Many visitors to BETT 2013 could be forgiven for thinking that the tablet revolution has changed learning forever and that Apple is now calling the shots. But anyone considering 1:1 projects for their school would do well to check the Microsoft stand.
Not just to find out about Windows 8, the new tablets and Surface, but for the message: “the learning comes first, and then think about the devices”. And Microsoft’s education boss Anthony Salcito, in London for the Education World Forum and BETT, puts it well.
At Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Global Forum in Prague (see "What recession? Partners in Learning's £250m lift"), Anthony Salcito gave some jaw-droppping demonstrations of the capabilities of the company’s new generation of technology, namely Windows 8 and Surface. But that was after, it has to be said, his keynote on the global challenge to transform learning and engage students.
He also had some interesting things to say about current trends in learning, like 1:1 where there is only one “1” to think about, and that’s the learner. Warming to his theme he said, “I will not say ‘Surface, Surface,Surface - it's wonderful and buy Surface and we'll talk about your usage of Surface after, What I say is always going to be rooted in the school's journey to transform learning and to help students and educators. Yes, we'll bring technology of all shapes and sizes to the issue. With Apple on the other hand, specifically with the iPad, the device becomes the destination.
'Schools should be piloting pedagogy and transformation, not devices'
“Schools are piloting iPads which is a joke. No school should be piloting any device – Surface, iPad or any other. They should be piloting the work that's going on with it. They should be piloting the pedagogy, the transformation that's happening inside the classroom. And then using the device. The device should be used, not piloted or supported.”
To be fair, Anthony Salcito was not invoking a platform war and made a careful distinction between Apple as a company and education’s Apple “enthusiasts” who are often inclined to put their technology before the learning, a recognisable phenomenon,
“The Apple fans create this momentum around the specifics of the device,” he explained. “And what happens after is lots of support for that. Now I go to lots of iPad schools when they are fresh and new, when the potential is great. Then I go a year later and a lot of the challenges emerge – assessment, bandwidth management, security, application support and distribution, the flexibility of the user experience, the lock-down and the very closed system with regards to content availability, the lack of Flash on browsers.
“There is a laundry list of problems that crop up very quickly and most of the iPad schools do not stay iPad schools for long. Most of the iPad projects lead to broader and much more flexible device usage.”
The problems crop up, he added, when schools have to serve the technology rather than the other way around. With its latest tranche of technology Microsoft had taken great care to keep options open for schools, like keyboards. It was hard to bolt on options for keyboards if a device had been designed without that option in mind, he said.
He also highlighted another option that Microsoft had retained – the stylus. “I love the pen because I like to make notes with it and highlight parts in books that I read, or doodle stuff in One Note. Some students will live with a pen – for example in countries like China where they love the stylus for character input which is much more convenient than keyboard and mouse.”
Just as important for education were the management tools supplied by Microsoft, like providing tablets with the ability to handle different identities without compromising security. A student could log in to a Surface used by someone else without accessing any of their information or being able to leave inappropriate material that might offend others.
WIndows 8 management features include managing bandwith
Another popular feature of Windows 8 was the "branch cache”, he said. This allows schools to cache regularly accessed web data and so manage internet bandwidth, something that was difficult to achieve with devices designed for consumers and required individual internet access.
Finally, he pointed to new opportunities for educational publishers. Yes Microsoft could host their products and charge a 30 per cent royalty, but once a company achieved sales of around $20,000 dollars that percentage would fall to 20. And of course companies could host their own content free of charge, or put their product in the Windows store and handle sales with their own cloud service, again free of charge.
Microsoft’s priority was to give its customers choice, he said, and align itself with the needs of customers whether they were schools or publishers. Many schools might be swayed by companies that told them their device would be the future of education but: “We're never going to say that. The future of education is the students and the seats in the classroom and the focus should be on the teachers.
'“Our focus is not on Apple or Google: it's on helping schools'
"Our tools and technologies are always going to be a part of that story but are never going to be front stage. So our marketing approach is we have plenty of proven tools and technologies and programmes like Partners in Learning and YouthSpark etc. They can support your journey, as opposed to the other way around where we could say, ‘Here's the stuff to buy, and then let the community figure out how to use it to solve their problems.
“Our focus is not on beating Apple or differentiating from Google: it's on helping schools. But I don't know whether that's shared. or clearly understood by most of the community. That’s our challenge.”
When you listen to corporate executives lay out their cases there is always an element of “These would say that wouldn’t he?” But Anthony Salcito stands out from the others. Yes, as a senior executive he always has to be on message, but his commitment to education – the blog, “Daily Edventures", the incredible travelling to schools worldwide – goes way beyond regular professional activities.
That’s because he’s on his own learning journey which started in the Bronx, New York, where his love of technology kept him away from being in the wrong place at the wrong time and gave him a route to wider options.
'Oftentimes we lower expectations based on economic conditions or gender or race'
For sure one factor is having a brother and sister who teach in inner-city schools with kids who struggle with challenges at home that bring “challenges way beyond test performance “. Another is the need to raise expectations: “Oftentimes we lower expectations based on economic conditions or gender or race. around the world and especially in those communities where these kids don't see a bright future.
“They don't see their role as a change agent for their society or the world. and we celebrate when they graduate high school or we celebrate when they stay out of jail. It creates a culture of low expectations that I think is, in many ways, a very, very tough thing to turn around. So we've got to work hard to make that shift. And those are in many ways the motivators for me in the work that I do.”
Anthony Salcito had first-hand experience of the potentially limiting aspect of educational expectations when he started working with a group of Afro-American students at the request of his then boss Bill Gates. His confidence with programming and computers only took him so far as the girls’ learning quests quickly outstripped his own teaching experience and he had to call in support from Microsoft. It was an unforgettable lesson that taught him to never underestimate what young people can achieve. And this is a consistent theme is his message, as it was to the 500 delegates to the Education World Forum in London this week.
However, it’s only in relatively recent years that he has reflected on his own experience as a young learner. Maybe it was because, as he had grown up there, that he wasn’t aware of the hazards in his own neighbourhood? “No, I knew it was a tough area when I was a kid. The big thing that shocked me was when I was in my freshman year in high school. My classroom mates didn't show up for a couple of days at school and I found out why."
His contemporaries had been involved in the robbery of a bodega and one of them bled to death after being shot by the owner. "That was the kind of environment that I was dealing with," he said, "but I was, literally, playing with my computer when I went home from school. And I had no concept of a lot of the stuff, and at the time I didn't think the computer was a catalyst for change but I realised it after because I was really interested in technology.”
Not being in the wrong place at the wrong time put him on the road to being in the exactly right place at the right time – in a key education post covering transformation of learning at a time when virtually every country in the world wants to play. And the feedback and research from Parners in Learning has given Microsoft a powerful set of tools to work with any region or country.
It also means that he's as comfortable in a classroom with teachers and learners as he is with teachers and school leaders at Partners in Learning or on the stage at a top-class education event like Learning Without Frontiers (see video above) or the Education World Forum in London with its 500 delegates – including 101 government ministers – from 93 countries. That is very, very unusual for such a senior executive in a major technology corporation (he also persuaded his own new boss, public sector chief Laura Ipsen, herself from a family of teachers, to attend her first PIL in Prague). And that's why he's always worth listening to.