With Windows MultiPoint, Youths in Developing-World Classrooms Learn 21st-Century Skills

Editors’ Update
— This article has been updated to provide additional detail on the Imagine Cup competition.

REDMOND, Wash., Dec. 14, 2006 — Picture this: In a classroom of 40 children with only four PCs among them, 10 students crowd around each machine. Within each group a dominant student – often the brightest, richest, or oldest child – takes center position and controls the mouse. While other students point, gesture and vie for control of the mouse, they ultimately have no direct control of the PC and often lose interest and shift their attention elsewhere. The child with the mouse is learning on his own, and the others are not learning at all.

According to conventional wisdom, the obvious solution is to buy more PCs, thereby boosting the PC-to-student ratio. Many schools in developing countries, however, simply can’t afford more PCs. And, even with more machines, traditional PC set-ups do not allow for collaborative learning and teamwork.

Students in India using MultiPoint technology to learn on their classroom Windows PC.

But what if there was a more creative solution to the problem – one that would give multiple students access to a single PC and simultaneously provide them learning opportunities they would not get if each student had a PC to herself? Enter Windows MultiPoint — a simple, powerful technology enabling multiple users to share a single PC using multiple mice or other peripherals and to learn 21st-century skills in the process. The technology helps shift the student from passive to active learning, and the collaborative environment adds a whole new layer of value to the PC in the classroom.

“MultiPoint helps kids use PCs to learn together versus having an isolated computer experience where they’re each on their own PC. When they are accountable for finding the right answer and clicking on it, their learning goes up exponentially,” says Sherri Bealkowski, general manager for Microsoft’s Emerging Markets Education group. “It helps them learn teamwork, collaboration and computer familiarity – the 21st-century skills that children need to learn, especially children in emerging markets, so that they can be competitive and can help their countries be competitive.”

In addition, MultiPoint offers a more affordable way to decrease student-to-PC ratios, and provides a platform for Windows education software developers to create collaborative learning applications, Bealkowski says.

MultiPoint, says Dr. Richard Anderson, a professor of computer science specializing in Educational Technology at the University of Washington, is doing two things. “First, it is supporting collaborative learning, where students are engaged in group activities and learning from one another.  Second, it is a cost effective mechanism for expanding the reach of computing hardware.  Cheap input devices allow many children to interact simultaneously with a computer, greatly reducing the cost per student. The reality in the developing world is that the number of computers available for education is severely limited, so this simple and elegant mechanism makes it possible for many more students to access computers in a pedagogically sound manner.”

Microsoft plans to make an alpha version of MultiPoint software development kit (SDK) available for download in January 2007, and the company has committed to delivering monthly builds until release to manufacturing (RTM) in May, Bealkowski says. In addition, Microsoft is encouraging this year’s Imagine Cup student coders to use Multipoint technology in related category challenges.

From the Lab to the Classroom

Microsoft Research India is one of Microsoft’s specialized research groups that explores wildly new ideas, or new applications of ideas, and then transfers the best technology to the product groups to become a reality. The MultiPoint technology – formerly known as MultiMouse – was developed at Microsoft Research India and is now undergoing a technology transfer to the Market Expansion Group (MEG) where it will be further developed and made available for the world’s classrooms.

In 18 rural primary schools studied by researchers, student-to-PC ratios were as high as 10-to-1. This is typical for the 5 percent to 10 percent of rural schools in India that have PCs. In some cases a single PC was used as a teaching aid to an entire class, further skewing the ratio – to as high as 30- or 40-to-1. This situation repeats itself in classrooms around the world.

“When we saw this, the technical solution seemed obvious: just give every student a mouse,” says Kentaro Toyama, director of Microsoft Research India, who led the creation of MultiPoint. “Other researchers have considered the use of up to three mice for collaborative exercises on a single PC, but we realized that it was where PCs were scarce that the full value of multiple mice would reveal itself, and that five, even 10 children per PC actually works in practice. We have since been refining and extending the technology for greater educational impact.”

Not surprisingly, this lack of direct computer access does not lead to excellence in learning. Research has shown that direct engagement with the technology is an important component of effective learning. Accordingly, all students without access to the mouse are likely receiving less educational value than the child controlling the mouse.

