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Tapping the Combined Power of Technology, Curriculum and Teachers to Transform Education in Developing Countries


Access to education is universally considered a bedrock value. Microsoft’s belief in the promise of education runs especially deep in developing countries, where children as well as adults are in pressing need of better learning opportunities.

As a technology leader, Microsoft is part of a growing wave of companies and nonprofit organizations taking on the urgent challenge of bringing the benefits of technology and education to people and schools around the world. For example, Intel’s World Ahead program, AMD’s 50/15 campaign, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative and Microsoft’s own efforts -- such as Unlimited Potential, Imagine Cup and Partners in Learning -- all strive to address this problem from different angles. Microsoft recognizes that the success of technologically driven efforts in education depends not only on the availability of affordable desktop PC and laptop hardware, but also on strengthening teacher involvement, creating and sharing locally relevant curriculum, and establishing a pathway for education to lead to real-world employability and success.

To learn more about these industry activities and Microsoft’s stance on technology and education in developing countries, PressPass spoke with a panel of Microsoft executives with expertise in this arena: Orlando Ayala, senior vice president of Microsoft’s Emerging Segments Market Development Group; Will Poole, corporate vice president of the company’s Market Expansion Group; and Lindsay Sparks, corporate vice president of Microsoft Education Strategy, Products and Solutions.

PressPass: Why is Microsoft focused on education in developing countries?

Sparks: We’re dedicated to the idea that people are a nation’s best and most sustainable resource. In developing countries, that resource is especially crucial to economic growth, vitality and competitiveness. We envision a future in which all people can realize their potential and participate in the growing global knowledge economy. And we believe governments, civic leaders and the private sector can work together to help make that future a reality by investing in a skilled, literate workforce, which means providing a high-quality education and ensuring that children as well as adults have broad access to learning.

One of the most important questions we’re trying to answer is how new technologies make high-quality, lifelong education more accessible to people throughout the world. Today, education is no longer confined to just the first 18 years of a person’s life. The changing nature of work requires continuous learning and updating of knowledge and skills. Technology is a key piece of that process. If we invent solutions that reach only a small percentage of children in a country, or if we leave teachers out of the equation, then we’ve failed at our task. We have to think bigger and longer-term.

PressPass: What is Microsoft’s philosophy on technology and education in developing countries?

Poole: I’ve traveled extensively with the Emerging Markets team here at Microsoft through Asia, Europe and Latin America. Through those experiences, we believe that low-cost devices such as laptops and desktop PCs tailored to primary and secondary education can offer significant enhancements to the educational systems. We are working with our industry partners to continue making appropriate and affordable versions of Microsoft Windows and Office, as well as free education-specific tools like Learning Essentials for Microsoft Office and MultiPoint, which can help students learn better, and help educators stay organized and successfully complete high-quality work. While these platforms coupled with locally developed educational solutions help children learn, they also enable them to gain the computer skills they will need to succeed in today’s increasingly digital workforce. I’m happy to see local hardware and software developers in Brazil, India, China and many other parts of the word stepping up to create inspired, locally driven education solutions that make use of our platforms.

We also believe in strengthening the tools and training available to teachers, which is why we’ve trained millions of educators through our Partners in Learning program. We’ve also donated millions of dollars in software to Intel’s Teach to the Future program, and over the next two years, we plan to donate 100,000 licenses of Microsoft Windows and Office for PCs to schools as part of Intel’s World Ahead program.

We believe that technology is the only way to effectively scale high-quality education. Underserved markets have limited resources to invest in schools and for recruiting and retaining an adequate number of qualified educators. Technology extends the reach of education and increases its relevance, making it an active learning experience for students. Our goal as a company is to provide students with the 21st-Century skills they need, such as collaboration and critical thinking, to help ensure that they’re prepared to succeed in the global economy.

PressPass: As a technology leader, what can Microsoft’s efforts in underserved regions do?

Ayala: Access to education is something I am very passionate about, having been born in Colombia and having held many international positions during the course of my career. And like my colleagues at Microsoft, I’m committed to making sure that Microsoft makes a real difference to people all over the world with respect to closing the digital divide. As a technology leader, we can provide opportunities and resources that help all people develop their skills -- starting with young students who are building a future, to parents and educators who are looking to enhance learning environments, to small business entrepreneurs who seek a better way to connect with the world, to workers who need to retrain for employability. We’re responding to the challenge with a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach, and we’re working to mobilize global governments, the IT ecosystem, publishers, content and service providers, educators and local subject-matter experts in the hopes of enabling people to experience learning and achieve things they never dreamed possible.

