable storage etc
    • More secure identity and access management

    All of these issues are topical in education, whether it's about securing information that's in digital form as it flies around the internet, or securing physical devices that contain sensitive date, like teachers' laptops.

    Learn MoreRead the full story on IT Security in Education on the US Microsoft Education site

  • Education

    Business Intelligence in schools–a short demonstration of setting up alerts


    Rod Colledge, Microsoft MVP, of StrataDBRod Colledge, is a Microsoft Most Valued Professional (MVP) for SQL Server, and an expert on the technology side of the use of Business Intelligence in education in Australia. For a living, he helps Microsoft customers with their own business intelligence projects, through his business at StrataDB. But in his role as a Microsoft MVP in his spare time he speaks at conferences, writes books, and shares his knowledge freely.

    One of the things that he’s been able to do is record a series of short videos of examples of using business intelligence in education, and the new features in SQL Server 2012 and Microsoft Office 2013, to show some of the simple things that are useful for school leaders and teachers. I’ll share one video every day for the next week, as I think they are ideal for showing to colleagues to start a discussion about how they’d like to use data in your institution, and whether they can start to use some of the features of the latest software releases.

    Today’s video is a demonstration of a key feature for an business intelligence in education project - the ability to set alerts automatically, to allow you to 'manage by exception', rather than having to trawl reports looking for outliers and identify performance issues manually.

    The example that's used here (with a dummy dataset) is using student absences to generate alerts, and uses Microsoft SQL Server 2012, and PowerPivot reports.

    If you’d like to know more about Rod and his projects, you can find out more on the StrataDB website or email Rod directly

  • Education

    Where are the IT jobs?


    I just read an interesting article on the APC magazine website, about the hot skills required in 2012 for IT jobs. If you’re thinking about the skills that students will need as they enter employment, then it’s a great article to share with your students (and if you’re hoping to influence students to choose a computing subject as they make future course choices, it’s a cracking article to share!). According to Peter Noblet at Hayes IT recruitment, and the Clarius Skills Index reports, there’s high demand for IT candidates across the board, with a forecast shortage of IT workers nationwide:


    The strongest areas of demand are related to growing use of virtualisation and cloud computing in large enterprises, says Noblet, with many organisations looking to implement Exchange 2010 and moving to a virtual environment that’s creating demand for Exchange, VMware, and storage candidates.

    Microsoft applications like Windows 7, Windows Server 2008, Exchange, SharePoint and the Lync unified-messaging platform figure strongly in recruiters’ activities due to the ongoing demand for in-house corporate messaging and collaboration platforms: “organisations are captivated by the perceived benefits and capabilities of SharePoint,” Noblet says.

    The market has, he adds, been equally voracious for lower-level skills like Java and .NET development, as well as higher-level business analyst and project management nous. And cloud computing expertise, particularly because the sector is relatively young, may prove to be exceptionally valuable to employers.


    It goes on to quote Michelle Downing at Dimension Data Learning Services, talking about the demand for skills training by employers, with a over half asking for training in Microsoft technical skills, compared to 3% needing VMware and 2% needing Citrix technical skills training. Business related skills needed by clients include ITIL, project management and business analysis.

    If I was in charge of IT courses in an education institution, I think I’d have this whole article projected  on a wall of every IT lab!

    Learn MoreRead the full APC article "Where are the new IT jobs"


    NB Can I also put a plug in here for the Microsoft IT Academy programme, where your students can earn professional industry qualifications whilst still at school/TAFE/university, and bump themselves up the pile of job candidates!

  • Education

    A week in Atlanta–Technology and Soda


    This week I'm in Atlanta, Georgia. Home of the CNN, Coke and, currently, a heatwave. It's our annual internal conference called MGX (Microsoft Global Exchange). I'm expecting it to be an amazing week, with it's usual astonishing organisation and conference content (could you imagine organising a 12,000 person, 4 day conference, for global delegates?).