Plug in more mice and give each child a different colored cursor on the PC screen, however, and it’s a whole new ballgame, according to Microsoft Research India. In preliminary field trials, not only did children rapidly and easily adapt to multiple mice and cursors, but also – with groups of up to five students per computer – their ability to interact with the PC did not appear to suffer and even children without a mouse appeared more engaged than in single-mouse scenarios.

“Students in emerging markets don’t have many opportunities to interact with computing technology, largely because of resource constraints in classrooms,” says Toyama. “Even at my relatively well-off high school, the ratio was three or four students per PC in a class. With MultiPoint, all of a sudden you have the PC reaching many students at once, and they’re able to work together competitively or cooperatively, depending on the scenario and the software.”

Says Bealkowski: “It’s a great way to increase classroom PC-to-student ratios at a really low cost. For the price of a USB hub and a few mice, we’re making it much easier to extend the reach of PCs in classrooms.”

Opportunity for Imagine Cup and Education Software Developers

Through Microsoft Research India’s work, a handful of applications already have been developed that take advantage of the MultiPoint technology. Built in the C# programming language, the applications are often competitive games that teach early education skills. For example, one game is a multiple-choice quiz. An image is displayed and multiple words are shown on separate buttons at the bottom of the screen. The students must click on the correct word, learning vocabulary while they learn to use the computer. The children, each with their own cursors, compete to be the first to answer correctly.

But these solutions only scratch the surface of what is possible with MultiPoint, Bealkowski says. In order to help more kids around the world, Microsoft is extending the challenge of designing new solutions based on MultiPoint to students participating in the Imagine Cup – Microsoft’s premier competition for technology students, which provides a forum to encourage creative and technological innovations among university students worldwide. The Imagine Cup, now in its fifth year, challenges students to imagine a better world enabled by their own genius, creativity and energy, and provides opportunities for participation in the future of technology, software and computing. Teams develop innovative projects that offer practical applicability and present real-world solutions to real-world problems.

MultiPoint is especially relevant since Imagine Cup 2007 is themed “Imagine a world where technology enables a better education for all.” In addition, Microsoft is sponsoring a separate award for Imagine Cup participants for the most innovative software application designed for a Multipoint classroom scenario. The winning team will be awarded an internship with Microsoft Research India to learn more from the best and brightest at Microsoft Research India, who are developing education solutions for emerging markets.

“Not only will students get a chance to shine by having a cutting-edge feature in their applications, but also it’s potentially a way for them to give back to their local schools and communities,” Bealkowski says.

In addition to Imagine Cup contenders, MultiPoint presents huge opportunities for education software developers worldwide. Microsoft is looking to these developers to build a broad range of creative software solutions for MultiPoint-enabled scenarios — from educational games to math challenges to visual learning in a whole new way.

“We think with this technology we can spark the developer community to build a lot of software that will help children learn the skills they need,” Bealkowski says. “It’s hard to find localized education content in emerging markets. The more software that is built for this solution, the more useful it will be for classrooms.”

“Our hope is that through the Imagine Cup competition and working with software developers, we can create a broad library of educational software that provides more opportunities for students in emerging markets to learn about and benefit from technology,” Bealkowski says. “It’s a fantastic challenge and a fantastic opportunity for everyone.”

On the Horizon for MultiPoint

MultiPoint is just one of a number of efforts driven by Microsoft to create economic, social and educational opportunities for people around the world. The innovation came from the world-class labs of Microsoft Research, and the company believes that technology such as MultiPoint can have a positive impact on people in emerging markets. In addition to the Imagine Cup competition, Microsoft plans a pilot program with the support of the Thai Ministry of Education at schools in Thailand using MultiPoint beginning in 2007.

MultiPoint is already exciting education professionals such as Carlton Samuels, chief information officer and professor at the University of the West Indies, who recently attended a MultiPoint demonstration. Instructional technology tools that invite collaboration and foster peer learning would integrate seamlessly into the classroom settings of Jamaican K-12 schools, Samuels says, but the associated cost has always hindered widespread adoption.

“This MultiPoint technology manages to address these issues at one go,” he says. “It enables collaboration and active learning at a price even a relatively poor Jamaican school could afford. It is such a simple idea, but so very effective in addressing our needs.”

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