Despite real improvements in access to, and use of, information and communication technology around the world, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the digital divide between and within countries is growing. In response to the significant challenge Microsoft had launched its global initiatives called the Partners-in-Learning Programme. Vincent Quah, Regional Academic ProgramsManager, Asia Pacific Public Sector, Microsoft, gives an Asia pacificoverview of this programme and Microsoft’s visions in a conversation with Rumi Mallick of Digital Learning.
Can Public Private Partnership work as a framework to address the challenges in education in Asia?
A lot of governments are putting a lot of investment into ICT in education. This level of investment is daunting and may be unsustainable for a lot of governments. For example, in a populous country like India, how do you address the education divide in India, and at the same time ensuring that the country put in the necessary investment to support all children to gain access to quality education and technology? Probably very difficult. Hence, the Public Private Partnership is a very possible framework for sustainable manpower development. Microsoft has embarked on our own version of Public Private Partnership, an initiative called Partners in Learning. Microsoft works with government to understand the important priorities of countries so as to partner with them to begin addressing the challenges in education.
That means your programmes always fit into the national goals/needs of education?
Microsoft launched a global initiative with a broad set of tools/resources that can be tailored and implemented at the local level. The overall approach is very much dependent on the discussions between that the local Microsoft subsidiary and the government. This is the premise of all the partnerships that Microsoft has formed as part of our Partners in Learning initiative to help the government to achieve their education goals. In fact the biggest challenge in the process is to understand the kinds of investments the governments are already making, the kinds of partnerships they are prepared to be involved in and where all stakeholders are prepared to commit to in terms of content, curriculum and funding.
What are some of the challenges to education in this part of the world?
I believe that the challenges faced by Asia Pacific are also faced by Europe, Africa, Latin America and the US. The challenge and perception is that people have not been able to benefit from the investments the government is making in technology. We keep hearing about good practices and great examples of how teachers and students blossomed as a result of technology; however we have yet to see the widespread adoption and use of technology and the impact it has on learning. Therefore, the challenges ahead include how we could create a critical mass of successes and great exemplars of successful technology integration, and finding the right way to measure the impact of technology. The other challenge is developing a programme at the country level that will create a competitive work force with high levels of digital literacy and eventually resulting in an improved quality of life. These are some of the major challenges and we are trying to address some of these challenges together with the government.
Why has Microsoft been focusing on teachers in most of the programmes?
Teachers are the key in the education sector. People have a tendency to think that with technology teachers will no longer be relevant. On the contrary, with the introduction of technology, teachers are becoming more important, and they have very different roles, for example, that of an expert, a manager and a facilitator. Teachers are the key for the students as well. Through the expert knowledge of teachers, they are able to assist students in their learning and understanding if the teachers are properly equipped. Students are generally more digitally literate as compared to teachers. This problem has to be addressed at the root. I also believe that apart from teachers, school leaders and policy makers also need to be aligned from a technology adoption perspective. You have to ensure how to achieve maximum results out of each implementation.
But are you not trying to re-establish the role of the teacher as instruction providers and students as instruction takers?
No, I don’t believe we building a teacher-centric model. In fact, we are advocating a student-centric model that is able to leverage the best of what technology has to offer. There are two ways to look at how we can change the education system. One- we change it completely, which is very revolutionary. The second is- you adopt an evolutionary approach to change. When you adopt a revolutionary approach, you are exposed to a lot of risks and unknowns. I think you put a lot of students at risk, which is not fair. You are experimenting, you don’t know whether you are going to be successful or not and besides, revolutionary change is much more difficult to manage than the evolutionary change. On the other hand, the education community has been making small evolutionary changes and we need to build in processes to ensure that is taking place a reasonable pace and that the change is sustained.
When you refer to ICT enabled education, what kind of innovation will you highlight?
We need to start changing our terminology here, putting emphasis on ICT-enabled education, not just focus on ICT integration. It is an assumption that technology is the foundation and enabler. ICT one day will become like a calculator, a pen and paper, so where we should really focus would be in the innovation in the pedagogy and curriculum, the changes in the assessment system to reflect real learning, the process of learning and relearning and the application of these lessons back into the system.
What are your future visions for the rural area?
The future is like envisioning what the school can be like 20, 40 or 100 years down the road, and that picture would be different for different schools and different regions/countries. We should be thinking of how we can be relevant to children in the rural communities and to ensure that they can fulfill their potential. We should try to design the school around that vision. The important fact is what is great, mighty or important thing in one country need not necessarily be applicable in another context. Therefore your vision has to be relevant in your own context.
