The Education section of the Windows 8 store is packed with new apps, as people are busy developing Windows 8 education apps. One of the things I've noticed is that many of them are intended to do just one job well – they're not really creating a whole learning journey for a student, but enabling specific activities. Yet one of the advantages of a Windows device over other tablets is that you can connect everything a student does together, and connect the data and experiences of their learning journey, instead of having to hop into separate apps for each part of their learning.
To demonstrate what's possible, and to make it easier for Windows 8 education app developers to create this experience for students, Microsoft have developed a sample Windows 8 app for institutions who are using Office 365 for education and Windows 8.
The Contoso Learning Companion app for Windows 8 allows students and teachers to access their SharePoint/Office 365 for education learning environments directly from a Windows 8 device. This sample application is designed to be customised by our partners and customers, who can then release their own versions of it.
- A partner or software developer can take the code from the Contoso Learning Companion, and continue to develop it to provide specific versions for their market - eg popular learning management systems, and/or their customer configurations of Office 365 for education.
Under the licence partners can create what are called 'derivative works' from the sample app, and can distribute them free or for sale.
- An education institution could create their own custom Windows 8 education app (or get a partner to develop it for them), based on the sample app and release it under their own name.
For example, there could be a Learning Companion app for a specific university or school that has their full branding, and can be linked to their cloud services, their specific Learning Management System, and contains news feeds and information specifically for that university or school.
Features of the Learning Companion App
- Aggregated view of current events, classes, and study groups in SharePoint/Office 365 for education
- Access to class and study group sites, and their respective, events, materials, and related features in SharePoint
- OneNote integration for consumption and management of lessons and assignments via a class notebook
Developers can customise the look and feel with institution branding or by integrating imagery as a background. They can also extend the UI by adding additional components, such as news feeds and other institutional data sources.
Why develop an app, when there's a website already?
The benefit of creating specific apps, rather than simply pointing your students, parents and staff to an Office 365 website, is that you can create a seamless integrated experience. Most education institutions have websites that are designed to do everything from recruit new students, to publishing official data, to connecting with alumni. And somewhere in there are the resources to support current students. Whereas with an app focused on providing support for current students, you can make it a much better (and more mobile) experience – for example, by keeping your users permanently 'logged in' to their data, and enabling offline use with OneNote so that the students can work when and where they need to, not just when they are within reach of a wifi signal.
The other significant benefit is that the Learning Companion for Windows 8 provides a touch-friendly interface to support Office 365 for education (and potentially your LMS). It provides users with an aggregated experience that would otherwise require the user to access multiple sites via the browser.
As the sample app also integrates into OneNote, the powerful learning support app that is part of Microsoft Office. Within OneNote, sections are created for the teacher to input the required lessons and assignments for students to access. Private groups are also created for each student—visible only to that student and the teacher—where they can keep their notes, work on assignments, and collaboratively work on assignments with teacher input. By using OneNote as the repository, the teacher is able to manage all student submissions at a glance.
How to turn the Learning Companion sample app into a real app
Once you've downloaded the sample code, you'll be able to change, extend and compile your own Windows 8 education app yourself. You'll need Windows 8 and a Visual Studio for Windows 8 application development, as well as a SharePoint or Office 365 setup (you can get an Office 365 trial account here). And, of course, your programming skills