There has been lots of discussion over the past couple of years about the future of higher education. First, many universities embraced the idea of massive open online courses (MOOCs) to broaden their teaching to a global scale.

Then, after observing that MOOCs haven’t fared all that well in real-world scenarios, others have parried with the concept of SPOCs—small private online classes—that offer video lectures as homework and classroom time as an opportunity to refine students’ comprehension of what they viewed online. This is being called “blended” learning.

Interesting times, but there are commonalities among these approaches. Online lessons must be created, quizzes and interactive exercises must be inserted, and attention must be paid to analytics to achieve continual improvement. The problem is that there has been no easy tool to democratize the creation, publication, and sharing of online lessons—and augmenting them with built-in data analytics.

Enter Office Mix.

Office Mix logoWith a free customer preview now available, Office Mix enables educators to create online, interactive lessons quickly and easily while working in a familiar format: PowerPoint.

That’s a comfort for the many educators who are interested in offering online lessons or pursuing new ways of instruction but just don’t have the time or the resources to do so. Office Mix was designed to change all that.

And it all started as a Microsoft Research prototype.

Anoop Gupta“Office Mix represents a brand-new way to communicate using PowerPoint,” says Anoop Gupta, a Microsoft distinguished scientist who works on cross-disciplinary projects with potential for significant business or societal impact. “It makes it simple to create online presentations—we call these ‘mixes’—with audio, video, ink recordings, and interactive elements such as quizzes and polls. It provides a portal to easily publish and share mixes, as well as detailed analytics so you know who watched what and see viewer responses.

“Given the emerging trends of online or blended learning, we believe Office Mix provides powerful new capabilities for teachers and faculty. Longer term, we envision broad utility across consumer and enterprise scenarios.”

In December 2012, Gupta began work to help educators take lessons they already had in PowerPoint and extend them into an interactive document that could be played as an online lesson. The approach was to streamline a process that had forced educators to use a variety of tools and complex technology and turn that into a task every professor could perform from within PowerPoint.

Once the concept was well honed, Microsoft’s Startup Business Group stepped in to incubate the idea and bring it to market quickly—with enthusiastic support and collaboration from the Office team.

Office Mix has been developed with the intent to help educators and their schools use technology in a new, appealing, flexible way while not busting the budget or being too complicated to embrace. Because professors know PowerPoint, they will find it easy to start creating interactive online lessons that provide near-instant analytics, enabling quick insights into the level of student understanding.

In addition, a couple of key partnerships give educators an easy way to add valuable content in their lessons. The partnerships are with:

  • Khan Academy: a nonprofit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing free, world-class education for everyone everywhere.
  • CK-12 Foundation: a nonprofit that creates and aggregates high-quality curated content about science, technology, engineering and math.

Office Mix is a cloud-enabled web service—meaning the mixes can be viewed from anywhere, on almost any device—that consists of two parts that work closely together:

  • An add-in to PowerPoint that enables educators to create and record a lesson without having to encounter an unfamiliar or tech-heavy user interface.
  • A website that acts as the center of the Office Mix experience. The site, which includes sample lessons and tutorials, gives educators the ability to add interactivity, analytics, and sharability.

Office Mix recording interface“The innovation in Office Mix,” Gupta says, “is providing powerful new capabilities while maintaining a laser focus on simplicity and building upon a billion users’ familiarity with PowerPoint. As one concrete example, we take a totally different approach to creating a mix than traditional, timeline-based video-editing tools. We leverage slides as the fundamental unit for sequencing, reorganizing, and reusing context within a mix.

“Our end goal is to empower folks from business executives to third-graders with the ability to tell interactive, rich-media stories with built-in feedback loops.”

Office Mix is hardly the only effort Microsoft Research is pursuing to help teachers and educators. Consider:

  • ChronoZoom: Created in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley and Lomonosov Moscow State University, this is an educational tool for educators and students who want to put historical events into temporal perspective.
  • WorldWide Telescope: Another collaboration, this one with a collection of academic and governmental agencies, this free tool enables seamless panning and zooming across the night sky, blending huge amounts of images, data, and stories from multiple Internet sources into a media-rich, immersive experience.
  • Grading at scale: One idea being explored is determining how to provide quick grading for assignments from massive open online courses when there could be 100,000 people taking a course.
  • Testing tools: Another Microsoft Research project is targeted at enabling professors to create lots of similar test questions without having to develop each one manually.

“We have numerous projects,” Gupta explains, “that leverage big data, machine learning, proof systems, and natural-user-interface technologies for solutions in this space.”

Office Mix also could become a powerful way for scientists to share the talks they present at academic conferences with those who could not attend—and engage in bidirectional discussions as necessary.

In addition, Office Mix offers an easy way to keep up with the fast-evolving role of high tech in teaching, learning, and information sharing.

“In today’s world,” Gupta concludes, “every one of us will need to be a lifelong learner. Technology will play a key role in providing scalable and affordable access to quality learning, so it is natural for Microsoft Research to invent new tools and technologies for this critical societal need.”