With an already-strong technological presence in schools, Microsoft Corporation is further extending its reach into the education market.
At the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) in January, Microsoft announced the launch of its Microsoft Encarta Class Server, a curriculum management platform for the K-12 market.
Partnering with major international publishers, Microsoft seeks to serve the K-12 platform space by delivering ready-made lesson plans, assignments, assessments, and customizable content, all of which will be aligned to state or national standards. With its existing presence in schools and its extensive international reach, Microsoft may well become a leader in this space.
While the product is currently in its beta stage, Microsoft is aiming to release Encarta Class Server this April in the U.S., U.K., Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. In the near future, the company also is planning to broaden its scope to reach the post-secondary market.
Encarta Class Server, based on the Windows 2000 operating system, is designed to provide teachers with access to educational content and services from a variety of vendors. Class Server also allows teachers to create content and share it with educators around the world, if they so choose.
“The platform is designed to minimize the workload for teachers,” explained James Kuhr, product planner for Microsoft’s Encarta Class Server. “It is intended to add no more than 30 minutes a week to the teaching load, and as a teacher becomes more familiar with the product, it will actually offer time-savings.”
Perhaps the platform’s biggest asset is its open source architecture, allowing Microsoft to remain vendor-neutral; in effect, anyone can create content to distribute through the platform. Initially, Microsoft seems to have covered most of its bases by partnering with a variety of different technology service providers, such as Edvision Corp, Stagecast Software Inc., and Edmin.com to include authoring, data mining, and accountability tools on the platform.
Class Server also provides access to content from publishers such as Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Reed Educational & Professional Publishing 2000, Times Learning Systems Private Ltd., Granada Learning, Plato Learning Inc., Barrett Kendall Publishing, and The McGraw-Hill Companies.
Microsoft expects to succeed on an international level because, in addition to the worldwide interchange of content, the company intends to partner with local content providers to offer customers regionally specific content they need. While this flexibility allows educators to pick and choose the content that best suits their community, the challenge will be ensuring the interoperability of the platform’s content providers so schools can manage their self-selected content.
On paper, the Encarta Class Server sounds like the be-all-and-end-all platform solution; the reality of its offerings may be less convincing. With end-users who are strapped for time and bound by limited resources, Microsoft will need to maintain its promise of time-savings while providing educators with the customizable tools they want. In order to effectively serve the market, Microsoft will need to distinguish itself from other established platform providers such as bigchalk.com or the emerging Classwell.
Reportedly, nearly 60 percent of all computers in U.S. K-12 districts are running with a Windows operating system, and Encarta is one of the most widely used reference tools in U.S. schools. The Encarta Class Server may well be an easy fit for the K-12 market. Within this burgeoning space, it remains to be seen whether a brand name or experienced quality will win this race.
Though it has a strong foothold in the education market, Kuhr explained, “Microsoft is not an education company, but a technology company. Our relationships with publishers provide breadth for the platform that we built.”
With its content and technology partnerships, its far-reaching distribution agreement with Compaq, and open-source platform, Microsoft is on its way to providing a complete software, hardware, and services solution for the education market.
Emily Trask is assistant editor of The EducationEconomy, an Eduventures.com publication. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
For more information . . .
Visit the Microsoft Encarta Class Server Web site at http://www.ecs.msn.com.