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1-4 June 2021

Digital learning takes centre stageRISE Spotlight: Harness The Power of Digital Learning

Although education technology has always been important within Microsoft, it took centre stage during the pandemic, according to Microsoft Education’s Principal Group Product Manager, Mike Tholfsen. Interviewed by TNW’s Már Másson Maack for the ‘On the Sofa’ segment of the RISE Spotlight on digital learning, Mike explained what happened when what had been a niche set of power users expanded into a very broad group who suddenly needed to use the technology in many different ways.

“Soon after the lockdowns began, our team was flooded by thousands upon hundreds of thousands of educators who needed information and they needed it really fast. Historically, you might have a one-day professional development session, a multi-day, or four-hour course but all of a sudden there was a flood of people saying, ‘I need to know this stuff in five minutes!’ So we started engaging and creating content and training materials… that were smaller, more bitesized, that really focussed on helping as fast as we could,” he explained.

Watch the full session here

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Among this increased demand from first-time users, assistive tools for students with conditions such as dyslexia and dysgraphia, or for non-native speakers, became particularly important. Closed schools meant that special services for these students were less widely available, so there was an explosion in demand for, and engagement with, Microsoft’s assistive tools.

“We saw an enormous growth happening in that period. At school, students maybe didn’t have to use those tools, or maybe they didn’t know about them, but at home in some cases there weren’t any other options… Now they’re able to use these technologies, which we’re hoping they’ll be bringing back into the classroom with them when the pandemic ends,” said Mike.

New requirements that emerged last year have required existing features to be adapted. “Microsoft Teams for Education video calling was not [originally] designed for a rock-solid everyday remote learning classroom, so we had to adapt a lot of different capabilities because there were different needs that came up really rapidly. We shifted the product direction enormously to adapt to this remote environment,” he explained.

A year down the line, commonalities between technologies for workplace communication and for education have become more apparent. “One of the big benefits of Teams for Education is all the tools, and the way you’re learning to collaborate and do different tasks, completely transition into the workforce when you leave school – and a lot of ed tech tools don’t.”

Looking ahead to after the pandemic, there is a lot of talk about hybrid teaching. Among the tools that became necessary for remote learning, which ones will we keep in our hybrid future?

“Hybrid learning is already happening now,” observed Mike. “I think video and meeting capabilities will continue to be important, that’s obvious,” particularly where there is a combination of in-class and remote students.

He also foresees a big increase in inclusive and accessible technology post-pandemic, “as so many people have discovered how effective modern assistive technology can be.” Some people, he added, don’t realise how much improvement there has been in assistive technology over the last 10 years, thanks to improvements in AI. “I believe you’re going to see a big boost in students with special needs being able to engage more actively in the classrooms with the help of technology.”

He also highlighted tools that that make learning more engaging, as well as engagement data and analytics.