PressPass: What links does Microsoft see between education, technology and local economies?

Sparks: It’s been proven that information and communications technologies can add great value to regional economic growth. Our own research indicates that an educated, technology-proficient workforce is key to competitive success in the global knowledge economy. But our research also exposed a troubling gap in education in developing countries, where students often lack access to high-quality educational opportunities, qualified teachers and locally relevant content. We hope to bridge that gap worldwide, both by drawing on our expertise in tools and technologies that enable and enhance the learning environment, and by teaming up with public and private entities to deliver locally relevant materials and tools. Education with a clear pathway to real-world skills makes for a better future for children everywhere.

PressPass: Can you give us a few examples of Microsoft’s programmatic efforts in underserved markets?

Ayala: Our Partners in Learning program is one example of how we’re using innovative technology training to empower teachers and students to reach their fullest potential. Partners in Learning works with governments, ministries of education and other key stakeholders to offer a spectrum of education resources, including tools, programs and practices. More than 100 countries worldwide are participating in these curriculum development programs. The fundamental premise of this vision is that technology in education can be a powerful catalyst to promote learning, and that education changes lives, families, communities and ultimately, nations. Between 2003 and 2007, Microsoft helped more than 30 million people in 19 Latin American countries and awarded more than US$27 million in grants and software through Partners in Learning.

PressPass: Is Microsoft building products tailored to the needs of underserved markets?

Poole: We’re working to create new learning opportunities for the next generation through our focus on innovation, and by driving improvements in education through targeted technology development. This includes employing industry-leading R&D teams that design software based on local community needs. For example, in many classrooms in underserved areas, groups of students must share one PC. In 18 relatively affluent rural primary schools studied by researchers, it is common to see student-to-PC ratios well over 40 to 1. The existing solution to this problem has been to acquire more PCs, but that is often difficult for schools with limited resources. In addition, traditional PC setups do not allow for collaborative learning and teamwork. That’s the reason we developed MultiPoint. It’s a tool designed by Microsoft Research India that enables many students to use a single PC simultaneously by allowing for multiple mice on a single session with color-coded cursors. MultiPoint is being launched as a platform in this year’s Imagine Cup for development of collaborative education applications.

We also recognize that many families want their children to have access to education technology at home, so we’re working to design new products that put home computers within reach for middle-income families on modest budgets. For example, Windows Starter is intended to help family members learn the skills of daily computing by providing easy guides designed especially for new PC users. With many families, we see the innovative dual-language support of Windows Starter put to use -- children use the PC in English, and parents use their native tongue. Since its release, more than 1.5 million families in emerging markets have learned to use a PC through Windows XP Starter Edition, and we recently launched Windows Vista Starter, which includes new parental control features.

PressPass: What’s Microsoft’s view on OLPC -- the Nicholas Negroponte project that aims to improve education in developing countries by supplying children with low-cost laptops?

Poole: We share the goal of governments, educators and parents to give the children of the world every opportunity to develop and excel. We continue to support Negroponte’s goal of extending the power of technology to children globally. Educating children in the developing world is not a challenge that can be solved by a device alone. While low-cost devices can be a useful delivery mechanism for education, we believe that the real gateway to students is through teachers and curriculum.

We need solutions that will not only broaden access to education, but also embrace and strengthen the role of teachers as a fundamental and proven educational resource. In areas where teacher shortages exist, we believe that technology advancements can increase the reach of great teachers and extend locally created curriculum and well-taught lessons from other communities. With that in mind, we’re working on a project with universities called the Digital Study Hall, which was created to increase access to high-quality educational opportunities for the rural and urban poor by using video capture, the postal service, DVDs, cable TV and inexpensive handheld radios. Through other initiatives like Imagine Cup and our Innovative Teachers programs, we are working hard to help foster innovation, creativity and locally driven content and give children the support to communicate worldwide. We expect low-cost PCs like Intel’s “Classmate” and the OLPC’s “XO” to be important devices to help in education as well.

