On September 23, Microsoft Education held our third Education Transformation Summit, where education leaders shared best practices from the acceleration of digital learning due to the global pandemic.

To facilitate this conversation, we brought together 200 education system leaders in two Microsoft Teams live sessions to reflect on progress and talk about their goals and vision for the future. Invited panelists came from across the globe—from Finland to the Philippines, from Canada to Costa Rica.

Though each leader’s perspective was unique and based on their specific experience, we’ve identified five key factors that are universally relevant.

  1. Visions for digital transformation at scale should be grounded in a unified technology strategy
  2. Ensuring all learners have access to appropriate devices and learning platforms is priority number one
  3. Integrating technology with pedagogy enables social-emotional learning and student well-being
  4. Supporting teachers with professional development is key to success
  5. Data security and privacy are critical as education becomes increasingly digital

"It's critical that the constituents are bought in to the vision. And we need a vision that's more sustainable and longer term than just purchasing and deploying the technology." – @AnthonySalcito VP #MicrosoftEdu at ETS SummitClick To Tweet

The disruption of education by COVID-19 can be seen as a catalyst, an invitation not to simply strive to minimize the negative effects of the change, but to improve education models for the future. One of the biggest hurdles for leaders with this goal has been balancing short-term decisions with making longer-term sustainable investments that will impact how students and teachers learn using technology for years to come.

When wrapping up the panel discussions, Microsoft Vice President of Education Barbara Holzapfel said, “It’s clear that with continued public-private partnership, education systems around the world will continue to advance the goal of creating personalized, equitable learning enabled by the intentional integration of pedagogy and technology.”

With leaders such as all of those who joined the events as contributors and participants working toward these goals, the transformation of education around the world is underway.

To hear all of the insights and ideas discussed, you can watch the recording of the full Education Transformation Summit, which includes more resources and links to research that was discussed at the summit. Continue the conversation throughout October by joining the Sustainable Strategies for Hybrid Learning webinar series, and identify your school’s next steps in the Education Transformation Framework and Assessment.

Read on below for a more in-depth recap of the key points, with quotes and examples from the contributors and panelists.

The Education Transformation Summit

Microsoft VP Education, Barbara Holzapfel, moderates the AM session panel discussion

This year, the back-to-school season has been unlike any other year. For students, teachers, parents, and education system leaders, getting used to the new normal in a COVID-19 world is an enormous challenge. At the same time, we’ve seen incredible creativity—and speed—in deploying remote and hybrid learning. Here are some of the key learnings from the contributors and panelists who joined us for the Fall 2020 Education Transformation Summit.

1. Visions for digital transformation at scale should be grounded in a unified technology strategy

Education institutions that already had a strong focus on long-term digital transformation have been more resilient during COVID-19, as they have accelerated existing projects and driven wider adoption rather than having to start from scratch.

A major factor in the strategy is the mindset of the project, according to Anthony Salcito, Vice President for Education at Microsoft. “It’s super critical that the constituents are bought in to the vision. And we need a vision that’s more sustainable and longer term than just purchasing and deploying the technology,” he said.

Emily Bell, Chief Information Officer for Georgia’s Fulton County School District in the US, illustrated how her district engaged in a consultation strategy to bring everyone along. “We surveyed parents and asked them what they liked and what they don’t like. We had families with children in multiple schools, and they complained that there were too many software tools to learn. So, we moved to standardized approaches and offered a menu of applications including Office 365 and Teams for schools to use. Since then, we surveyed parents and 80 percent told us they were satisfied with our technology. The remaining 20 percent just wanted their kids back in school,” she said.

At the same time, some education systems are thinking about how to simplify technology provisions for teachers and schools by providing services centrally.

“We implemented Teams nationally and created more than one million accounts in two weeks. We created a call center to help,” said Paula Villalta Olivares, Vice Minister of Institutional Planning and Regional Coordination at the Ministry of Public Education of Costa Rica.

Unified approaches like these take the burden off local IT admin staff to support teachers, students, and parents in using the platform, rather than having to set up a platform in each individual school.

Microsoft VP, Education Barbara Holzapfel speaks with UNESCO Director Borhene Chakroun

2. Ensuring all learners have access to appropriate devices and learning platforms is priority number one

The need to move learning online quickly highlighted existing challenges, such as access and equity, and any plan for future success includes striving to level the field for all students. As Borhene Chakroun, UNESCO Director, Division for Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems, stated during the panel discussion, “The master principle is leaving no one behind. COVID-19 has increased the divides that existed prior to the crisis. We need to be focused on inclusiveness, equity, and reaching out to the most disadvantaged.”

Access to dedicated and reliable devices is an issue in many areas, and there are many different approaches to getting devices in the hands of learners.

