A behind-the-scenes story from an educator at Microsoft’s May event

You may have read the reactions in the press, watched the event livestream, or heard from others about the announcements made at Microsoft’s “Learn What’s Next” event, held on May 2nd, 2017, at Center415 in Manhattan. But this is a view from behind the scenes. It’s an account of what I saw in the collaboration across teams and departments, the collective direction, and the attention to detail at the event that spoke loudly to me about the importance and direction of education for Microsoft, as an organization.

Two years ago, my students and I were at the Global Educator Exchange (E2) event in Redmond, WA. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was there. It was the first time I heard him speak in person. That event singularly changed my perception of the organization, because of how Satya chose to take a question from one of my students. The question came from a young boy in an audience of accomplished adults – and Satya answered it.

My student, Scott Nguyen, 14, asked Satya if he had advice on teaching philosophy to a 1st grader using OneNote. Satya responded by talking about the art of formulating essential questions as the beginning of philosophy. He advised Scott that if a person chooses to pursue an essential question, and follows that question throughout a lifetime, it will help in making decisions. He concluded his response by tying it into his vision and direction for education. “It’s the curiosity and asking the hard questions that I think is the teaching of philosophy,” he said. (Satya Nadella, E2 (Video 6:50-10:36)

It was first compelling to me because he took the question from a high school boy. Rather than laughing it off, he responded as if the question was coming from the most important person in the room and deserved a considered answer. It showed me he cared about student voice. He extracted the essence of the question and made it broader and applicable to the entire audience.

I wondered, then, if that singular focus and mission would continue to emerge from Microsoft across time.

It has.

I had the opportunity to speak directly with Satya in a meeting with executives, about Sway, not long after hearing him speak at E2. I watched him as I entered the room. I noticed his humility there and how he truly did listen. He listened to the questions and concerns of the others in the room, he listened to my responses, and he asked thought-provoking questions. It allowed a discussion on the impact and potential of Sway from early childhood through industry. He listened to my perspective on how it was a very different tool than others that existed – not to replace those, but to answer a different set of questions and needs.

Almost two years later to the day, I heard Satya speak at “Learn What’s Next.” In contrast to the meeting where he quietly listened and let others speak first, this time, his story of educational impact on family lines was important enough to take the spotlight. It spoke of legacy and expectations, given and lived out in unexpected ways.

I saw the story as an allegory for Microsoft’s legacy. People have held perceptions and expectations. What counts as a big deal for a launch or unveiling? I realized, behind the scenes, all of these new announcements came because of Microsoft asking questions and listening to the needs of people in education. For me, the launch was an outcome and statement of something deeper in the organization.

I have noticed even more in the last two years how they have listened to children, teachers, parents, researchers, administrators, and technology coordinators. They have prioritized, looked for commonalities, struggles, successes and asked, “What if?” and, “Could it help…?”  They chose to make changes that truly impact educators, students, classrooms and school, even of the general public didn’t realize the extent – but as educators, we do.

  • Cutting down on 15 seconds of boot-up time is huge.
  • Setting up PCs in 3 easy steps can cut down days of work for already overloaded educators.
  • Coding integrated into Minecraft: Education Edition amps up motivation for a mass of children already motivated to play outside of school. It adds a level of validity for schools who don’t yet see the value of gaming in the classroom.
  • 3D for visual, spatial and conceptual learning helps educators with tough concepts.
  • Better battery life means a device can actually last through a school day.
  • Tools can support children with dyslexia and improve the reading capabilities of developing students.
  • Teams for Office 365 Education can create collaborative classrooms, connect us in professional learning communities and let students and parents communicate with school staff, all from a single experience.
  • Hacking STEM lets us get started in creating multidisciplinary projects at low cost with everyday items.

From my perspective, those were huge. They’ve listened and acted. And there’s more in progress.

It didn’t strike me that it may not have the same ‘wow’ impact to people outside education until someone asked me about the event. I pointed out, even beyond the latest news, that it was clear to me how a massive organization can address the needs of people and consider them something else than a bottom line.

They care about the story and making lives better. Even in small things, they are showing they want educators to be able to do more and have more human interaction.

They’ve listened to what will make lives easier, more effective, and what will bring back more human interaction in the classroom, more ability to amplify voice, and create new knowledge.

