Back to School with Microsoft: New Tools, New Technology

REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 8, 2002 — Some traditions are here to stay. Every autumn, for instance, students rely on hard-bound books, lined paper, and ink pens. But there’s a new player in the back-to-school mix that’s become more prominent with each passing year: technology.

For this fall’s annual back-to-school pilgrimage, Microsoft expects to make learning easier and better for students, parents, and teachers by offering tools and resources developed specifically for academic endeavors. The latest version of Microsoft Encarta — officially Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2003 – was released in June in time for upcoming homework assignments. Also, Microsoft and National PTA teamed up to develop a homework Website to help parents discover new ways to assist their children with homework. Other tools to help with homework include Office XP for Students and Teachers, Windows XP Professional and Optical WheelMouse (see sidebar). And, until Sept. 30, Microsoft will donate 5 percent of every sale of these products to the National PTA, which plans to use the funds to enhance local and national parent programs.

“I believe that we’re on the cusp of a revolution,” says Gary Alt, editorial director of Microsoft’s Encarta Reference Library. “Technology has opened the floodgates. There is much more information available to students and teachers than ever before, which creates a definite need for a source of trustworthy material.”

Microsoft’s Encarta Reference Library 2003, according to Alt, is just that source. He points to a broad range of new features such as the Homework Center, literature guides for books such as The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and a couple of Harry Potter offerings, a book of quotes and tools such as Chart Maker and Project Starter as examples of tools students can use to conduct research for assignments, plan steps to complete various homework projects, and build a familiarity with the most commonly read works of literature.

Encarta, Alt says, is more than a traditional encyclopedia adapted to fit the specs of the 21st century: it’s a reference library. The 2003 version has more than 30,000 editor-selected Web sites, recommendations for further reading, multi-media features including historical speeches, music, and three-dimensional tours of landmarks around the world, and research guidelines that were established by Microsoft and a team of teachers to help students through assignments like science fair projects, books reports and oral presentations.

Encarta has the ability to build connections and communities. “It will have an impact on the home-school connection and enable better communication among students, parents, and teachers,” Alt says. “It allows teachers to connect with other teachers and collaborate around the curriculum development process. The whole community aspect of this is significant.”

But why pay for information when it’s available free of charge on the Internet? That, Alt says, is one of the most frequently asked questions about a reference tool such as Microsoft Encarta 2003.

The answer, in a word: reliability. “There’s lots of good stuff on the Web, but there’s just as much garbage,” he says. “You can run a search on any given topic and come up with any number of Web sites, but the reliability of them would run the gambit. Web content is often written to push a certain point of view.”

Encarta, he says, offers parents and students an assurance that content is legitimate. In addition to a seasoned staff of professional editors — Alt himself has been in educational publishing for nearly 30 years — the Encarta team draws on the expertise of some 2,200 expert contributors. Most are university professors. The contributors not only write content; they advise Alt and his editorial staff on trends in their specific fields.

The challenge in working in a medium such as Encarta, Alt says, is much the same as those one faces when writing a printed and bound encyclopedia: How can expert content be presented in a way that’s understandable to students but not watered down to the point of irrelevancy?

Does Encarta 2003 hit the mark? The proof, Alt says, lies with the users.

Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2003: the Classroom Perspective

Kim Beattie teaches technology to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students at the Orozco Academy, a public magnet school in Chicago that offers special programs for bi-lingual, gifted, fine arts and sciences students. Jude Fouquier, 13, is going into seventh-grade at the Bellevue Christian School in suburban Seattle. And Jake Nordquist, 22, is finishing his bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Washington in Seattle.

All give Encarta 2003 a thumbs-up.

“I’m totally impressed,” says Nordquist. He finds it easy to find what you’re looking for in Encarta 2003, almost regardless of the subject matter. He checked on the weather in New York, compared literacy rates using the world atlas, and took several virtual three-dimensional tours — a feature that gives users a visual “walk through” of historical sites ranging from the Acropolis to Abu Simbo, the temple of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II to Beaumaris Castle, unfinished castle of King Edward I of England.

Beattie, too, is a big fan of the 3-D tours. Using Italy as a topic, she says it was simple to access an extensive amount of information, including 360-degree pictures of the main canal in Venice, the Coliseum, and other landmarks; articles that include outlines for quick and easy reference; links to related articles from other sources and adjustable, multi-layered atlases that reveal everything from weather to altitude to local restaurants and specialty shops, Italian radio stations, a wealth of photographs, the Italian flag, even the Italian anthem. “It navigates just like the Web, so it’s easy to get around,” she says.

Beattie also looked up the women’s suffrage movement, which is studied by eighth-graders at Orozco Academy. “It brought up a lot of connected, related information,” she says. “The value of a research tool like this is that it helps students make broad connections they might not otherwise make. It allows for broader exploration of topics, and it will allow the students to explore in several different directions.”