Gaby Rowe, Founding Principal at GROW Associates, noted that as the state of Texas worked to provide devices to students, the communities that were hardest hit by the virus were also those that were the most under-resourced. “As we started Operation Connectivity, there was a real focus on how we ensure that as we get devices out there and we provide connectivity, that we’re really making sure it goes into the neighborhoods, the households, the students’ hands, the schools, and the teachers who need it the most”

Nicole Dezen, Microsoft Vice President of Device Partner Sales, in the opening fireside chat with Anthony Salcito, mentioned this challenge as well. “We have seen a flurry of buying, but we are still seeing a lot of institutions still struggling to get devices needed by students and faculty to support their needs.”

Microsoft VP, Education Anthony Salcito chats with Nicole Dezen, Microsoft VP, Device Partner Sales

Keith Kruger, CEO of the US-based Consortium for School Networking who represents CIOs from more than 1,000 school districts, highlighted the importance of careful consideration of the total cost of ownership, and noted that oftentimes, a cheaper device is more expensive in the long run if it isn’t the right device for the student.

3. Integrating technology with pedagogy enables social-emotional learning and student well-being

Student well-being has always been important, but it has become an even stronger focus during times of crisis. Our research for the whitepaper “Emotion and Cognition in the Age of AI” demonstrated that educators believe positive emotions are critical for academic success, that they are important in developing communication skills, and that technology, when used correctly and integrated into quality pedagogy, can support traditional knowledge acquisition and the development of social and emotional skills.

“We prioritized social and emotional needs and interaction. One of the biggest challenges was supporting students close to dropping out during the remote period,” said Dr. Marjo Kyllonen, Head of Development Service Unit, Helsinki Education Division. “The importance of personalized learning and digital platforms, and how they can be beneficial for the learners, really increased.”

Meanwhile in Costa Rica, the strategy was to drive students’ independent learning.

“We created autonomous learning guides for students. Every day students received activities to do at home,” said Melania Brenes Monge, PhD. Academic Vice Minister at the Ministry of Public Education of Costa Rica.

And in Canada, Jordan Tinney, Superintendent of Schools and CEO of Surrey Schools, uses Power BI to create a dashboard where educators can track and visualize different categories of student information related to student well-being. These results help educators map the needs of students in schools throughout the district, and respond by taking actions such as reaching out to parents and implementing additional after-school activities.

4. Supporting teachers with professional development opportunities is key to success

Even prior to the pandemic, a majority of teachers surveyed for our Staff of 2030 whitepaper said that they expected the use of technology in the classroom to increase. However, only 38 percent of them felt that their training had prepared them to use digital tools for learning. Now that so much of teaching and learning is online, investment in teacher professional development is a key indicator of success.

“Pedagogical understand[ing] of learning, and how to do it from a distance was important for our teachers,” said Kyllonen. “We have regular discussions with teachers about the pedagogical model, what are the skills needed for the future, and how does our pedagogy reinforce their acquisition,” she continued.

The government of the Philippines has undertaken a massive initiative to bring electrical power and internet connectivity to schools that have been without it, and along with providing access, teacher training on new technology is a top priority.

Alain Pascua, Undersecretary for Administration, Department of Education at the Republic of the Philippines shared, “What we have been doing for the past few days and from past few months is the massive training of all our public school teachers in terms of open innovation and resources in terms also in the use of the learning management system.”

In Costa Rica, more professional development was required to quickly shift to digital platforms.

“It just confirmed what we already knew—PD needs to be relevant, current, novel. We want teachers to have the chance to change their teaching practices into more effective learning procedures, and we are expecting evidenced transformation of their teaching activities,” said Vice Minister Melania Brenes Mong.

5. Data security and privacy is critical as education becomes increasingly digital

The increasing amount of digital education in systems around the world generates a huge opportunity for leaders and teachers to get more insight into learning, but needs to be handled in ethical and appropriate ways.

“It’s important to start with data privacy and security,” said Chakroun. “We need to shift from classical Education Management Information Systems to a new generation that are integrated with Learning Management Systems to make more up-to-date and effective reporting on learning.”

In Finland, their AI and data strategy is strongly student centered.

“Our focus is always on good pedagogies. So the aim is that every student can achieve his or her own potential, and that we can have a transparent process using a variety of data collection points from teachers, from students, from platforms and so on. Our goal and objective is to promote the ideal learning process with automated learning design to help make learning transparent, and thus deeper and better,” said Kyllonen.

Microsoft Education would like to thank the leaders and contributors who took part in the summit. Their wisdom and experience generated some incredibly insightful observations, provided actionable information for attendees, and made our third Education Transformation Summit a valuable event.