Microsoft has committed an additional $250 million over five years to its Partners in Learning (PiL) program, a vast global education initiative that aims to improve teacher skills and provide resources to students worldwide.
The announcement was made on November 29 at the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum in Prague by Laura Ipsen, Microsoft corporate VP, worldwide public sector, who also posted a statement on the Microsoft blog.
Started in 2003, PiL is a 15-year, $750 million endeavor with an ongoing goal to support student innovation and teacher effectiveness through technology.
PiL reached 12,000 teachers in its first year. Now, with 119 countries participating, the program has trained more than 11 million teachers and reached more than 200 million students, while also offering professional development sessions online and at its forums.
With the additional funds, PiL aims to reach 20 million teachers worldwide by 2018 and create opportunities for 300 million youth.
The program currently employs about 100 staff around the globe, said PiL general manager Lauren Woodman (@laurenw_at_MS). Some employees work directly with teachers and schools, while others liaise with local organizations and educational ministries.
At the Global Forum, attended by 500 educators from 80 countries, PiL honored educators from around the world for their innovations in education, tweeting news of winners and runners up from Malaysia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Australia, and elsewhere.
Teacher exhibits on display included a project from Puerto Rico in which students worked to drive down violence by interviewing victims and creating newspapers articles, movies, and a Windows Phone app. A project from Northern Ireland involved students using 3D rendering to design a school for children with special needs. All the winners can be found here.
Often, a “simple application of technology” can produce tremendous results, Woodman told SLJ.
“We’ve seen teachers with limited technology usage doing tremendous things,” Woodman said. “Research on the Internet can be quite eye-opening for a rural school in Ghana.” A project that uses a tech tool to help Ghanaian kids tell a story effectively, put it on a blog, and communicate with a global audience is “revolutionary for where they are.”
At the other end of the innovation spectrum is PiL honoree Julie Hembree (@Mrs_Hembree), a librarian at the Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School in Kirkland, WA. She was recognized for her work with fourth graders creating book trailers and QR codes for the school library.
“There are benefits to having ubiquitous technology access,” said Woodman. “But at the forum, we always have one or two teachers who have done amazing things with a laptop they charge at home because there is no place to charge them at schools.”
Woodman added that PiL does not provide software, though the program guides educators to “dozens of free tools that have relevance in the classroom.”
As technology has evolved since 2003, PiL has honed its concept of how it can best impact learning.
“10 years ago, in a lot of countries, even in the US, we were dealing with teachers who were learning to use technology at a very basic level,” Woodman said. “Technology was replacing certain tasks with automation.”
Now, “we’ve crossed that threshold with more ubiquitous WiFi and connectivity,” she said. The biggest shift is the potential to use content and create immersive environments in which students can collaborate with others, honing communication and problem-solving skills. “There is the potential for much more impact.”
“When we talk about the effective use of technology, replacing a whiteboard with PowerPoint is not an effective use,” said Woodman. “It’s simplistic, and an opportunity to automate an offline tech with a digital tool. But it doesn’t change how a student learns or how they engage with learning. There are lots of ways kids can collaborate. It might be using Skype, LinkedIn, or working in groups, or combining a digital tool and a traditional offline activity.”
A project on display at the forum from Brazil involved students creating a math game from Kinect along with a battery-powered car made from recycled materials that raced across the floor when someone got a correct answer.
“We have found that teacher capacity and familiarity with technology really varies by country and teacher to teacher within the same country,” said Woodman. “Young teachers who have grown up with technology have a different comfort level than others might have.”
To gauge educators’ effectiveness across the global socioeconomic spectrum, PiL has developed criteria for how successful teaching can be assessed, asking three key questions, said Woodman: Are teachers using information and communication technology in their teaching? Are they extending learning beyond the classroom? Are they using student-centered learning?
Related inquiries include, “Are teachers using innovative teaching practices? If so, what does that look like? Does that have an impact on whether students are getting the 21st-century skills they need?”Time will tell how the program will adapt to global change. “We don’t know the future,” said Woodman. “We didn’t know when we started in 2003 what would happen.”
Instructions on how to join PiL are on the Microsoft site. Participating schools can apply to become Pathfinder Schools, receiving more resources and serving as model schools in their communities. PiL also selects a small group of Mentor Schools, which have shown community leadership, good management, and educational success, by invitation only.