For Fouquier, the soon-to-be seventh-grader, Encarta isn’t exactly new, but Encarta 2003 has renewed his enthusiasm for multi-media and 3-D features. “You get to look around and see all the different places and what they looked like back then,” he says. “It’s cool.”

Fouquier says he looks forward to using Encarta for this year’s school assignments. “When I have to write things I’ll use it a lot,” he says. “It’s a lot easier than books. You just type in a word and it comes up rather than having to go through a book searching for it.”

Microsoft Joins Hands with National PTA

In addition to releasing Encarta 2003 in June, Microsoft joined forces with National PTA to create a Web site to help parents better assist their children with studying. Development of the Web site was driven, in part, by the “Calling All Parents” survey, which asked parents about homework concerns, and uncovered some of the barriers parents face when helping children with homework.

The survey found that more than a third of parents cite time as the biggest factor affecting their ability to help with homework. Some 50 percent of the parents surveyed said they spent less than one hour per week helping with homework; CD-ROM resources were the most mentioned as a resource parents needed but do not currently own; and 51 percent of the parents said they are unable to remember information about the subject matter with which their children need help.

The site (see Related Links, above right) gives examples of how parents can engage their children in homework, provides tips on how to help students prioritize homework, and explains how parents and students can use technology to make homework easier and more efficient.

National PTA worked with Microsoft to prepare materials for the site, focusing on topics such as homework tips, how to help your child prioritize class assignments, and parent involvement. The site includes a summary of technology tools currently available for students and parents. The site was prepared using the PTA’s own resources, as well as input from external authors with whom the organization has worked.

Shirley Igo, president of National PTA, says she believes that technology can help foster stronger partnerships between homes and teachers. “The role of parents continues to be critical in terms of support and reinforcement of their child’s educational activities,” says Igo, herself a parent, grandparent and 20-year PTA volunteer. “Technology is the newest area of participation. It’s another component of parental involvement that includes awareness, education, and participation.”

Microsoft also established a give-back program with National PTA. For every copy of Encarta Reference Library 2003, Office XP for Students and Teachers, Windows XP Professional or Optical WheelMouse sold before Sept. 30, Microsoft will donate 5 percent of the sales to National PTA. Those funds, Igo says, will be used to enhance parent involvement programs and outreach. “We’re reintroducing an initiative to bring Hispanic leadership into our organization,” she says. “We look at it as a spring board to eventually reach out to other ethnic and cultural groups.”

Technology and Education: A Natural Fit

For Alt, whose entire career has been spent developing resources for the educational arena, Encarta is more than a job. “I’ve been a student, I have children, and my wife has been a teacher for a couple of decades,” he says. “It’s nice to do something that makes a difference.”

And while he is pleased with Encarta 2003, he plans to continue holding focus groups with parents, teachers, and students who use the reference library for the sake of making improvements to future versions. “We’re very attuned to our users,” he says.

It’s also settled an old score that Alt has had on his mind for years. One of the primary advantages of a research tool like Encarta 2003, Alt says, is its capacity for remaining current via weekly updates compliments of the Internet. When users are on the Web, it’s as simple as clicking on Update Encarta, which facilitates an automatic check of what’s current and, in the cases of what’s not, a seamless update. “The encyclopedias were out of date the minute they rolled off the printing press,” says Alt, recalling his hard-bound days. “All those years in print, I felt badly for the people who bought them.” For Alt, working on Encarta has resolved that dilemma.

Office XP, Windows XP Professional Have Done Their Homework, Too

In addition to Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2003, Microsoft offers packages developed to aid students, parents, and teachers as they return to the classroom.

Microsoft Office XP for Students and Teachers was developed with the goal of helping students turn regular reports into outstanding ones. And Microsoft Windows XP Professional offers students a safe and secure connection to the school’s network, which results in additional digital media and communications tools that can be used for group homework projects.

The Office XP for Students and Teachers suite includes features that help students organize information for reports and presentations, which provides them with the foundation they need for critical thinking and analysis. It also eliminates lost homework with automatic recovery and modernizes the editing and reviewing of documents with communications tools like Outlook, MSN Hotmail and MSN Messenger Service – all together in one place.

With Microsoft Windows XP Professional, students can take advantage of the PC’s ability to handle multiple users, an intuitive visual design, advanced engines that accommodate multiple activities, and advanced control options that put the novice user at ease. Microsoft says it expects Windows XP Professional to enhance students’ experience in areas that range from using the video capabilities of Windows Messenger to writing an essay for the class.

Through Sept. 30, Microsoft is donating 5 percent of all sales of Office XP for Students and Teachers, Windows XP Professional, Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2003 and WheelMouse Optical to National PTA, which will use the funds to enhance parent involvement and outreach efforts.

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