    We'll learn a huge amount, but sadly it’s an internal event which gives us an insight into the direction ahead. Of course, all the secrets will be safely locked away in my head! So if I can’t share anything from the conference, what can I share? Well, how about the social side of the conference?

    I'm sure I'll have some more stories to share at the end of the week, but as a taster (yup, pun intended), let me take you back to something I wrote in July 2009, after my first Atlanta trip:

    The World of Coke

    Well, I though that perhaps I could do a professional job on my visit to Atlanta’s World of Coke – with the “64 soda challenge”.

    imageHere’s the scenario – they’ve assembled a big pile of drinks machines, containing 64 of the company’s drinks around the room – grouped by continent. I, and Mike (my Government counterpart, and photographer on this occasion) started on Europe, and worked our way through Asia, Latin America and North America. One cup. 64 fizzy drinks. And a burning desire to do this properly!

    Not only did I have Mike with me to record the challenge, but I also took along my notepad, so that I can share with you some of the country highlights!


    But before I tell you about the best, how about some of the highlights?

    • Delaware Punch from the Honduras
      Which tasted just like water from a fish tank (the bit I get every week when I’m trying to syphon it off to clean it)
    • Simba from Paraguay
      Which tasted identical to Irn Bru
    • Inca Kola from Peru
      Which was actually okay, but didn't taste like Cola, and it was lime green.
    • Vegitabeta from Japan
      The label had a picture of a carrot, and a taste to match – like the water you’ve just washed the carrots in it
    • Bargs from North America
      Which tasted like a combination of the stuff you wash your mouth out with at the dentist, with a piquancy of deep heat
    • Fanta Birch Beer from North America
      According to Mike, this smells exactly like the cesspit in the Jorvik Viking Centre. I have no doubt of the accuracy of this, as he was a full time Viking for 6 months - except for weekends, when he had to play a Saxon
    • Mello Yello from North America
      This tastes like it should if you remember the slogan of the 1976 British drought ("If it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down")
    • Fanta Strawberry from North America
      Exactly like watered down Calpol
    • Vault from North America
      Had the full depth of Lemon Fairy Liquid, and the full taste of cold, fizzy Lemsip
    • Beverly from Italy
      This was odd, as it had almost no taste, apart from a hint that it's arrived through a long garden hose pipe.
    • Fanta Pineapple from Greece
      I think you can make this at home if you drop 5 pineapple chunks in a glass of sugar
    • Fanta Exotic from Uganda
      Like fizzy Umbongo, but the blinding colour of a red traffic light
    • Stoney Tangawizi from Tanzania
      Which not only got a prize for great naming, but had a great taste like Ginger Beer used to taste when you grew it yourself on the windowsill
    • Sunfill Menthe from Djibouti
      Was sweet and fizzy but it had the taste of watered down chewing gum
    • Bibo Candy Pine-Nut from South Africa
      It even had a picture of Pine-Nut on the label, but all it tasted of was desiccated coconut

    imageimage The drink from England was ‘Kinley Bitter Lemon’, which was a bit bizarre, because none of us had heard of it. And similarly, Beverly, from Italy wasn’t familiar to the half-dozen Italians that were with us. There must be a soft-drinks parallel-universe where people sit drinking Kinley all day, and eating Tunnocks Caramel Wafers (‘a million sold every week’)

    And The Winner Is…

    imageAnyway, back to the important stuff. The most pleasing drink of all, and a clear winner for both Mike and I was the French one – Nestea white peach. I am a big fan of iced tea when abroad, so I think it’s time we campaigned for more availability in the UK too.

    The Soda Effect

    imageYou may be wondering what drinking 60 sweet, fizzy drinks does for you? Well, compare the photo below (the ‘after’ shot) with the photo at the top of the article (the ‘before’ shot).

    It may not surprise you to hear that I found it difficult to sleep that night!

