This summer, software giant Microsoft Corp. plans to release a new tool designed to make doing homework–long a source of mental anguish for students–less about headaches and more about learning.

Called Microsoft Student 2006 (MS Student 2006), the product is a cross between Microsoft’s online Encyclopedia Encarta, a customizable search engine, and its Office productivity suite–geared specifically to the needs of students.

“Microsoft has done a lot of research with middle and high school students and their parents to understand the frustrations they have with homework,” wrote MS Student 2006 product manager Karla Tharin in an eMail message to eSchool News. “In many instances parents feel inadequate to support their kids, because they have been out of school so long and don’t feel they have the knowledge to answer questions. On the other hand, students don’t always know who, where, or what to turn to at 9 o’clock at night when they have a tough homework question to solve.”

To help ease some of these frustrations, the company has integrated several tools it believes will help students work smarter, not harder–both at home and in the classroom.

In a pre-release briefing with the editors of eSchool News, Microsoft executives demonstrated several features, including a built-in graphing calculator for use on advanced math problems, word-processing templates and tutorials designed to guide students through difficult writing assignments, and a special tool that helps students conduct online research by pointing them toward the most reliable sources.

One such feature, called Learning Essentials, seeks to transform Microsoft’s popular Office software into a homework tutor complete with templates for constructing writing projects, book reports, in-class presentations, and physics and chemistry assignments.

Tutorials accompany many of these templates, walking students step by step through the organizational process. Using the A+ Research Tutorial, for instance, students learn how to identify and evaluate content sources, while the Outlining Basics tutorial explains how to organize research and start the writing process.

A series of specially designed toolbars provide one-click access to foreign-language dictionaries, spell checking, and translation tools. The goal, according to Tharin, is to help students more easily access the tools they need to complete a specific task–whatever that task might be.

One of the more interactive features of the new MS Student 2006 is a fully functional graphing/scientific calculator. Its full-color display and 2-D or 3-D charting capabilities are designed for use in advanced math classes, such as trigonometry and calculus, as well as science classes, such as chemistry and physics.

Unlike most graphing calculators, which have limited display capabilities, Microsoft’s Student version uses the full computing power of desktop and laptop machines, allowing students to apply animation and color to their graphs.

Students also can store and record important formulas and customize features to best suit their own individual needs and learning styles.

Though the graphing calculator is not meant to replace the need for a real calculator, Tharin said, it can serve as a supplement for certain assignments, especially when doing homework, or in other places where students might not have access to their own calculator device.

eSchool News‘ “sneak peek” of MS Student 2006 concluded with a demonstration of Web Companion, a special feature that helps students conduct more reliable web searches by providing links to the most trusted content sources. Though students today are fairly adept at using the internet to find information, Tharin said, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between what’s credible and what’s not.

With Companion, students conduct web searches using Google or some other search engine. When the search results are returned, a special window appears alongside the results, providing students with links to related material from Microsoft’s online encyclopedia, Encarta. Students then can use the Encarta links to verify the information they encounter on the web.

In terms of reference material, MS Student 2006 customers also have access to the full range of Encarta content, including more than 70,000 educational articles on topics ranging from science and math to history and geography; live updates designed to keep Encarta on pace with the changing world; and a dictionary and thesaurus complete with standard English definitions and pronunciations, as well as foreign language translations.

Other features available as part of the inaugural release of MS Student 2006 include a series of literature guides highlighting the life and work of some of history’s most influential authors; a multimedia library, including more than 25,000 photos and illustrations, 2,500 audio clips, 32 Discovery Channel videos, more than 300 video and animation sequences, 3-D virtual tours, and access to live radio and news; and an interactive world atlas.

“These visuals may … help keep students engaged, as many lose interest in math and science during high school,” reasoned Tharin, who said Micrsoft is “confident [MS Student 2006] addresses the frustrations experienced by so many kids and their parents.”

Though Microsoft will not officially announce the product until June 21, Tharin says it has been testing the technology in beta versions since January–and results thus far have been “overwhelmingly positive.”

Mohammad Kassem, a junior at Beavercreek Middle School in Beavercreek, Ohio, had only good things to say about his experience.

“There are many people who can’t wait to get their hands on it,” he said.

Some of them might have to wait.

Currently, the product is available only to Windows-based PC users. Though the company has released versions of its popular Office software for use on other platforms, including Apple’s Macintosh, Microsoft executives say there are no immediate plans to do so with MS Student.

Microsoft says it does not plan to offer any on-site training for educators looking to implement the product into their classrooms, which might be perceived by some as a drawback. But Tharin says usability studies have shown that its operation is fairly intuitive.

“The product itself is very easy to use and navigate through, so there really shouldn’t be any need for students or teachers to have special training to use the product,” she said.

With a projected sale price of $99, Microsoft hopes MS Student 2006 will be an option in both homes and schools. The company says it also plans to offer educational discounts through its volume licensing program.

“Our excitement is only enhanced by the fact that this is just the first step in Microsoft’s enhanced commitment to education,” said Tharin.

Microsoft hopes to begin shipping the software by July, so students can have it in time for the back-to-school season. Minimum system requirements include a Pentium 500MHz or higher processor with Microsoft Service Pack 4 and a Windows 98 or later operating system.

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com