Microsoft Education CTO Talks Future of EdTech

That higher education is in trouble should surprise no readers of this website.

With federal and state funding evaporating, and tough competitive pressure all-around, universities like Penn State are facing difficult decisions and administrative realities that change the nature of the institutions. In many cases, the issues at hand are existential indeed. What does it mean to educate students in a world where information is no longer scarce, where context and connections matter much more than the content itself?
Hundreds of IT professionals at Penn State, and their counterparts across the country, mull over this problem on a daily basis, testing technological solutions in hopes of stumbling upon a pedagogical panacea. Yet, progress has been slow and disappointing for many of us; there seems to be an ever-widening gulf between student expectations for campus technology and the IT services actually delivered.

If there’s one essential truth in market-economics though, it’s that where there is disappointment there is demand… demand for something better.

Walking around Educause 2011 today, it’s clear that this demand and the market opportunity it represents have been — finally — noticed by the corporate world in a meaningful, and not just superficial, way. The product responses they’ve offered aren’t entirely satisfying yet, but they seem to be a step in the right direction… and, perhaps most importantly, they mark just the beginning.

This morning I spoke with Cameron Evans, the first-ever Chief Technological Officer for Microsoft Education, and discussed how his company is helping universities and other educational institutions integrate IT into their overall operations with their education-focused products.

Evans believes — and I agree — that IT can, and should, be the primary strategic value creator for contemporary higher education. He noted that while cloud computing and virtualization have already been recognized by IT leaders for their cost-reducing capabilities, universities and other institutions need to identify how IT can also be used to actually create new value for their constituent communities, specifically students. For instance, Evans said, “There needs to be a lot more work done with online learning to make sure it’s actually engaging”.

Evans’ described to me Microsoft’s vision for an integrated IT environment, using the term “pre-PC” in a verbal nod to the Jobsian equivalent. The pre-PC environment would allow students to move throughout space and time without having to worry about where their data is or how they’re accessing it… personal computing without personal computers. He described a world where IT is used to enhance the main periods of an average undergraduate’s career — a world where high school students can be recruited in a socially enabled environment, a world where student outcomes can be monitored and responded to on-the-fly using next-generation CRM technologies for student information management, and a world where their work can be produced collaboratively and online.

The products that would eventually form this coherent constellation in this Microsoft universe are easily identified — BingLive@EduKinectWindows PhoneWindows, and Student 360, just to name a few — but the ways in which they will ultimately be weaved together remains as yet undetermined. Evans said that when the systems for connecting these components are unveiled, the value proposition will be that what you begin in one modality can be dropped and picked up again in a different modality with no loss of information. Ultimately, he thinks, enabling that kind of simplicity will enable the success of students… and, as he pointed out, student success is (or at least should be) tantamount to institutional success.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, though. “There needs to be a lot more collaboration between industries — not just IT — and higher education,” said Evans. “Having that cross-pollination is a great advantage.” He also noted that within universities, IT needs to become a whole-university issue, not just something dealt with by actual IT professionals.

Perhaps the most important in this process is the student voice at the table… Thinking our way out of this crisis in higher education will be no easy task, and who better than us to help lead the charge?

What do you think Penn State and other institutions need to do to bring their IT offerings in line with our contempoary expectations? Ponder it and let us know in the comments.

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About the Author


Creator of @OnwardState. Big fan of sweaters.

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