  • Education

    Halo Spartan on a US campus


    The video below is an advert from the US, advertising the student PC offer

    Halo Spartan promotes the US Student offer - buy a PC, get an Xbox free

    It’s a shame we don’t get adverts like this - or offers like this - in Australia…

    I know this is slightly off topic - but then it is Friday afternoon, and it is about students…

  • Education

    Making machine learning in education easier for every day users


    Last week I wrote “Two ways to use Azure Machine Learning in education”, which started exploring the use of algorithms, alongside cloud-based machine learning in education to solve some of the key challenges facing education institutions. The problem is that it all sounds so very geeky. Hey, I just wrote “algorithms” and “machine learning” in the first sentence, which kind of proves the geekiness. Although this kind of technology is making huge differences to our online lives (like protecting us from spam email and giving us just the 3 out of 100 emails that aren't spam) it’s also something that has been the domain of technical wizards. To make a difference, machine learning in education has to be simpler.

    But we’re moving into a world where we’re going to be able to use this technology to solve real-world problems that don’t involve huge numbers of data scientists, and where the real knowledge sits inside the heads of business users in our organisations. Not the IT department and the data analysts.

    So how do we make it easier for every day users to be able to apply their expertise to analyse their own data?

    Part Two: Making it easier for every day users to use intelligent analytics and machine learning

    Missed Part One: Building and sharing algorithms? Here it is.

    If we’re recognising that there’s just a bit too much rocket surgery involved in today’s work with data, how do we make it easier to work with, for mere mortals like you and I? Well, there’s some smart teams working on that across Microsoft.

    Patrice Simard, a Microsoft Distinguished Engineer, is leading a new machine teaching research project at Microsoft Research, which plans to focus on how to make the tools and UI possible for non-experts to create helpful and valuable machine learning capable systems - rather than just focusing on how to make machine learning algorithms more accurate - through a project call ‘machine teaching’. Before you react with shock, this isn’t about machines teaching, but about users teaching machines!

    As Patrice says “No one has really built a machine learning tool for the layman” - and as more uses are found for machine learning, there’s a growing deficit between demand and the availability of data scientists with the right skills. There just aren’t enough people with machine learning expertise to do all the projects businesses and organizations want.

    You can read more about this work on the next evolution of machine learning: Machine teaching here

    But there are already some practical examples that you can look at to see what the future of Machine Learning could resemble for every day users, in Project Oxford, revealed earlier this year. Project Oxford allows developers to create smarter apps, which can do things like recognise faces and interpret natural language even if the app developers are not experts in those fields.

    Project Oxford currently includes four main components:

    • Face recognition: This automatically recognises faces in photos; groups faces that look alike; and verifies whether two faces are the same.
    • Speech processing: This can recognise speech and translate it into text, and vice versa. A developer might use it for hands-free tools such as the ability to dictate text or to have an automated voice read out instructions or other necessary functions
    • Visual tools: This can analyse visual content to look for things like inappropriate content or a dominant colour scheme. It also can detect and understand text in photos, such as a team name, and can sort photos by content, such as pictures of beaches, animals or food.
    • Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS): This enables applications to understand what users mean when they say or type something using natural, everyday language. Using machine learning, in which systems get better at predicting what the user wants based on experience, it then figures out what people want the app to do. For example, in an exercise app the system might learn that when the user says “I want to start my run,” “begin a run” or even “go for a run,” it all means that it should begin tracking the person’s distance, and that the type of activity is a “run”.

    If you have basic development skills, or you can team with somebody who has, then the Project Oxford website is the place to start.

    So far, so good. But what about real uses of this technology? And what about the simplification angle? - sparking a viral use of machine learning


    A couple of months ago something called the #HowOldRobot went viral globally. It was the work of 3 Microsoft engineers who were applying machine learning systems to the challenge of working out how old somebody looks. And they made it very simple. You go to and either upload your own photo, or find one on the internet, and it will estimate how old everybody in the photo looks.

    Of course, it’s not 100% accurate, but it’s a powerful demonstration of simplifying the use of machine learning - for a start, it’s trying to guess how old you look, not how old you are!

    Users are simply posing a problem, and letting the technology start solving it.

    I found it disturbingly accurate. For example, a month before my 50th birthday, it tagged me as 50, and then got me as 48 for a photo taken when I was 48.