Beyond that, what I saw behind the scenes spoke deeply about a representation of brand on multiple levels that cut across departments, which may have been more isolated from others in the past. They came together to tell the same story.

Here’s what you may not have seen from the streaming event or the press: There have been hours, weeks, days, months, and years of coming directly into classrooms, observing students, talking to teachers, listening, recording, reviewing and coming back with drafts, concepts, prototypes, and redesigns for educators and students to test. How do I know?

They’ve been in my school, in my classroom, and listening to my students. They’ve invited my students to be judges at hackathon events at Microsoft’s headquarters. They have implemented ideas that children have spoken out. They actually listened and moved quickly. Some worked on entirely new designs ,like Forms, because of a request for an assessment tool for a project in progress. They brought an entire team from China and one from Serbia. They listened to what others may not have found important. They listened to kids talking about their projects, and what they liked doing, even if it wasn’t directly related to the tool they were coming to investigate, beta test, or pilot. They helped the kids see they were valuable and impactful.

That has been one of my greatest motivators for involvement as a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, a Surface Expert, and a Showcase School.

The essential question Satya mentioned two years ago has permeated through details. I heard people throughout the event, from planners to developers and artists, talking about how the event was personal to them. It meant something. It wasn’t just product, a bottom line, or a number.

Before they brought the 20 invited educators over to the main event space, they gave us the opportunity to speak directly with executives and point out the areas we see coming up ahead in the future – to keep pushing them, to keep listening, and keep moving forward. There was fascinating discussion. Because of my experience, I know they were truly listening and taking note for immediate action items.

As a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, I’ve glimpsed behind the scenes and worked with developers since 2011. I’m not employed by Microsoft, but I’ve had the opportunity to work with many departments and teams. I’ve seen shifts in focus, planning and design across that time.

As a Microsoft Showcase School, my school, Renton Prep has had the chance to provide extensive feedback, beta test, and pilot tools, apps, and redesigns. In that time, I’ve grown to appreciate the sheer mass of challenges faced by an organization within the public view and the global reach Microsoft has. I’ve learned the challenges in innovating, reaching an audience, telling the story, keeping people happy, balancing the possibilities of what can exist in the future with what people are used to using and a mission to play well with others across platforms, devices, and companies. I’ve seen education sectors build partnerships with external organizations and pull people together to reach a common goal.

It may be the little things behind the scenes that no one outside the event could see. The live drawing in digital ink was visible in the live stream. Behind the scenes, there was real Fresh Paint on real walls with real brushes. They aren’t advocating to replace reality with digital. Digital becomes a companion and another way to create. That spoke loudly.

Paper airplanes painted on either side of the entry with clear visuals of a cloud environment, welcomed you in to a new adventure with a blue glow. It wasn’t the classroom with desks in rows and a clock you watched until the bell rang. They brought by tater tots and cupcakes – a nod to the playfulness of childhood.

It showed the balance of elegant solutions and playfulness, even in the food. There was a very real human presence, through augmented and mixed reality. The focus was still on humanity. The colors and vibrancy used all around spoke to a lively, active, fresh vision of the future. Live flowers, backpacks, and tall stools. The lunch room, the playground, the space … and real art from real children framed on the walls.

If OneNote is a place to organize those essential questions, manage teams, create a singular focus and story to tell different chapters, with collaboration, creation, digital ink, and digital artifacts then, yes, it can help us answer essential questions. Does Microsoft truly care about education? Yes. Are they forward thinking? Yes. Does an organization that big truly care about the voice of a 4-year-old? Yes. A child with dyslexia? Yes. A teacher who feels no one else is listening? Yes. They care so much and they’ve given my students a platform to speak and teach other adults. My students have gained and learned so much through these experiences.

On May 2nd, Microsoft’s education endeavors spoke something to the world. It spoke more deeply and profoundly in the quiet details you may not have seen through press or streaming. It spoke of a leader who is showing, through action, what he said to my student on that day at E2 years ago, and stepping into the spotlight to tell a personal story about legacy and its impact on education. It’s not about the tools. It’s about the tough questions and looking forward to the future of education.

Dr. Michelle Zimmerman is the Director of Innovative Learning and Education at Renton Prep, WA.