Despite real improvements in access to, and use of, information andcommunication technology around the world, there is a wealth ofevidence to suggest that the digital divide between and withincountries is growing. In response to the significant challengemicrosoft 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 conversationwith 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