    But, then again, when I tried it with a photograph of me in my 30’s, it completely messed up, and pronounced me as 15 years old (better than prematurely ageing me)


    You can read a lot more about the #HowOldRobot, and the technology behind it, here, and there is also an excellent behind the scenes look at the viral growth of the #HowOldRobot here (imagine building something you thought would be used by 50 users, and getting 35,000+ people using it within three hours).

    Inspired by this project, another Microsoft engineer Mat Velloso built a service in just a few hours to compare two photos of people and rate their similarity, with a ‘twin rating’. With, it’s the same simple user interface, and process of hiding the complexity of machine learning - with just a few hours coding. Again it uses the Project Oxford work.

    You should try it for yourself, but here’s the result for the two most twin-like members of our Australian education team.image

    How can simplifying machine learning in education help?

    If we can use machine learning algorithms for (arguably) trivial things, and make it very simple to use, where can it be applied in education?

    Carnegie Mellon University are already using it work out how to cut campus energy usage by 20%.

    Helping student retention in universities

    One of the examples that is easy to see (and currently very difficult to solve) is the problem of students dropping out of universities. In Australia, one in five students drops out of their course in the first year, with the majority dropping out of the university altogether. In some universities, this is as high as one in three students.

    And yet, there is a strong bank of research from different universities which identifies the key factors that are associated with students dropping out (across six different studies, there are four factors which feature in the top five of over half the studies). Some projects have identified over 30 factors to monitor and analyse. It is the perfect scenario to use machine learning, because instead of spending a year or two analysing the factors, you can analyse the data every night for every student, and help identify the students at risk of dropping out. And plan your proactive intervention and support in response to what you can predict will happen, rather than reacting once you’ve discovered something has happened.

    The beauty of using machine learning to do this is that the system can manage the model itself - it learns as it goes along, rather than you having to keep using an out-dated idea of what the causes of drop-out are. That’s just one of a few key reasons why you find telco’s using it to forecast customer churn, and online retailers using it to suggest additional products to buy.

    What to do next

    If you’ve made it this far, hopefully you can see that there’s some value in keeping an eye on machine learning. So what can you do next? Here’s three resources and ideas for next steps:

    1. Find a Microsoft partner with the Data Analytics competency, and experience in education, and see what ideas they have to help
      > Go to Pinpoint, the Microsoft website for finding partner solutions
    2. Learn more about Azure Machine Learning yourself, or talk to your analytics team internally to try an idea out
      > Machine Learning documentation and tutorials are here

    3. Read the Microsoft Machine Learning blog
      > You’ll find it on TechNet here
    4. Keep an eye out for events which include Azure Machine Learning, and especially use cases in education
      > There’s the first ever Cortana Analytics workshop in Seattle in September
      > Closer to home, S1 Consulting are running a workshop to launch their Student Retention module, which uses Azure Machine Learning, in Brisbane on 10th August
    5. Or share this article with friends and colleagues, and see what they have to add!
      > Share on Twitter
      > Share on LinkedIn
      > Share on Facebook
  • Education

    What skills do your students need to work in the world’s greatest workplaces?


    Hopefully it’s the same for you, but I rarely get that ‘Monday Morning’ downer. Of course, weekends are rarely long enough, but I can live with that. Maybe part of the reason for that is highlighted by the latest Great Place To Work survey, which highlights the 25 World’s Best Multinational Workplaces 2011. Out of 350 multinationals, Microsoft was ranked as the number one best place to work worldwide.

    imageBut what I wanted to highlight was a different point - as I looked down the list, it struck me that half of the top great places to work around the world are ICT companies. And that includes the top 4 (Microsoft, SAS, NetApp and Google). The remaining half are a diverse mix of transport, manufacturing and services companies.

    It’s a great justification to remind your students that they should continue to study STEM subjects.

    Want to land a job after you leave school? Get a good education.

    Want to land a job in the world’s greatest work places? Get a good education and get a technology qualification/skills.

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