Opportunities that can’t be missed

27 Nov 2003

Computing has already enriched and enhanced people’s lives in countless ways, but we’ve only begun to see how it will transform our businesses, our governments and our communities. In the next few years we’ll see computing become a much more significant and indispensable part of all our lives.

The pace of innovation is accelerating in all the core technologies of computing – from processing power to storage to network bandwidth – making it possible for computers to become better connected, easier and more intuitive to use, even less costly and capable of handling all kinds of information. While this will create countless opportunities for business, entertainment and communication, the application of these technologies to the way people learn is the most important and exciting.

Computers have long been a powerful tool for education, giving students access to a new world of information, sparking creativity and facilitating rich communication and collaboration across vast distances. At the same time, the internet has brought an unprecedented level of great educational content to a wide audience, encouraging teachers to share curriculums and resources worldwide.

Email has facilitated improved communication among administrators, teachers, students, parents and educational researchers, and emerging web services technologies will create further opportunities for collaborative learning. Increased industry and government funding in learning science promises to vastly improve the ways technology is applied to learning. And in the years ahead, a whole generation of kids will leave college and enter the workforce with a broad understanding of the ways they can use technology effectively in their jobs.

But we’ve still got a long way to go before we see how much technology can really do, particularly in education. Solving business problems with computers looks easy when compared to the often complex and little understood process of learning. And technology is only part of the solution. All the computers in the world won’t make a difference without enthusiastic students, skilled and committed teachers, involved and informed parents, and a society that underscores the value of lifelong learning.

Finding effective ways to use technology to enhance learning is a challenge that educators, academics, policy makers and the technology industry must work together to solve.

The adoption of information and communications technology (ICT) is, by definition, necessary to bridge digital divides. Usually, it will reach the rich first, raising total PC penetrations, ICT users and so on – and make the international digital divide shrink. Whether ICT spreads to the poor and underserved within a country is not certain either way – it depends on government policy, businesses and individuals working together to make ICT accessible and usable by all.

A recent e-inclusion report commissioned by the Information Society Commission and the Department of the Taoiseach discussed the key aspects to an inclusive information society. One of these core aspects was that “citizens from all demographic groups should have the opportunity to use ICT, particularly the internet, to improve the quality of their lives and their communities”.

Multilateral organisations and non-government organisations, think tanks, foundations and educational institutions have studied the scope and scale of continuing barriers to digital literacy in developed and developing countries. Statistics can be found to describe nearly every permutation of the problem – from business use of ICT, personal PC ownership and internet access, and personal computers in the school, to share of ICT employment in the business and government sectors.

There have been some innovative examples of governments taking the lead in driving ICT adoption throughout a society. Sweden leads the way in the EU with home PC penetration rates of almost 70pc. The main reason for this leadership position is that in 1998 the Swedish Government introduced a salary sacrifice scheme and new tax legislation so that employees could lease/purchase a ‘fully loaded PC’ out of gross salary over a period of time interest free. This enabled employees to purchase PCs for up to 50pc of the retail price. The employer also saves on PRSI contributions.

As organisations and institutions continue to study the challenge of bridging the digital divide, several themes consistently emerge: ICT is a critical enabler for social and economic development, but it can also foster greater inequality; ICT access requires holistic solutions and innovative partnerships rather than ‘one-off’ approaches; national policies need to be transparent and inclusive; and the development of ‘human capacity’, a technically skilled knowledge workers, is critical to ultimate success.

For more than 10 years, Microsoft has worked within the educational community to foster greater understanding of and access to technology tools and training. This work has given the company a unique understanding of the challenges faced in different countries and cultures as they struggle to develop and fund ICT educational programs. Consistent with current data and assessments about the growing digital divide within countries and regions, Microsoft has found:

Underutilised resources
Despite the growing number of PCs currently in schools, there is diversity and, indeed, disparity in how those resources are deployed. Donated computers – an economic necessity for many educational programs in both developed and developing countries – actually contributes to accessibility problems due to outdated hardware, compatibility problems, licensing constraints and so on.

ICT affordability is measured not just by the basic cost of technology and that cost relative to per capita income, but most importantly with regard to innovation and access. While basic technology may be increasingly accessible to students in less affluent communities, access to the latest innovation in software, hardware and so on, is often neither affordable nor accessible, thereby perpetuating the yawning gap between technology ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

Know how
In the education community, there is almost universal support for improved teacher training and curriculum deployment to help address the economic, cultural, geographic and physical barriers to ICT education. Governments also acknowledge that economic and social gains can only be achieved through development of a new generation of skilled knowledge workers.

By Derrick McCourt

The Partners in Learning initiative

Serving the needs of education customers is a significant and strategic priority for Microsoft. Today’s students are tomorrow’s business leaders. Microsoft’s commitment to education is about providing innovative tools, programs and practices to help students and educators realise their full potential.

Despite real improvements in access to and use of information and communication technology (ICT) around the world, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the digital divide within countries is growing. It is clear that public private partnerships are required to address financial and educational barriers currently inhibiting the development of a digitally “literate” society. Microsoft’s new global initiative, entitled Partners in Learning, seeks to enable holistic solutions to the problem of access to current software and the use of ICT to improve learning in both technical and non-technical curricula. The initiative also envisions close partnerships with government, education systems and non-governmental agencies to enable program delivery and facilitate measurable outcomes.

The essential premise of this ambitious five-year undertaking is simple, yet compelling: education changes lives, families, communities and ultimately nations. Through the initiative the company is focusing global resources – people, partnerships, services, philanthropy and products – to stimulate change.

Microsoft intends to be an enabler for significant educational and social change through the delivery of teacher training, tools and ICT access that produces measurable benefits. The Partners in Learning initiative has already been launched initially in a mix of developed and developing countries, including India, Brazil, China, Russia, Thailand, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Taiwan and Japan. The company is now beginning to engage with education leaders in Ireland to introduce the program during 2004.

This is a critical juncture in the story of our human development. The gulf between those with access to education and the educationally impoverished is growing. However, the opportunity exists to bridge that gulf by changing the current paradigm of ICT access. By bringing its considerable resources to bear on the problem of digital literacy, Microsoft believes it has a responsibility as a corporate citizen to play a significant role in the development of new partnerships and methodologies for ICT empowerment through education.