Microsoft Corp. has unveiled a new worldwide program to train teachers and students in technology and to help integrate technology into the curriculum and learning. The initiative will provide at least $250 million in cash grants, as well as discounts on Microsoft software.

The program, called Partners in Learning, will establish local Microsoft IT Academy Centers that will provide student skills certification, teacher development, curriculum and assessment tools, school-based technology support, and research.

The Partners in Learning program also offers participating schools steep discounts on buying Microsoft software. Specifically, disadvantaged primary and secondary schools will receive free upgrades to Windows XP Professional, and they will be able to buy Microsoft Office Suite for prices below the current educational pricing.

Microsoft did not say how it would define “disadvantaged.”

The program comes as government and educational agencies worldwide have been adopting or considering software from Microsoft competitors, including Linux software. The open-source software, which is freely available and can be improved upon by an open community of developers, has been gaining favor with agencies including France’s ministry of education, China’s post office, and the city of Munich.

But the Partners in Learning program, unveiled at Microsoft’s Government Leaders Forum in Rome Sept. 17, is not in response to Linux, said Sherri Bealkowski, general manager of Microsoft’s Education Solutions Group. Rather, the company wants to help students around the world attain “eLiteracy.”

Besides grants and the discounts, Microsoft will allow some developing countries to receive free software to install on donated personal computers. India, Thailand, Malaysia, Brazil, and Italy already have signed up for the program, Microsoft said.

Reaction to Microsoft’s announcement among school leaders in the United States was mixed.

Kathy Schrock, technology coordinator at Nauset Public Schools in Orleans, Mass., said she welcomes the initiative.

“Since the Office suite and the Microsoft products–whether on the Windows or Mac platform–are the standard in the industry right now, I feel that any training that can help our teachers and students succeed is great,” she said. “Any support that teachers and students can get to help them use the tools more effectively is always welcome.”

In addition, she said, “a center that showcases what can be [done] will allow teachers and students to stretch their imaginations and spark their creativity for effective infusion of technology to impact teaching and learning.”

Dennis Dempsey, superintendent of the High Desert Education Service District in Redmond, Ore., said the program has potential, but he questioned whether $250 million would address the needs that schools around the world currently have to train teachers and students.

“I think it might be a good start, but the cost to do something like this worldwide would seem to me to be overwhelming,” he said.

Others wondered whether Microsoft’s actions were merely self-serving.

“I can’t believe Microsoft has anything but profit in mind as it rolls out the Partners in Learning program,” said Doug Otto, superintendent of the Plano, Texas, Independent School District. “If the company was so intent on helping schools, it would have provided deep discounts for school districts and also not been so Scrooge-like with its licensing agreements.”

Dale Mann, managing director of educational technology consulting firm Interactive Inc., had a different perspective.

“Anything that supports teachers in actually using technology is welcome, but the irony is that Microsoft typically does not use technology to teach technology,” he said. “Instead, as with its state leadership grants, [the company] relies on labor-intensive, face-to-face interactions that are older than DOS and even less effective.”

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Partners in Learning press release
http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2003/sep03/09-16PILPR.asp