Microsoft Corp. is developing a new suite of tools that will allow developers and publishers of educational software, as well as educators themselves, to create their own instructional programs easily and intuitively, the company says. Users would control these programs on their computer screens, using a media player that Microsoft expects will ship with most Windows-based computers in the near future. The entire software environment is code-named “Grava.”

The Grava development tools, which Microsoft previewed at the British Education and Training Technology Conference in mid-January, are meant to stand alone as separate applications. A Grava SDK (Software Developer Kit) tool is designed for publishers and developers of educational software, while a different authoring tool will give those with less programming experience–such as many educators–the ability to create their own media-rich content to be viewed with the Grava player, Microsoft says.

By introducing these new tools, Microsoft hopes to reduce the time and money spent creating educational software. Because developers won’t need high-level programming expertise to create Grava-based programs, the tools could eliminate the common software development cycle in which a subject-matter expert creates content, then hands it off to a programming team to write code, which then returns it for more changes, and so on. Using Grava, “developers can create very rich [educational materials] … to make learning much more fun and engaging,” says Ravi Soin, product unit manager for Microsoft’s Education Products Group.

As an incentive for software developers and publishers to begin using Grava to create programs, Microsoft has included the software needed to play Grava, the .Net 3.0 Framework, in its newly released Windows Vista operating system. Windows XP users are able to download .Net 3.0 through Microsoft’s web site, said Kapil Thombare, product manager for the company’s Education Products Group.

In addition to the developers’ and publishers’ tools, Grava provides educators with an authoring tool that lets them create projects to be used on their own computers, or published online as web applications.

“It’s going to be easy for educators to work with the tool,” says Thombare. “Our plan is to have a certain amount of information up front. Educators can use templates that would make it much easier to come up with the end result they are expecting to achieve.”

This ease of use is something many believe could be Grava’s greatest attribute.

“It’s very user-friendly in that you don’t have to be a software developer to be able to author your own tests, presentations, interactive surveys, or lots of other different applications,” says Diana Cano, executive director of new product development at Educational Testing Service (ETS). “The key is it’s menu-driven. You pull it down and create buttons and that sort of thing.”

ETS is one of the first companies to use the Grava platform to create educational programs. ETS is using Grava to develop applications for its “Who am I?” program. This program contains six different sophisticated surveys, with topics such as time-management skills and whether the user is a morning or night person. Each survey will represent a different application on the Grava platform.

For some of the applications it has created, ETS used a software developer to take advantage of certain features that had not been introduced into the Grava platform yet. But for the other applications, Cano said, ETS turned to a non-developer. Her work in creating a multimedia program using audio files and multiple-choice questions suggests Grava holds much potential for those in the education community with no software developing experience.

“The biggest thing to watch, as this matures, is for users to be able to customize the kinds of things they want to customize,” says Cano. “The key for Microsoft is to be able to create a tool that anybody can use, but that [users] can really individualize for what they’re trying to do.”

“We hope this can transform the way educators are able to take difficult concepts and explain them in a fun and engaging way,” says Soin. “For publishers and developers, [we hope] this can provide a new medium for them to create content in a much more efficient way.”

Microsoft is set to release customer previews of Grava to software developers soon. The company aims to launch the product officially this fall.