Office Mix, First Take: Create online lessons in PowerPoint

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Office Mix combines a PowerPoint plug-in and a cloud service. Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

Classrooms aren't becoming computerised: they are already computerised. Tools like PowerPoint are regularly used to deliver lessons and lectures. But there's a disconnect between the productivity tools we're using to build educational materials and the underlying educational process.

It's a gap that Microsoft aims to fill with its Office Mix tools. Combining a PowerPoint plug-in and a cloud service, Office Mix is intended to take existing PowerPoint slides and turn them into cloud-hosted interactive lessons, complete with links to external resources and with built-in tests.

Using Office Mix is relatively simple. You'll need a copy of Office 2013 (or an Office 365 account with download rights for the latest Office), and be running it on Windows 7, 8, or 8.1. To get started you'll need to set up an account on the site, using a Microsoft account (or an Office 365 account). You can also log in with either a Facebook or a Google account. To help you get started, a gallery on the Mix site contains a series of tutorial Mixes, which you can view online, or download and play on a wide range of devices.

Once you've signed up for an account, download the PowerPoint plug-in to start creating your first Mix. It's a relatively small download, although the installation process can take a while as it needs to set up Microsoft's Office extension tools and framework. Once installed you'll find a new Mix tab in the PowerPoint ribbon.

PowerPoint gets a new Mix tab on the ribbon once the plug-in is installed. Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

Creating a Mix is straightforward, and builds on your existing PowerPoint skills. You'll create slides as normal, adding interactive elements as necessary from the new Mix toolbar. Currently Mix's features are installed as Office app downloads, from the Office store. You'll need to download them each time you want to use a feature, as they're not cached locally. Interactive elements like tests and quizzes are easy to edit and configure, although we were slightly confused by the lack of instruction around the Khan Academy plug-in.

Office Mix includes tools for making screen recordings, which are ideal for creating Mix-based tutorials. Mix's screencam isn't Camtasia, but it is adequate for most purposes, with the ability to mask out a section of your screen and to record a voiceover as you demonstrate actions. You can also insert screenshots from the Windows screenshot folder.

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Once a set of slides has been created you can use the record button in the Mix ribbon to record a voiceover, choosing timings for your slides and adding annotations as and when necessary. You can use a pen to add annotations, and include a video of yourself narrating your slides. The recording tool opens a new full-screen view that guides you through the process of making and editing recordings, with the current slide front-and-centre, ready for you to start teaching.

Once you've created a lesson, you'll process it into a Mix and upload it to your Office Mix gallery. Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

You're now ready to upload your Mix to the Office Mix service, and then share it from your personal gallery to students and colleagues. Uploading can take a while, especially if you're rendering your Mix as a video for offline viewing. Once it's uploaded you can share your Mix to students, just by making the Mix shareable and distributing its URL. Mixes can be restricted to users with the same organisational account as the author, letting you keep them private. Shareable Mixes can be accessed by anyone with the Mix URL, although they do need to log in to view the Mix; public Mixes are open to the entire internet.

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Completed Mixes can be played back online or downloaded as movies. You won't get access to the interactive features in a downloaded movie Mix, but they do let your students work offline and with a wider selection of devices.

Office Mix isn't just for the classroom, it's for anyone who needs to build interactive training tools. The ability to combine screen recordings with slides and narration simplifies the process of creating the materials you need to build courseware, and a browser-based, cloud-hosted delivery mechanism makes it easy to distribute materials to students and trainees alike. You're not limited to delivering Mixes to Windows PCs: the resulting content can be viewed on Mac OS, iOS and Android devices, with appropriate versions for each platform.

The online element of Office Mix also includes analytic tools, so you can see who has worked with a lesson, as well as delivering the results of any tests you've incorporated. Mix's online analytics are clear and well designed, making it easy to see how successful students are — and also how successful your lesson is.

Familiar tools

Building educational content hasn't been this easy since the early days of PLATO. Microsoft has made the sensible decision to use PowerPoint as the foundation of Office Mix, letting you work with familiar tools before adding narration and video. Even the interactive features are easy to add, and don't require a significant learning curve. It's early days, but Microsoft is clearly making a push for the education market with its Office 365 tools, and with Office Mix.