New Software Components Give Educators a Welcome Break

REDMOND, Wash., July 1, 2008 –In January 2007 Microsoft released the SharePoint Learning Kit (SLK), a set of education-focused software tools available at no charge in binary and source code form on Using the SLK, independent software vendors (ISVs) can build solutions that make it easier for educators to manage assignments and free up time for classroom activities and one-on-one interaction with learners. Now Microsoft has released the SLK Add-On Pack, another set of development tools that will further assist educators with curriculum development and learner assessment.

PressPass spoke with Cliff Lloyd, a lead program manager in the Microsoft Education Products Group, about how educational institutions can benefit from the SLK and SLK Add-On Pack.

PressPass: I understand you’re updating the SharePoint Learning Kit. Can you elaborate on the updates and who stands to benefit?

Lloyd: When we consider the job of an educator, what comes to mind for most of us is what happens within the classroom: the daily interaction with learners as educators work to instill critical knowledge and skills. But the job of an educator involves so much more. Educators today have a full workload of activities that happen outside the classroom: from attending institution meetings and leading extracurricular activities to preparing lesson plans and grading projects and papers. What happens in the classroom is actually the culmination of several hours spent developing course curriculum and assignments. And after the semester or quarter ends, the task begins of assessing the performance of every learner and assigning them a final grade.

At Microsoft we have seen productivity and collaboration software have a tremendous impact on business, government and public services, but only scratch the surface when it comes to benefitting education. If we provide educators with the appropriate tools and expertise, we can reduce paperwork and administrative overhead, give them the insight and intelligence they need to optimize — and personalize — their teaching, and free up their time to focus on what they do best: engaging and exciting their learners.

With this in mind, we created a set of education-centric developer tools based on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 and known as the SharePoint Learning Kit. With the SLK, developers and solution providers can build solutions that enable educators to work more efficiently and easily create classroom assignments, share those assignments with their colleagues and manage the workflow of those assignments as they’re completed by learners.

As an extension of the SLK, the SharePoint Learning Kit Add-on Pack introduces a planning component to help educators at the beginning of an academic period develop curriculum and lesson plans that map to course objectives.

The Add-On Pack also provides grade book functionality that provides real-time learner tracking across a semester, culminating in a computed final score. Educators can grade and monitor the status of digital assessments and activities, as well as record scores for non-digital assessments, such as a project from a pottery class or the learner’s clarinet performance in music class.

We also structured the Add-On Pack so the user interface is separate from the business logic. This means Microsoft partners have greater freedom to customize their solutions to address an institution’s specific needs. For example, they can build a solution that functions seamlessly with third-party database products, or they could rewrite the user interface to integrate an institution’s grade book application.

PressPass: Are institutions really interested in all this functionality?

Lloyd: What we’re hearing from educators and institutions is that they need help automating the mundane, repetitious, time-consuming tasks that take them away from high-quality classroom instruction – things like planning, preparation and homework grading. Institutions are already investing in three key areas of technology to meet these needs: document management solutions for recording, data retention and compliance; intranet/portal solutions for communications, collaboration and the delivery of audience-targeted news and information; and course management systems to deal with processes such as course planning and preparation, course delivery and distance education.

A number of educational institutions in the United States approached us through our higher education consortia with a list of requests to address these areas. After further discussion with a representative body of institutions, we realized that most of their needs were already met through Microsoft Office, SharePoint Server and the SLK, but that their needs for semester-based grading and a system for reusable course curriculum were still unmet.

It was with that feedback in mind that we developed the SLK Add-On Pack. Our goal in doing so is to help our partners provide robust solutions that give back educators some of their precious time, so they can engage in more high-quality teaching activities.

PressPass: This sounds like a rather comprehensive solution; can institutions really afford it?

Lloyd: The SLK and the Add-On Pack are available at no charge, so they’re very affordable and, importantly, they provide learning institutions with a platform that’s flexible to meet their long-term needs. Flexibility is an essential characteristic for an institution looking for a solution that meets their needs and complies with government requirements.

Institutions can work with systems integrators and solution providers to build a modest solution that is customized to meet their short-term needs and provides the platform for a long-term investment. So SharePoint Server — coupled with the SLK and Add-On Pack — is a good fit, particularly in an environment where institutions like to start small and build from there.

PressPass: How can institutions take advantage of the SLK and Add-On Pack?

Lloyd: It’s interesting that, at least in the United States, a large number of higher-education institutions are already licensed to use SharePoint – roughly 80 percent at last count. So, from a licensing perspective, many institutions are already able to take advantage of the benefits of the SLK and Add-On Pack.

In addition, Microsoft has approximately 25,000 education partners worldwide that have the breadth and depth of knowledge to build a long-term learning solution on SharePoint. They can play a critical role for any institution by helping customize and build such a solution.

PressPass: Why has Microsoft created these technologies?

Lloyd: Technology has long since transformed how we live and work in many places around the world, but it has not yet revolutionized how we learn. Through technologies like the SLK and Add-On Pack, we can help fulfill educators’ demand for relief from the increasing administrative, non-teaching overheads they face, while allowing them to focus more time on helping learners learn. It also provides a foundation for making them more effective and extends their reach beyond the classroom.

If you think about that vision globally, you can imagine institutions in the United States interacting and sharing curriculum and courses digitally with institutions in other regions of the country or other countries altogether. Ultimately, through technology, Microsoft believes we can help extend the reach of educators, tools and content in affordable and scalable ways so education is available to everyone, whenever and wherever they want to learn.

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