My previous blog provided a brief overview of Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program and its objectives of helping primary and secondary schools dramatically enhance teacher skills and transform educational models around 21st century best practices that use technology as a tool for demonstrably and measurably improving pedagogy and learning outcomes. This blog provides an overview as to how Microsoft plans to dramatically scale this program, while simultaneously ensuring—and objectively measuring—the program’s success.
A Localized, Leveraged Model
Although Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program is developed and coordinated centrally, through a 10-person headquarters staff, the real work is done in the field. The company has assembled 85 field managers (typically former teachers and school administrators) to tailor and localize the program around the needs of schools in 112 individual countries.
These local managers work not with individual schools, but with mid-level education ministry officials and leading educational experts in each country. They run policy implementer workshops to help these policy makers and implementers:
- Envision how to transform education;
- Discover the technologies that are available and how to most effectively apply them;
- Identify expected results; and
- Formulate change management processes that will be most effective in helping schools transform their education models.
This is where the leveraged model kicks in. Although the mid-level officials and educational experts have neither the authority to change their country’s educational policies nor the reach to educate and train schools and teachers, the workshops are intended to provide them with the tools required to communicate the opportunities and value of using technology both:
- Upward, to their country’s Education Ministers; and
- Downward to school districts and individual schools.
Teachers who have been trained in these new skills then train other teachers. Schools that successfully go through the program (so-called Mentor Schools) then train the next generation of schools (so-called Pathfinder Schools) who then become the next generation of Mentor Schools. Although the program has already trained about 2 million teachers, its efforts at transforming schools are still relatively nascent. As of the end of 2009, it had only certified 12 Mentor schools and had pre-qualified another 30 to go through its Pathfinder School program.
Microsoft, however, plans to rapidly and dramatically scale this program. The tools used in the program are available to any school and more than 1,700 schools have already begun using them. While not all such schools will wish or qualify to go through the complete program, some certainly will. By the end of 2013, the company expects to have qualified a total of 45 Mentor and 300 Pathfinder schools (who, in turn, will engage with thousands of other schools around the world) and to have trained about 12 million teachers across 112 countries.
Pretty ambitious objectives. How can Microsoft grow this program so rapidly? More importantly, how can it ensure that that it delivers the type of objectively verifiable outcomes that Microsoft is so intent on demonstrating?
With a Little Help from its Friends
These goals are clearly too ambitious for a single company, even one with Microsoft’s resources. Sure, a leveraged model will certainly help, but the Partners in Learning team cannot do it all. Therefore, the group is partnering with other groups within Microsoft. For example, it leverages content created by Microsoft Learning and works with Microsoft’s Education Products Group to create specialized education market SKUs, such as Office for Educators.
The Partners in Learning team is also actively partnering with governments, NGOs, universities, donor organizations and other corporations. For example:
- Intel, Cisco and the World Bank helped Microsoft develop its policy implementer workshop;
- The University of Wittwaterstrand in South Africa is the first in what will be a chain of universities that deliver these workshops;
- The University of Washington developed the foundation for change management model that Microsoft uses in migrating schools to 21st-century skills; and
- Third-party consultants help individual schools implement such programs.
It Takes a Community
Defining new educational models, demonstrating their value to national education leaders, training teachers, and providing a leveraged framework for implementing these models in individual schools is a necessary first step. A successful program, however, must do more. It must also maintain interest in the program, facilitate the development of courseware and other content, and allow participating teachers and schools to share experiences and emerging best practices.
That is where Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Network fits in. Although the foundation of this global, collaborative, professional development network has been in place for more than five years, Microsoft launched a new, greatly enhanced version in November 2009.
This network, which Microsoft describes as something of a LinkedIn for teachers, allows teachers to register by filling out profiles, find other teachers with similar interests and complementary experiences, create communities, build shared workspaces, and share content and best practices. Although the current network is available only in English to 17 countries, it is being extended to support Spanish, French, Chinese and Arabic and is scheduled to launch in 23 additional countries over the next few months.
These virtual communities create sounding boards for new ideas, expose experiments and experiences, facilitate peer review, and facilitate rapid and broad deployment of successful practices. They also serve as a primary vehicle by which teachers can be exposed to and share courseware, curricula guidelines and content. While teachers will create the vast majority of this material, Microsoft will also provide supplemental sources. For example, as mentioned above, the Partners in Learning group is working with other Microsoft groups (including Microsoft Learning and Education Products Group) to develop and tailor offerings for educators and is also beginning to build a network of partners (such as the Smithsonian Institution) to create more.
Microsoft will also highlight particularly innovative programs and materials through its Innovative Teachers and Innovative Schools programs and competitions and allow teachers and administrators to directly share learnings in annual conferences.
Assessing and Exposing Best Practices
Although Microsoft is certainly interested in inspiring and promoting innovative programs, it is committed to ensuring that materials and learning approaches are also effective. It is, for example, working with the Stanford Research Institute to develop metrics to assess IT technologies’ effect on learning outcomes and with UNESCO to study outcomes in four very different countries (Russia, Senegal, Finland and Indonesia). The study, which is using an open, technology-independent methodology, will generate peer-reviewed assessments. It is intended to result in a set of standardized, vendor- and technology-independent metrics that schools, governments and NGOs can use as a baseline for measuring the effectiveness of different technology-enabled learning programs.
Microsoft is convinced that technology has the potential of transforming the educational process into a more student-driven, project-based model and of dramatically improving outcomes. However, it views technology as a means of achieving this goal, not as an end. It developed a program to enable and encourage teachers to experiment and develop innovative uses of this technology and to expose the most promising of these approaches to other teachers. But it’s looking for far more than innovation. It is also looking for effectiveness, by ensuring that this technology produces optimal, measurable and replicable outcomes.
Although Microsoft is genuinely focused on ensuring that education technology produces optimized results, one can be excused for suspecting something of a conflict of interest. The Partners in Learning program is, after all, run out of the company’s Public Sector Markets group—a group that is focused on, and rewarded for increasing sales into its target market. Microsoft, however, makes no secret of this affiliation or of its desire to dramatically increase the penetration of IT into schools. In fact, it refers to Partners in Learning as a “social enterprise” rather than a “social responsibility” program. It believes it has a responsibility to help improve educational systems in all countries to facilitate the countries’ and the peoples’ economic development, to create a more robust market for technology and to develop a better equipped workforce.
In other words, what’s good for the world—or at least for the world’s education system—can also be good for Microsoft’s business. No conflict in that.