Revolutionising the student experience

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Microsoft wants to further engage with higher education to maximise attainment

When Microsoft examined where and how its technology could help higher education institutions meet the demands of an increasingly digitised world, it learned that its products and services were not the most important factors. The technology was already developed, waiting to be deployed, but for change to come it would have to be from the institutions themselves.

Since assuming his role as Microsoft’s director of education in September 2018, Chris Rothwell has made identifying higher education’s immediate needs and long-term goals as a core focus of the company’s strategy. “From our point of view, it’s really clear that this is not a technology problem,” he says. “It’s dead easy to take over and roll out cloud services and say, ‘There you go: that’s all your technology done.’ But of course it is about people and change, ambition and all of those sorts of things, as well as what you want your teaching to be like and how you want to think about things like pastoral care.”

With no two higher education institutions exactly alike, Rothwell believes that co-developing edtech solutions with universities is where the greatest gains can be made. In engaging the faculty as early as possible in the process, assessing their individual priorities and expectations and harnessing what he sees as an industry-wide enthusiasm and openness towards technology’s potential, Rothwell is seeing the student experience evolve in real-time. With career pathways increasingly disrupted by technology, jobs lost to and created by automation, universities are readying students for today’s workplace, while preparing them for tomorrow’s.

“It’s about what employers are looking for,” says Rothwell. “We have a lot of focus on what we like to think of as 21st-century skills. How do we bake those into the education system? How do we integrate them into curriculum materials? How do we have them as standalone courses?” He cites the problems created by fake news as one area that educators should be trying to address, encouraging students to scrutinise the quality of the information that they find online. “That’s going to be a much more important skill than trying to remember the stuff in the first place,” he says.

While the onward march of artificial intelligence and automation creates uncertainty in the labour market, in higher education such technological advancements offer a profound opportunity to enhance the student experience in the here and now. The education-specific version of Microsoft Teams, group chat software integrated within Office 365, is creating a more collaborative campus and changing the way that Microsoft works with the academy. Teams’ recent integration with anti-plagiarism platform Turnitin is the latest example of how it is incorporating feedback and recommendations from the sector on a rolling basis.

The cloud computing solutions offered by Microsoft Azure relieve some of the administrative pressures facing universities. Staffordshire University adopted Azure in no small part because of the data protection security offered by Microsoft. “We’d much rather universities were focusing on the bits [of the technology] that were unique and special to what they think they need to do, rather on the infrastructure,” says Rothwell. “We can probably run that at a much lower cost, to a much higher scale, much more securely than most customers can.”

What really excites Rothwell is the potential for data science to help implement pastoral care, increase academic attainment and reduce dropout. Universities already know a lot about their students, but Rothwell believes that if such data could be integrated then institutions would be ideally placed to intervene on a student’s behalf. “I think that absolutely could be transformational for the student experience,” he says. “This isn’t about being disruptive to that [teaching] experience or being heavy handed, but there is a lot we can do to support students…and maybe say, ‘Look, the only difference we see between your current trajectory and the trajectory you need to get a first would be an hour extra in the library.’”

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