ACM - Computers in Entertainment

Microsoft Research Connections: Collaborating to Reinvent Education

By Donald Brinkman , Rane Johnson-Stempson

Microsoft Research Connections: Collaborating to Reinvent Education

Microsoft Research Connections (MRC) is the division of Microsoft Research that engages with world-class scientific researchers and institutions to attack some of the toughest problems of the 21st century. Together, we strive to advance the future of computing in such fields as parallel programming, software engineering, natural user interfaces, and data-intensive scientific research. Our goal is to harness the power of computing to help solve some of the world’s most urgent challenges in education, healthcare, the environment, and human-computer interactions.

Our collaborative work is centered on five themes: 1. earth, energy, and environment; 2. core computer science; 3. health and well-being; 4. natural user interfaces (NUI); and 5. education and scholarly communications. Each of these themes takes on big challenges in partnership with academic experts from around the world. Although the fifth has the most obvious impact on education, all of these themes support projects that advance student learning.

As we’ve said, ours is a collaborative process of working with leading researchers and institutions worldwide. These joint efforts with external researchers can take many forms.  In some cases, we broker relationships between Microsoft researchers and external investigators to use Microsoft technologies to attack a big challenge. For example, in the Robot Rescue Project, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, are exploring ways to integrate Microsoft Surface and its natural user interface into search-and-rescue robotics, with a goal of giving rescue personnel the ability to control robots remotely with greater precision and accuracy. 

In other cases, we provide “research accelerators,” which are tools designed to help extend the capabilities of our traditional products. These resources assist students and academics in managing scholarly works, teaching and exploring science, analyzing and visualizing data, and publishing research results. Many of our research accelerators are open source or have open interfaces, enabling communities to build on these solutions in collaboration with Microsoft Research engineers and researchers. Such was the case in the development of Chem4Word, a Microsoft Word add-in that does for chemistry what spellcheck does for the English language. 

We also offer fellowships, scholarships, and grants to foster the next generation of world-class computer scientists. This support includes efforts to attract and retain women in computer science and engineering. 

MRC and Education

Our work in the area of education and scholarly communications comprises a number of education-related program, a few of which we will briefly discuss below.  Some are already active and can be downloaded from the links provided.  Some are pilots and ideas, we have included what information is available today.  All of them are free, and many are also open source. 

We’ve broken these programs down into two general categories: new ways to teach and learn; and new ways to engage and analyze.

New Ways to Teach And Learn

Though many Microsoft products are used at all levels of education, few are designed specifically for education.  In partnership with academic institutions we build add-ons that are specifically targeted to help education, and sometimes we create entirely new tools to solve challenges in education today. 

WorldWide Telescope (WWT) is a great example of our efforts in teaching and learning in the area of earth, energy, and environment. Begun in 2002 as collaboration between Microsoft Research, Johns Hopkins University, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysics Library, WWT brings together observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and other sources.  WWT is used by museums and schools to explore the farthest reaches of the universe in three dimensions.  Not only does it allow students to explore the universe using intuitive visual controls, it encourages them to launch interactive tours developed by renowned astronomers—and even to create and share their own tours of the heavens. 

Project Hawaii is another example of collaboration between Microsoft Research and academic partners focusing on computer science. Project Hawaii is a platform for developing cloud-enabled mobile applications using a set of cloud services, a Visual Studio based SDK (software development kit) and curriculum resources available to students and researchers free of charge. Hawaii is being used in some of the top universities in the world, including Stanford, Cambridge, and Purdue, to name a few. Hundreds of students exercise their creativity by developing novel and unique Windows Phone 7 applications.

ChronoZoom grew out of a question that celebrated geologist Walter Alvarez asked his class in 2009:  “How can I visualize history of the entire universe and move smoothly from the Big Bang to today?”  In partnership with Dr. Alvarez, we created ChronoZoom, a Silverlight application that uses deep zoom to move seamlessly across vast distances of time.  Today we are collaborating with the University of California at Berkeley and numerous other universities, the International Big History Association, and the Gates Big History Project to develop ChronoZoom V2, with a joint vision to facilitate innovative teaching and to empower interdisciplinary research.  ChronoZoom V2 will feature on a dynamic, interactive, cloud-based data visualization tool and will be freely available online to anyone interested in using it for education or research. ChronoZoom V2 beta is scheduled for release in later this year.

New Ways to Engage And Analyze

The students entering school today are “digital natives.” Born into a world of digital devices, they are completely comfortable with these technologies and have incorporated deeply them into their everyday lives.  Recent studies by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center highlight the digital habits of young people and the way that parents and children pass digital devices back and forth [1, 2]. The growing ubiquity of software and devices doesn’t just provide an opportunity for increased engagement; a tremendous amount of information is being gathered about the digital learners, particularly from their use of educational games. 

Currently, each educational game application holds onto the data in a closed or “siloed” system.  Our goal is to unify all these data in an interoperable and distributed network of frameworks. This improved access to data will provide ever more finely-grained information about the student. The information can be analyzed via human or machine learning to provide dynamically adjusted mitigations for poor behavior and rewards for good behavior. 

In an effort to improve the effectiveness of such applications, we are working with our academic partners to increase the engagement level with educational game and learning software. One of our foremost efforts in this area is Kodu, a game construction kits that teaches computational thinking by allowing students to develop their own 3-D games.  It is used in schools around the world, and there has been promising work at University of California Santa Cruz to adapt Kodu to appeal to young girls and get them interested in science and technology.

We are also exploring the use of Kinect for Education. Our collaborations with educators at the University of Washington-Bothell and other institutions aim to design several dozen curriculum units to teach math and social sciences topics using Kinect and off-the-shelf games. We are not just creating pilots but also the curricular units, student handouts, common core standards alignment, and various supporting resources that will enable a non-technological teacher to pick up the parts and quickly begin teaching and engaging kids with the magic of Kinect.

Our final example is one of our newest and most promising efforts. Just Press Play is a collaboration between Microsoft Research and the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). The faculty at RIT has developed an alternate reality game—a “frame game” that wraps around the traditional education context to provide badges, levels, quests, achievements, and other game mechanics to drive academic success. Rather than reward academic performance directly, Just Press Play rewards pro-social activities and other inputs that have shown promise in increasing students’ retention of the concepts being taught.  A tremendous amount of data is now being captured, which will allow researchers to analyze the analog and digital lives of the students and provide truly adaptive activities tailored to the needs of the region, sub-region, district, classroom, and possibly even the individual.

Tying it All Together

We hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction to our collaborative work in the education technology space.  Our goal is to push the needle not just for Microsoft, but for education technology in general.  We realize it is unlikely that one standard or technology will adequately benefit such a complex ecosystem. We imagine a future where every student has a unique electronic portfolio that records his or her entire educational experience, from pre-kindergarten to lifelong learning.  This portfolio will inform not only students but also educators, parents, and institutions—not to mention subsequent software applications. 

This is the first in a planned series of articles that will cover many of the technologies we’ve touched upon here. Later articles will go into greater depth, discussing the research and the collaborating institutions in detail.  They will demonstrate how to use these technologies in your classroom today, how to assist in the refinement of these research projects, and how to insert ideas of your own.  We look forward to continuing this conversation with you!


[1] Chiong, C. and Shuler, C. Learning: Is there an app for that?. Joan Ganz Cooney Center, November 2010;

[2] Gutnick. A.V. et al. Always Connected: The new digital media habits of young children. Joan Ganz Cooney Center, March 2011;

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