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New education tools from Microsoft

Software giant announces four new academic-specific products, including a tool to help lock down shared systems.

Microsoft on Tuesday announced a bouquet of four software products targeting schools.

The offerings include a beta version of the Microsoft Shared Computer Toolkit for Windows XP, designed for computers being used in school computer labs, public libraries, Internet cafes or other shared locations. The software allows administrators to add safety features to those types of systems, which are often more vulnerable to spyware and viruses.

For example, new Windows Disk Protection technology tracks changes made by users and restores the computer to its original state after people log off, discarding their changes. Also, a restrictions tool on Shared Computer Toolkit lets administrators decide what people can do on a PC. Access to drives and system utilities such as the control panel, command prompt and registry editor can be blocked, for example. Although this software is not designed for IT pros, it likely will help them as well, according to Microsoft.

Another product, Learning Essentials for Microsoft Office, available in July, runs atop Microsoft's XP or Office 2003, and includes project and tutorial assistance from a number of education publishers. Among its features: templates for MS Office Word and Excel and PowerPoint. The software will be available for free to schools that subscribe to a Microsoft Academic Volume Licensing program for Microsoft Office.

A third product, Microsoft Student 2006, includes the Learning Essentials package, along with a graphing calculator and curriculum-based templates and tutorials for a range of school subjects including history, languages and science. This product also is scheduled to be available in July. Pricing was not released.

In August, Microsoft expects to release an online version of its reference library, MSN Encarta. The software will feature a new interface designed for academic searches and gives students one-click access to Encarta reference content in seven languages for 11 countries. An Encarta Academic Online subscription is available to academic institutions. Existing academic subscribers to MSN Encarta Premium will automatically be switched over to Encarta Academic Online, the company said.

"U.S. schools are spending more than $5 billion a year on technology, and there are now nearly 13 million instructional computers in schools. It is imperative that an investment of this magnitude result in improved teaching and learning," Craig Bartholomew, general manager of the Education Products Group at Microsoft, said in a statement.

CNET's Joris Evers contributed to this report.