Gregg W. Downey

Editor

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on Feb. 11 announced a program to give equipment and software reportedly worth $50 million to teacher colleges, education departments, and regional training centers over the next three years. His announcement came at the company’s Connected Learning Community Technology Summit in Seattle, Feb. 11-13.

Beginning in April, the program also will develop online learning communities in which teachers and other educators can share best practices, Ballmer said.

Undertaken in alliance with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), the program is aimed at addressing two pressing needs, according to Microsoft: “the training and retaining of K-12 teachers, and educators’ ability to translate their districts’ technology investments into learning benefits for their students.”

In contrast to last year, when an earthquake halted a speech by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the news from this year’s conference was important, but not earth shaking.

Speaking to more than 300 K-12 educators and others, Ballmer said AACTE will coordinate distribution of the material to 300 partnerships that are being formed between teacher education programs and schools. Microsoft has dubbed this initiative the Innovative Teachers program. It will pull together several strategies and solutions the company has developed for educators and schools over the past several years, most notably those associated with Microsoft’s “.NET.”

As Ballmer explained it, .NET is a platform that enables people to build and use XML-oriented programs.

Background: The basic format of the internet currently is HTML, which essentially allows computers to share images. HTML enables users to organize the way information is presented through a browser—to send and view an image of a spreadsheet, for example. XML essentially enables users to tap into the database from which the spreadsheet was generated. .NET is what will enable people to share data as well as images via the internet, according to Microsoft.

Acknowledging its vocal critics, Ballmer described .NET this way: “.NET is a platform that we will embed in Windows; we will embed in Windows Server. … It is not a way for us to take all of your proprietary information.”

Balmer went on to explain the potential utility of .NET for education: “If you want to pull together a portal for your school district with student information, standards information perhaps that come from the state, rich applications, data sources off the internet and pull them all together in one place,” he said, “the answer will be, we hope, .NET supporting the important XML standards of the education industry. And so we see this world of .NET … as a platform that helps you really leverage and gain the advantages of the XML web services revolution.”

An underlying purpose of Microsoft’s education solutions in general and the Innovative Teachers program specifically is to help educators move beyond having to deal with the technology and reach a point where the emphasis is on cooperation and collaboration instead, Balmer suggested.

“When I talk to people in school districts,” he said, “people still say, ‘Hey, these computers are too hard to manage. They’re too hard to take care of. And I’m spending all of my time on lower-level issues instead of really adding the kind of value that I’d like to add to the educational process. … By the end of the decade, our time has to be more spent on helping others reach their potential.”

As part of the Innovative Teachers program, Microsoft and AACTE will begin working this spring to create online learning communities where teachers and others can share best practices.

David Imig, president and chief executive of AACTE, joined Ballmer on stage during the opening plenary session of the conference.

“The key to the successful achievement of the No Child Left Behind Act is the quality of the teachers,” Imig said, referring to the recently renewed Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “Enhancing the quality of those teachers is what the initiative is about.”

The Microsoft initiative could soften the blow if Congress accepts education-spending cuts proposed by President Bush.

This year, for example, a federal program—Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology—will provide $62.5 million to train preservice teachers in how to incorporate technology into their lessons. But Bush’s fiscal year 2003 budget would eliminate the program.

Although similar in some respects to an earlier Microsoft proposal, the company’s Innovative Teachers program is separate and distinct from an earlier offer to settle class action suits arising from antitrust actions against Microsoft.

The Innovative Teachers donations will be made regardless of whether the company’s proposal to settle scores of private antitrust cases is revived, Ballmer told the Associated Press (AP).

Under a plan rejected by a federal judge last month as inadequate, Microsoft agreed to donate software, hardware, and services reportedly worth $1 billion to impoverished schools nationwide.

“It’s an ongoing matter we’re trying to settle in front of the court,” Ballmer said. “The court has rejected at least our first proposed settlement, and we’ll keep working on it.”

Microsoft ranks second to Apple Computer in sales to schools, according to AP. Donations such as the one announced Feb. 11 could help increase Microsoft’s education market share. Critics of the company’s proposed $1 billion school settlement had cited this as a key reason they objected to the plan.

Educators attending the Seattle meeting seemed undeterred by Microsoft’s legal battles. In talking to reporters, many noted that Microsoft is the dominant player in the business world.

“We have a responsibility to teach our kids the dominant technology,” Dennis Wright, a South Kitsap School District network administrator in Port Orchard, Wash., told AP. “Microsoft is that player right now.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Related links:
Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com/education

American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
http://www.aacte.org