Microsoft's head of ed tech: forget the hype

Microsoft's new director of education reveals his goals for Britain's educational sector

"There's a lot of hype around technology."

That's not what you expect to hear from the head of a major IT firm at a technology conference, but Microsoft's new director of education Ian Fordham believes there's more to ed tech than gadgets.

On the sidelines of BETT 2017, he told IT Pro that the goal shouldn't be tech for tech's sake, but getting the right outcomes for students and their teachers. "Technology is important, and we're a technology company, but it's about what outcomes you deliver for the students and how you support teachers and their productivity," he said.

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Handily for companies such as Microsoft, it's easy to convince students and teachers that technology can be useful, as most people use it in their life outside of school. "You don't need to convince students and teachers to go out and use technology, they're using it in their everyday life," he said. "What we need to do as Microsoft is try and match that ubiquitous technology with the stuff that really makes a difference in the classroom."

Fordham expects help making that difference from the government. "On the policy side, the government has been quite hands off in terms of technology in schools, but I think they're now with a new Secretary of State starting to think about how technology can deliver impacts and that's going to be a big thing," he said.

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Digital skills 

New to the role, which covers primary to university level education, Fordham said reaching that impact and ensuring efficacy of technology in classrooms is one of two major goals, alongside making sure students get the right digital skills to be successful in the workforce.

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That goal is already gaining traction thanks to a major digital skills programme Microsoft announced for the UK last week, unveiling plans to train 30,000 public servants for free and to train 500,000 people in advanced cloud technologies in the next three years. Plus, Microsoft is tripling its digital apprenticeship programme to 30,000 by 2020, aiming to pull in more women and minority groups to boost diversity in the sector.

Fordham suggested Microsoft's LinkedIn acquisition could also come into play with education, making use of the professional social network's online training courses, formerly known as but now called LinkedIn Learning. Fordham didn't have details to share on how LinkedIn could be used in education, but said Microsoft is actively looking at the area.

Teacher training is another area where Microsoft hopes to boost digital skills, with Fordham pointing to the success of the company's "badges", which act as a qualification or credit to show an educator has a certain skillset. Fordham said they're already becoming a "currency" that employers look at, and are a useful way for later-career teachers to gain skills in technology that they perhaps aren't as used to using as their younger colleagues.

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That said, he suggested that existing teacher training programmes could use more of a tech focus to ensure entry-level educators are up to speed before they step in front of a class of students. "How do we give them the skills that they need," he asked, "because maybe teacher training is set in a kind of mould, a certain kind of instruction, and some institutions are perhaps not putting technology at the front of what they're doing."

Teachers need to be confident with technology, as classrooms are becoming more full up with it from Microsoft, ed tech ranges from cloud productivity suite Office 365 to gaming platform Minecraft, let alone the other tech innovations on show at BETT, from augmented reality to Raspberry Pi.

Microsoft Intune

Handily, tech firms are starting to make their systems easier to use and manage, making teachers' jobs a little less complex. For Microsoft, that includes the launch of its Intune management tool for education.

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"From a usability perspective, it's going to start to integrate all of the devices with an easy to use interface thinking about the teachers and the students," he explained. "The whole premise of Intune is seamless integration, usability from the point of view of the teachers, and then you can manage devices at the touch of a button."

Making technology easier to use may well be the biggest innovation of the year, he suggested. "Intune's not [exciting] like Surface Studio [Microsoft's top end all-in-one PC], which is super school but probably in some ways, it's going to be more transformational because it just takes a lot of the effort out," Fordham said.

"From my perspective the focus has to be on, now that the technology now worksthe usability point on the ground," he said. "How do we make the lives of educators and teachers easier for using this kind of technology?" That's an area no educator will ever think is overhyped.

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