Are ICT skills the bridge to new opportunities for everyone?

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Pamela Passman

Corporate Vice President, Global Corporate Affairs
Microsoft Corporation.

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Microsoft was founded on the belief that technology can empower people and organisations to pursue their dreams and realise their full potential. Over the past three decades, we have seen that idea come to life for millions of people, as information and communications technology has become less expensive, more widely available, and a mainstay of personal and professional life in many parts of the world.

Everywhere, it seems, the power of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is enabling enormous societal changes, increasing personal and business productivity, creating economic opportunities that were once out of reach, and redefining the way people work, communicate, and live their lives. But the good news is not universal. Despite the rapid growth and widespread adoption of information and communications technologies, the disparity between people who are able to benefit from ICT and those who are not is a problem that affects the vast majority of people worldwide.

For example, one key part of our lives remains largely as it was before the dawn of personal computing – the classroom. Education today isn’t that different than 30 years ago. In most classes, rows of students still sit at their desks, listen to the teacher, read from printed text books, and hand in written assignments. Although technology has tremendous potential to transform the learning experience, it has yet to reach many of the people who need it most.

Certainly, this is a serious problem for millions of young people in developing nations, inner cities and remote rural areas who, because of poverty or location, lack access to ICT and skills training. It also affects people whose skills have not kept pace with technological advances, and it affects people with disabilities, age-related impairments, or other difficulties that may interfere with their ability to use technology. In communities around the world, opportunities are being lost and high-wage jobs are going unfilled because people lack either access to ICT or the skills to use it.

We know that technology alone cannot address the challenges of education and workforce development. Instead, it requires strong partnerships with educators, business, communities, NGOs, and governments to identify unmet needs and develop effective, scalable solutions that work in concert with other reforms and advances. To that end, Microsoft is building on a network of partnerships to ensure that relevant, accessible and affordable technology can make a substantial impact on education and skills development for underserved communities throughout the world. These efforts form part of Unlimited Potential, our commitment to bring the benefits of technology – and the economic and social development it can enable – to the 5 billion people who are underserved today by making  technology more affordable, relevant and accessible.  The company aims to do so by helping to transform education and foster a culture of innovation, and through these means enable better jobs and opportunities.

For Microsoft, promoting digital literacy requires not just resources but resourcefulness. Not just network infrastructure, but economic incentives and not just good software, but good public policy as well. Achieving widespread digital literacy requires that we work in partnership with others. This work is vital; because we understand that at the heart of exclusion are the loss of opportunity, and fewer chances for new beginnings.

For many educators, it has become a challenge to make the learning environment enriching and engaging. The importance of promoting digital literacy and tapping onto the power of ICT is most apparent in the transformation of the learning experience for today’s students, many of whom are digital natives.

For example, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in the State of Victoria, Australia, recognised, in recent years, that they needed to help teachers bridge the digital generation gap with their students. They did this by providing them with easy online access to interactive, multimedia teaching materials that they could adopt in the classroom. This also gave teachers an online platform to share best practices and resources in conducting lessons that were relevant to their students.

Teaching and Learning
Microsoft’s commitment to education and learning aims to benefit learners of all ages, giving them the skills they need at every stage in their lives. For young people, that means infusing technology in developing fundamental skills such as reading, writing and math. For teachers and educators, it means making sure they have the technology know-how to enrich the learning environment and pass technology skills to their students. For adults, it means supporting IT skills training programmes to improve their ability to compete in the workforce of today’s global economy.

Crescent Girls’ School in Singapore is one such institution which has committed itself to making learning a collaborative experience, based on a learner-centric approach. Their creation and implementation of the Global Learning Faculty (GLF) directly addressed the changing nature of learning as well as the proliferation of new media tools such as blogging, instant messaging, web conferencing and podcasting – tools that students were already using in a non-classroom environment. The GLF enabled students to be the initiators of learning, where they could experience the benefits of a collaborative learning environment.

Not just network infrastructure, but economic incentives and not just good software, but good public policy as well

Through our ‘Partners in Learning’ initiative, we are working in partnership with governments, educators and industry leaders worldwide to offer knowledge and skills to students and teachers in K–12 classrooms and eliminate the gaps in ICT access, implementation and usage. Partners in Learning provides technology skills training to the broad spectrum of people who want to learn from people who are encountering ICT for the first time, to those who want to strengthen or expand their skills.

Workforce Development, Employability and Entrepreneurism
Through the Microsoft Unlimited Potential – Community Technology Skills program, we are partnering with NGOs, IGOs and telecasters to support a wide range of basic digital literacy skills training programs that reach learners of all ages and abilities. This includes non-traditional community learners such as seniors, at-risk youth and people with disabilities, as well as experienced workers who want to update or advance their technology skills or small business owners using technology to realise entrepreneurial success.

For nearly two decades, Microsoft has been a leader in accessible technology, making it easier for people with physical, cognitive, visual and other impairments to enjoy the benefits of computing. Our software also enables other companies to develop technology solutions that empower people with a wide range of mild-to-severe disabilities and age-related impairments to work more easily and productively.

The need for accessible technology is underscored by demographic trends that forecast a shrinking workforce and rapidly aging population in much of the developed world: Japan’s population is aging faster than that of any other country; by 2050 an estimated 60% of the working-age population in the European Union will be over age 60; and by 2020, one-in-five U.S. workers will be older than 55; an increase of more than 50% since 2000. Microsoft
is involved in several ongoing programs and partnerships around the world that provide technology training and assistance for people with a variety of impairments
and disabilities.

At Microsoft, we believe that by providing technology, training and tools to people of all ages and abilities, we can help to create social and economic opportunities that have the power to change lives and transform nations. That is the purpose behind our work on important issues such as workforce development, education and accessible technology – and the reason for our mission as a company – to enable people and businesses throughout the world to realise their full potential.

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