PressPass: Can you give us some examples of how Microsoft is teaming up with educators and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)?

Ayala: We’ve forged important alliances between academic stakeholders and our network of 650,000 local technology providers and application developers worldwide to expand our series of Microsoft Innovation Centers around the globe. These centers, which had served 90 communities in 30 nations by the end of 2006, provide our customers and our industry partners with a comprehensive set of programs and services to foster innovation and growth in local software economies. For example, the Partners in Learning program mentioned earlier advances the quality of education through innovative uses of technology, helping empower teachers and students to achieve their fullest potential. Teachers work in a high-pressure environment, so tools that can help them save time are invaluable. Many of the free support tools offered in our Partners in Learning programs have been shown to reduce lesson planning and preparation time by 50 percent. This valuable time can now be spent with students in the classroom. In addition, the Fresh Start for Donated Computers program has helped refurbish and license more than a million donated PCs worldwide. The long-term benefit of this work goes beyond the individual to transform local communities, economies and societies as a whole.

To engage further with academia, we participate in initiatives to develop local curricula that aim to inspire the next generation of leaders and inventors.

We also work with local community organizations and NGOs that operate community technology centers to implement our Unlimited Potential program, which is an IT skills training program focused on delivering basic technology skills outside of traditional education settings. Since launching in 2003, the program has awarded more than $200 million to 600 programs in 100 countries, as well as granted cash and software to organizations that help increase technology skills in underserved communities.

PressPass: How is Microsoft working with other technology companies to address the education gap in developing nations?

Ayala: Two efforts that come to mind are our partnerships with Intel and AMD. For example, we’re a strong supporter of the Intel World Ahead Program, which aims to speed up access to technology and education for people in developing regions. A key part of this program is the Intel Teach to the Future initiative, a worldwide effort that provides teachers in developing countries with instruction and resources to drive the effective use of technology in their classrooms and curricula. More than 3 million teachers in 40-plus countries have been trained to date. We also support Intel’s efforts with regard to the Classmate PC, a low-cost, small-footprint learning PC designed for students and teachers in emerging markets. We’ve been working closely with Intel to help ensure that Microsoft Windows XP Pro, Microsoft Office XP Standard and Microsoft Learning Essentials are available for worldwide distribution on the Intel Classmate PC, plus our technical teams have worked hard to optimize the performance of our software on this innovative hardware device.

We’re also onboard as a partner in AMD’s 50x15 digital inclusion initiative, which is pushing to develop new technology and solutions in hopes of enabling affordable Internet access and computing capability for 50 percent of the world’s population by 2015. We support AMD’s goal of bringing millions of people into the digital age through this initiative, and as an ancillary benefit for people and businesses, we hope to fuel long-term economic progress. A key strategic component of our involvement in the AMD 50x15 initiative is our joint support of new, more flexible business models for developing countries, powered by our Microsoft FlexGo technology. Together with AMD, Intel, Lenovo and others, we launched a pilot program that allows people to purchase PCs through a monthly subscription computing model. In our customer research, we see education continuing to be at or near the top of the list of reasons why families are purchasing these low-cost subscription computing offers.

PressPass: What’s the ultimate goal of all these efforts?

Poole: I think we can all agree that education is an urgent concern and a crucial component of today’s increasingly competitive global workforce, whether you’re a primary school child in Namibia or an adult needing to learn new job skills in Brazil. The ultimate goal is sustained economic opportunity for all citizens, and we’re honored to team up with governments around the world to tackle these issues of scalable, high-quality education as the key that opens the doors to local innovation and employability in every country.

I’m particularly touched when I hear stories like the one about an 18-year-old student named Unchalee in Bangkok, Thailand, who was able to advance her education and job opportunities through the power of technology. Unchalee attends a school that has just one PC for every 30 students. However, with the help of the Windows XP Starter Edition pilot program, sponsored by Microsoft in collaboration with the government of Thailand, Unchalee now has a home computer and she can spend several hours each day learning new skills and exploring the Internet, which has introduced her to a new world of information. Her older brother, who had never touched a computer keyboard before, is also learning to use the family’s new home-based PC. These are the stories that drive us and our industry partners to help transform education in developing countries and broaden learning opportunities for people in all parts of the world.


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