In Thailand are you determining the agenda for education?
In most countries Microsoft always sit down and have an open discussion with the different Ministry of Education. We try to understand what their priorities and needs are, and how we can partner with them to achieve the vision. As a team, the top priorities for the countries, and we will focus our resources and effort to achieve these priorities. Everybody has limited resources and that’s why partnership is critical. Each of us identifies the roles we are going to play, how we are going to play and what we are going to contribute. The ministry actually determines the agenda. When the ministry asks for our help, we look at how best Microsoft can leverage our expertise, technology and resources and contribute to the overall effort.
What is your experience so far in working with the Asian countries?
I think the governments in Asia pacific are in a real high demand stage. It is not actually a question of over-supply; it is a question of over-demand. There is so much that needed to be done at the country level; a lot of governments have embraced and integrated the Partners in Learning programme into their overall national strategy. Our experience in working with governments has been very positive. The Partners in Learning initiative has been the most successful program in the entire history of Microsoft. As of today, Microsoft has established partnerships in 101 countries through Partners in Learning.
What are the challenges you faced in working with Asian governments?
Working with Government is all about establishing trust in the relationship. When we started in some countries, governments were a little concerned and skeptical that organizations like Microsoft would want to partner with them. But I think when they saw that we meant what we say and we meet our commitments, that’s when the change starts and the trust begins to grow. It is only after trust has been established, that the governments would be more prepared to have in-depth discussions.
You are emphasizing on professional developments, can you explain this?
One of the things we have realised that once the teachers are trained and go back to schools they typically leave their training behind. The real practice and implementation do not find an expression in their day-to-day classrooms. I think teachers struggle with other issues as well. From education research we understand that when you are able to get like-minded teachers and create a network within and between schools teachers tend to out-perform the other group of teachers that remain isolated. This is a model of professional development that we believe will be sustainable – building communities of practice and networks of teachers to interact in order to help each other. What teachers need to learn is that they are not alone.
What is Microsoft’s vision of education worldwide?
Microsoft vision of education worldwide, not just for Asia is that we believe technology can play a very important role in the whole business of education, in the teaching and learning area as well as supporting the lifestyle of the students and teachers. We believe that technology can help them fulfill their potentials; this is Microsoft’s ultimate vision.
How is Microsoft playing a critical role in education?
Microsoft is taking our Partners in Learning initiative very seriously and we have taken the first step to achieve long-term sustainable impact. However, Microsoft is just one company and there are many other organisations that have similar goals in terms of trying to address digital divide and education divide. We would like to invite some of these companies to join us because we can’t do it alone. Our expertise is in software and not curriculum; apart from technology curriculum, we work with partners to develop our other Partners in Learning curriculum.
What are your personal goals?
If I can see a sparkle in the eyes of the students, in the eyes of the teachers, in the eyes of policy makers with whom we work with, my goals are achieved. At the end of the day it should be about creating better opportunities for them, it’s about impacting positively, it is about them fulfilling their potentials.
What has been your achievement in last few years?
There is a lot to talk about. Wherever I travel I always visit schools and meet up with teachers and students. I also meet up with educators, senior level officers and ministers. We run a conference for senior government people in the ministry so that we can understand their challenges, and at the same time help them realise how the world is progressing, and the technological advances that are taking place. We have created the relationships and made it grow and I think this is one big area that I can count it as my privilege, not so much as my achievement, in helping develop this trust and relationship between the government and Microsoft.
How do you see Asia in ten years time?
Asia will experience a very explosive growth. Hopefully in ten years time we’ll be looking to new challenges rather than focusing on old challenges which we hope would have been overcome by then. The people who are involved in the education sector would be more prepared to deal with the changes the 21st Century has introduced. The students we are teaching are going to experience a very different lifestyles 20 years from now. We must think of students 20 years from now and what type of skill sets they would need in the future work force and build their capacity accordingly.
Despite real improvements in access to, and use of information and communication technology around the world, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the digital divide between and within countries is growing. Many less affluent areas of the globe continue to lack basic access to technology and training, widening the gap across communities in quality of life, competitiveness, and economic development.
In response to this significant challenge, and as a demonstration of its ongoing commitment to education and learning, Microsoft has launched a new global initiative called ‘Partners in Learning’.
Partners in Learning includes three key components:
Partners in Learning Grants Programme These grants will provide investments to create a sustainable model for improving the use of technology in teaching and learning.
Fresh start for donated computers This program provides primary and secondary (K