Microsoft is ramping up efforts to appeal to the education market, with updates to its Teams group messaging app that supports collaboration between students, teachers and staff members.
Among the features announced at the Bett 2019 education technology conference in London this week: integration with student information systems and the ability for teachers to grade school work on mobile devices. Microsoft also unveiled several low-budget Windows 10-based laptops and two-in-ones to take on Google Chromebooks, which have proved popular in schools.
Two months after the launch of Teams in 2017, Microsoft began to tailor the collaboration app for use in the education sector, making it available as part of Office 365 Education subscriptions.
For education, Microsoft sees three core scenarios for collaboration in Teams.
One is the interaction between teachers and students, who can use Teams to share course materials, as well as distribute, collect and grade assignments. Another is between teachers staff members, such as a school district head communicating with multiple school principles.
The third is among teachers themselves, which relates to the idea of “collective teacher efficacy," said Justin Chando, principal product manager for education at Microsoft. The theory is that by working together teachers can more effectively impact student achievement outcomes – even when comparing other factors such as socio-economic background or parental involvement.
He said a key aim of Teams in education is to provide teachers with tools to communicate and identify best practices, as well as share resources and lesson plans.
“We have found from talking to lots of educators … that what is missing [in their jobs] is teacher-to-teacher collaboration,” said Chando, who was hired by Microsoft from collaborative learning platform, Chalkup, last year.
Microsoft Teams upgrades
Among the various features added to Teams is integration with student information systems; Chando likens that to an ERP system for schools, with a variety of data about everything from enrollment and finance to student grades.
With Grade Sync, teachers can automatically send grades from the Teams “assignments” feature to a student information system, which Chando said would avoid duplication of effort.
“Anything that streamlines processes and saves time to teachers is a great feature,” said Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at consulting firm Creative Strategies. "From student information to grading work, teachers are looking at ways to work smarter so that they avoid duplicating work – there are still many analog processes in schools.”
The issue with integrating with student information systems, she added, is that there are many tools available, “so Microsoft, like any company who is trying to roll these solutions out, will need to partner with those that will allow it to reach critical mass.”
On launch, Grade Sync will be available with PowerSchool, Infinite Campus, Capita SIMS, according to Microsoft.
Another feature is mobile grading, which now allows teachers to grade Teams assignments directly from smartphones and tablets using the mobile app.
Microsoft has also included a new integration with a plagiarism detection tool – TurnItIn. With 30 million users worldwide, TurnItIn scans a document and checks for similarities with text from sources such as Wikipedia. The Teams integration means teachers can check results from Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents without leaving the Microsoft app.
An overhauled assignments feature will also be available soon; that, Microsoft said, will simplify the user experience.
Windows 10 hardware
Microsoft also rolled seven new Windows 10 devices aimed at use in schools: the Lenovo 100e; Lenovo 300e (a 2-in-1); Lenovo 14w; Acer TravelMate B1 (B118-M); Acer TravelMate Spin B1 (B118-R/RN); Acer TravelMate B1-141; and the Dell Latitude 3300 for Education
All of the devices have prices that start at between US$189 and US$300. Also announced was the Microsoft Classroom Pen, a more durable stylus for Microsoft Surface hardware.
Microsoft has faced a growing challenge from Google and its low-cost Chromebook laptops in recent years; Chromebooks have proved popular in the classroom due to their simplicity and low cost. The proliferation of ChromeOS devices also provides an entire into Google’s software ecosystem, in particular its G Suite productivity tools, the main competitor to Microsoft’s Office 365.
While there are numerous Windows 10 devices available at low prices suitable for schools, Microsoft faces other challenges in dislodging Chromebooks in education, said Milanese.
“Microsoft has addressed price as well as manageability of these devices and the biggest hurdle they are left with is switching people away from Google,” she said. “It is hard for schools to switch environment mostly because of the investment they need to make in training teachers on the new tools. This, I believe, is what Microsoft will have to address. Making it as simple as painless as possible to switch.”