Microsoft and partners are keeping education on track

Microsoft and partners are keeping education on track
Educators are collaborating to ensure the 1.5 billion students affected by Covid-19 carry on learning

Elly Yates-Roberts |

The coronavirus pandemic ripped through the heart of education. Teachers, parents and students were all deeply affected. Schools had to reimagine how they delivered learning. Parents had to find a way to fit teaching into their own work and life schedules. And research suggests that disruption to normal school life could be severely detrimental to students.

Writing for Psychology Today, Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti, professors at Northwestern and Yale University respectively, likened the interruption in learning to that of a summer break – citing the long-noted phenomenon of ‘summer learning loss’, where half of the knowledge gained in a school year can be lost.

And neuroscientists writing in The Lancet say that social deprivation among adolescents might have far-reaching consequences in relation to their brain development, behaviour and mental health.

It has been critical, therefore, for education to be able to continue during periods of lockdown. Distance learning through virtual classrooms has been a key contributor to minimising the negative educational impacts of lockdown for students.

“Since January, Microsoft has been working with schools and universities around the world to respond to Covid-19,” said Anthony Salcito, vice president of education at Microsoft, at this year’s Microsoft Education Transformation Summit, itself held virtually, in May.

In Italy, for example, in less than two months Microsoft helped to train over 90,000 teachers to use digital solutions through online teacher webinars.

Rapid roll-out of Microsoft Teams has enabled many academic institutions to continue teaching. “A professor at University of Bologna in Italy shared how the school moved 90 per cent of courses for its 80,000 students online to Teams within three days,” said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft.

The UK government’s initiatives to facilitate and improve remote learning for students included Microsoft Showcase Schools. Three institutions held webinars to demonstrate to other schools how they could use technology and digital tools to deliver lessons online.

There has been a role for Minecraft, too. “An elementary school in Japan hosted its graduation on Minecraft, building its own virtual assembly hall and seating to maintain the sense of community and belonging so important in times like this,” continued Nadella. 

In collaboration with Unicef and the University of Cambridge, Microsoft launched the Learning Passport to help children continue their education despite school closures. The organisations expanded the scope of the tool, originally an education aid for refugee children, so that all countries with a curriculum that can be taught online can provide education to students from their homes. 

“Just as Covid-19’s impact has no borders, its solutions must not have borders, as it requires the collaboration across public and private sectors to ensure every student stays engaged and continues learning,” said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, in an article on “Unicef’s Learning Passport is uniquely positioned as a scalable learning solution to bridge the digital learning gap for millions of students to bring their classroom into their home during the pandemic.”

The Microsoft Education Transformation Summit brought education leaders together to share ideas on how to address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on education, but also how the large-scale disruption could accelerate transformation in the sector. Among the speakers was Stefania Giannini, assistant director general of Unesco, who discussed the work that Microsoft has been doing with the organisation and the new Global Education Coalition for Covid-19 Response – an initiative that aims to provide children with learning opportunities during this time.

“1.5 billion students were out of school because of the coronavirus,” said Giannini. “No government was actually prepared for such a disruption – we had to act differently and fast, and collaboration was the only answer.

“The Global Education Coalition is all about partnership and agility. Our main purpose is to ensure that learning must continue – learning never stops.”

Participants agreed that education will be different from now. In fact, a survey found that 61 per cent of the Microsoft Education community expect to begin the next school year in a hybrid learning environment, and Barbara Holzapfel, Microsoft general manager of education, highlighted “the continued use of digital tools for remote and hybrid learning” in a Microsoft blog after the event.

Nadella concluded: “The core priority of education reform moving forward must be to create accessible education for all. The beauty of technology is that it can facilitate activity and equity, and be helpful in accommodating the variety of ways we learn.”

This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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