Two days ago Lee and I headed off to the Microsoft office in Ryde. To be honest, we were pretty darn excited to be at Microsoft, I mean, we’ve grown up with MS products being there for most of our lives, certainly all of our adult lives, but more importantly Microsoft means Xbox and Minecraft! These two things are rather precious to our family (even though we’re an Apple device crew), much like they are to many young families these days. Getting invited to a Microsoft gig meant we could park in a spot that said ‘Microsoft Visitor’ and that we got to play on the Xbox in the lobby… well, Lee started to before we got whisked away upstairs with the rest of the invitees.
So, what the heck were two classroom teachers doing being invited to Microsoft? To try out new gadgets, of course! First we did a tour of the office – which of course isn’t like the offices you see on The Office, but much more contemporary – open spaces, lots of colour (OK, mostly white, yellow, red and orange – not a colour scheme that I’d pick, lol), big bold furniture pieces (designed to facilitate collaboration or give privacy, rooms named after Australian musicians (yes, I found the silverchair room), and cool lockers with chalkboard fronts. Next, we sat at a long desk in the Australian Crawl room (erm, what songs are theirs?!) and introduced ourselves – there were five Microsoft peeps (a super friendly and laid back) and 8 edu-type peeps (all but one I followed on Twitter – wonder how they found us? lol!) and we all explained our relationship with Microsoft (like Lee said he was device/platform agnostic, which sounded really cool and means he’s legit flexible with whatever he’s given, and open to learning new stuff, whereas I said I was 100% a Google/Apple girl and a bit scared of MS devices, but use MS Office all the time).
Anyway, the next thing we know, we’re being given a Surface 3 each (yes, I quickly put away my MacBook Pro – a little sadly, to be honest) and one of the MS dudes (Damian? I’m awful with names!!) began his cool presentation on ‘an awesome day in a life of a teacher using Microsoft stuffz’ (not his actual preso title). Whilst he talked, Lee and I played – there was no way we were going to sit and listen and take notes when we had just been given a new device… erm, playing is learning, right? So we did listen to the presentation – we’re not rude – we just played and tweeted at the same time, like every time Damian spoke about a different app or feature, we just started messing about with it – and sent each other hilarious tweets about it. It was pretty funny at one point when we discovered that 14 people on a room had managed to get the day’s hashtag trending – haha!
At the end of the session (we hung out for 3 hours) we all had to share our thoughts about what we’d seen and heard and discovered. Lee was articulate and insightful (as always!) and explained how he sees the Surface (with its multiple desktop capability) as being really powerful for his students with additional learning needs – he can easily personalize the device for each child, pretty neat. Me, I just kinda went, ‘Um, I’m having a platform/device existential crisis because I never thought a Microsoft product would appeal to me.’ Blunt? Well, it wasn’t meant to be, just honest. And, it’s true, I’ve always tried to get more Apple products into the school I’m at – iPads, Macs – but the Surface is a device I’d actually like to see my students have access to. Why? Well here’s five things I liked about it:
1. It’s lightweight but powerful. It’s a tablet, but also a laptop. It comes with a keyboard, which essentially turns the tablet into a laptop – no, it literally does. Your screen becomes a desktop, your apps aren’t apps anymore. It has all the software and capabilities you’d want in a laptop, including a USB port (which I know people say you don’t need with cloud storage etc, but I think we still do need them). I’ve often recommended high school students don’t bring iPads to school for BYOD because they don’t have the functionality we often need in school – I guess the keyboard is a big thing here – but this tablet is totes like a laptop. I was happy using it instead of my MacBook Pro whereas I’ve never been comfortable using my iPad in the same way.
2. The PEN!!! OK, I’ve seen and used a stylus before and this pen is not a stylus! It’s magical! It’s the ONLY pen that I’ve used on a device that has felt natural – like you could use it to write notes and think you’re using a pen and paper. I don’t know how it works but you can put your hand on the screen at the same time as the pen, so you’re not holding your hand weirdly like you do when writing on an IWB (which I never bothered to do when I had one cos it was so awkward and clunky). Of course, it’s not just for writing notes, you can use it to annotate webpages, student work, pictures etc. I’ve been playing with my Surface over the last couple of days, and I’ve used the pen every time. It’s a winner – teachers will love it, especially Maths teachers!!
3. OneNote. I remember this being a BIG deal in 2009 when the DER Lenovos were rolled out. We all pretty much got students to use it to replace their workbooks, with varying degrees of success. I always liked aspects of it, but mostly just found it ugly. Whilst it still is ugly (sorry, it really is), it has great capacity for real-time collaboration which is great. MS 365 really has made OneNote the collaboration tool, and the digital workbook, that teachers have been looking for. The usual features – embedding videos, documents, automatic referencing for screen clippings, video and audio recordings – are now easily shared with others, even those who aren’t using MS Office. Whilst I haven’t been convinced that 365 is superior to Google Apps, I do think OneNote will become a 365 feature I introduce my staff and students to.
4. Edge. this browser is unique to Surface (or maybe all MS devices, I don’t know) and has two cool features for schools. The first one is the little book icon at the top right of the address bar that literally de-clutters website by removing all ads, and extra crap, leaving behind ONLY the central text. This means students aren’t distracted by a whole bunch of random crap when they’re doing research. Secondly, it has a small pen icon next to the book icon that lets you annotate/highlight the page. I know we’ve all used a range of web-based apps to do this before, but it’s pretty epic to have if built in to your browser! Oh, it also lets you add notes like sticky notes, and clip the screen and share it with others! Brilliant! I really love Edge, even if it looks like it’s a pimped Explorer – I mean, if anything needs pimping, it was Explorer!
5. MS MIX. This isn’t probably new to a lot of you, but it’s new to me because I’ve always treated MS products like some kind of disease (truth!). So, if Edge is Explorer pimped, well Mix is PPT pimped! It’s basically you’re go-to tool for flipped classroom videos – it does what we’ve always wanted PPT to do, become a video! So you make your slides, you add voice-over and/or video (if you want your students to see your face, which we learnt research has shown actually increases student engagement), and annotation (yes, think annotating a poem whilst talking about it, or a Maths teacher explaining how they’re solving a problem Khan Academy style) and then it all gets made into a video that you can share with your class, and really anyone else in the world. The cool thing is that you can do all of this easily in one place, and the Surface pen makes it easy to annotate – I don’t know if an iPad could go all of this as effortlessly as the Surface does. Anyway, you can download Mix free now from the web.
So, yeah, whilst I was super skeptical when I received the invitation to attend the Microsoft Interactive Education Experience (I think that’s what it was called, I was actually pleasantly surprised. It may have been a sales pitch for the Surface 3, but it was super educational too – I learnt heaps, most of all to follow Lee’s lead and be more open-minded when it comes to different devices. I’m handing over my new Surface to Mr 14, to see how he uses it at school – he’s in year 8 at my BYOD school – and will report back in a few weeks to see how he’s finding it, because he’s even worse than me when it comes to Google/Apple bias. 😝