One of the keys to improving digital learning is to break down technology barriers. That’s the approach taken by the Louis Riel School Division (LRSD) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in partnership with Microsoft Canada.
The school board, which supports over 18,000 students and staff in 40 schools, relies on a foundation of Microsoft 365 and Windows 10 to achieve its digital learning goals. The technology combination made it easier to adapt quickly to remote and hybrid learning environments. “I couldn’t imagine surviving this pandemic without Microsoft 365, including Teams and collaboration tools,” said Clarke Hagan, Director of Information Systems. “We would not function as a group if it wasn’t for Microsoft 365, plain and simple.”
LRSD’s vision is to promote lifelong learning. It encourages that by making sure technology doesn’t get in the way, said Hagan. “We want to foster innovation and risk-taking,” said Hagan. “We worked really hard to take down barriers. We don’t want to be this department of ‘no.’”
The journey to digital learning
The division has been steadily putting the building blocks in place to achieve its vision. As far back as 2011, students began bringing their own devices to the classroom. To provide a consistent environment for all students and staff, LRSD upgraded to Windows 10 shortly after its release and then began introducing features from Microsoft 365. “This gradual upgrade of new features really helped us because our end users got used to a constant level of innovation and they began to embrace it,” Hagan said.
There was a big step forward when Microsoft 365 became free for all students and staff to use on their personal devices. “That totally transformed our division because now everyone could work on a consistent platform and anything you do at work or school could continue off-campus,” said Hagan.
When the pandemic hit, the school board quickly added Microsoft Teams to its toolbox. Teams provides the ability to participate in classes, get assignments or files and collaborate all in one place. “It gave us one platform,” said Hagan. “The teachers could see and interact with their students and that was really important.” LRSD had not been a heavy user of Teams prior to the pandemic, but it could not have adapted as well without it, said Hagan. It’s also been easer for the board’s IT team of just 20 staff members to support one consistent approach. “With Teams, everyone knew that they had something we could support,” said Hagan.
The IT Team also didn’t have to worry about security as students moved to remote learning. Security parameters were already in place because students had been using their own laptops and Microsoft 365. “We were able to provide access to eight or nine thousand laptops through VPN access and Microsoft’s wizardry, so that when the machine is at home, it behaves like it’s still inside our network,” said Hagan. Microsoft 365 secures user identities and access, protects against threats and protects information.
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The evolving hybrid learning environment
Although many teachers say they’ve struggled to meet the needs of students with remote learning, they expect it will play an ongoing role in education. “There are challenges,” said Hagan. “What we try to do is not make technology one of them. Our goal was to try to take away the technical issues and let the teachers focus on pedagogy.”
Last fall, LRSD spun up an online learning campus for students in all grades. Approximately 500 to 600 students continue to learn remotely in cases where either the students or a family member is immunocompromised. To help adjust to this new hybrid environment, the school board provides Surface Studios for the teachers. The larger screens and faster processors in these computers are ideal for the virtual classroom, Hagan said.
Learning tools that break down language and cultural barriers
Microsoft 365 Education also includes applications designed to help students learn. In one situation, Hagan said a teacher used Microsoft Translator to do real-time translation for a student that spoke only Mandarin. The application translates what the teacher is saying to the class in real-time for that student. “There’s a language barrier gone because the teacher can still engage with the class and with that student,” said Hagan. “We have many newcomer families in our region and this is a huge game changer for us.”
Recently, Microsoft Canada and the school board released a new Minecraft world that teaches students about how Manitoba’s Anishinaabe community lived before Europeans arrived. The game is called “Manito Ahbee Aki” which means “the place where the Creator sits.” “This is history we believe we should be teaching our children,” Hagan said. “It wasn’t just about making a world but making a true learning environment.”
Coming soon: data analytics
What’s the next step in the journey? The board plans to use data analytics to make a student’s academic history easily available to teachers. This will provide insights for teachers so that they can adapt lesson plans or anticipate any special needs. “With Microsoft’s help, we are continuing to create tools for our teachers that will provide more opportunities to innovate.”