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Straight up conversation: Microsoft chief talks augmented reality in schools

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Dan Ayoub is the general manager of mixed reality, artificial intelligence, and STEM education for Microsoft. Before that, Dan worked for 20 years in the games industry, most notably as the development lead for the iconic title Halo. I recently talked with Dan about Microsoft’s work to bring augmented and virtual reality education to the classroom, and here’s what he said.

Rick Hess: Dan, you’re general manager of Microsoft’s education team. Can you say a bit about what that actually involves?

Dan Ayoub: Thanks, Rick! The high-level goal for the team is to empower every learner on the planet to achieve more. Which is a pretty big task! So what that means concretely is we make products and curriculum for educators and learners of all ages, we partner with classrooms to implement technology, and work with researchers on where the puck is going. In addition to what you generally think of when you think of Microsoft, we have tools for collaboration, tools to help students learn to read, gaming like Minecraft, and so on. We have a central education group, and of course a number of people are working on education across the company. It also involves fostering lifelong learning and future skills like cloud, AI, and data science.

Rick: You came to this work from outside of education, after leading the famed Halo game-development team for eight years and after nearly two decades in gaming. What led you to make the jump?

Dan: It’s kind of crazy that after 18 years of making games, to do a jump like this. I came to Microsoft to continue working on games about a decade ago; about seven or eight years ago, I got really interested in education from an intellectual standpoint, probably related to having kids. At the same time, working with all of this future tech and working at a big tech company, I started to see where things are headed, and it became really clear that the current way of thinking wasn’t preparing kids for the future. So there I am working on Halo at Microsoft but fascinated with this problem and having no idea how to get involved. Then I was offered a role in the mixed-reality team to look at how we could use the technology for helping students, and it just seemed like the perfect intersection of my development background and my interests.

Rick: It often seems like game designers have figured out some things about engaging youths that have yet to show up in educational software. Is that fair?

Dan: There’s a great quote by Marshall McLuhan: “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” I think it’s hard to compare when the context is so different, but I think there’s a lot of what games do well that make sense in the classroom. Like making the student the center of the experience, gradually giving skills, and building on them. I think games are also great at teaching grit, resilience, and the understanding that failure is a part of success. Games are also increasingly social in nature, which is really interesting to think about in educational scenarios.

Rick: What’s the one big lesson you’ve brought over from your time at Halo, and how has that affected your work at Microsoft?

Dan: Designing for the user. In this case, the final user is the student, but you need to think about the actual teacher using the tech as the primary user, because if they aren’t comfortable using the technology, it isn’t making it into the classroom, or you need a ton of professional development to make it happen. I’d also add that in games we are constantly listening to our customers on how to make their experience better, and this is something I have definitely brought with me. Finally, it’s all about engagement, and that is really key. Working on Halo gives me incredible cred with students when I go into classrooms.

Rick: Ha, I can imagine! So what have you found to be the biggest bumps, headaches, or disconnects when it comes to designing useful educational software—and helping educators use it effectively?

Dan: I think two things come to mind. First is the notion of technology as a silver bullet; at the end of the day, it’s all about the teacher, and if you bring technology into the classroom and use it the same way you used a paper and pencil, and don’t adapt, then you aren’t going to reap the benefits. At the end of the day, great technology will allow a great teacher to do more and help their students to succeed, but that involves changing how they work in the classroom. I think the second is making sure the software is user-friendly to the teachers and helping them to use it effectively through training, support, and so on.

Rick: Can you talk about one or two of the really eye-opening, head-shaking developmental things you all are working on that might truly one day be transformative—but perhaps not for a decade or two?

Dan: I think two of the most transformative, jaw-dropping things coming down the road are augmented reality and artificial intelligence. Both are in very early stages, but there is massive potential for them both. I think both will completely change education forever once they reach scale and the tech is ready.

Rick: OK. I’ve heard you talk about the distinction between augmented and virtual reality before. Can you explain the difference for a general audience?

Dan: Understanding the difference can be tricky, for sure. In a nutshell, virtual reality is entirely immersive, so you put on a headset and you are transported to a different world and have no awareness of what’s going on around you. The immersion limits your ability to work collaboratively with people near you, though you can co-habit a virtual environment, but that immersion can be beneficial for people who may have challenges focusing and is great for singular experiences. It’s also been shown to be great for empathy-building. Augmented reality, like a Hololens, works by creating holograms over your field of vision, so you can still see everything around you—this is great for classes in the same room together.

Rick: So what do we know about how well augmented reality can work?

Dan: We spent a lot of time researching the effectiveness of the technology, and there were a bunch of studies pointing to the potential, but I was really eager to see the practical results. Here’s what we know: Some partners are seeing a full-letter grade improvement when using the technology. Others are seeing up to a 60 percent reduction in the time it takes to teach their content. All of this is due to the lower cognitive load required to learn while using the hardware. Outside of the classroom, this tech is being used today in corporate and vocational training and workflows in industries like automotive and design, to name a few.

Rick: How about virtual reality?

Dan: Similar to augmented reality, we are seeing great results in the classroom. VR is also being used in corporate training as well; Walmart is using the tech to help train their employees, and every day I see new cases of the tech at work. It’s really quite exciting because it’s all still so new, and people are crafting some amazing things in the workplace and the classroom—I am seeing a bunch of really interesting use cases in vocational education as well. We recently made over 30 hours of standards-aligned content free for educators, and it’s been great to see the response.

Rick: What are some of the ways that K-12 schooling might ultimately benefit from virtual or augmented reality?

Dan: As time goes on, I have two scenarios I am extremely excited about: first is the potential for distance learning, as you can have students collaborate with other students all over the planet in virtual environments; you can also learn from literally the best people on the planet regardless of where they are and be in the same room with them. The second is as we can weave AI into the experience, we can start to get to the idyllic personalized learning or 1:1 learning scenario for every student. Another area I am extremely excited about is differentiated learning—so how do we use this technology to diagnose things like dyslexia earlier through eye tracking or to assist autistic children?

Rick: On a somewhat different note, as someone who comes to ed tech from outside, can you offer some tips as to the pitfalls those making ed tech need to be focused on?

Dan: I have been really vocal that companies focused on the wrong thing in the early days by creating these showcase experiences that focused more on showy visuals than actual curriculum. Our job is to help teachers do their job, so we made a decision to focus on standards-aligned content that would help teachers do what they need to do, and the response to this has been great. Like any educational technology, it’s a tool that can help students immensely, but it requires thinking about how you’ll approach it. At the end of the day, it’s still all about pedagogy.

Rick: In education, we have a long history of getting jazzed about the possibilities of new tech—only to be disappointed, time and again. What’s your advice for schools or systems that want to avoid the usual rash of mistakes?

Dan: I think first and foremost, if you just adopt technology and continue to teach like we did during the Industrial Revolution, then ed tech isn’t going to fix all your problems. I like to say that you need to be diligent, learn about the tech and how to maximize it, and adapt it to your needs, but also change how you teach. Also, please ask us—we love to talk to educators and we prefer to talk about the problems they are trying to solve rather than just pushing technology. Let us know what you’re trying to accomplish and help us to make our products better for you.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.





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