Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program now is coming home to the United States after its launch in 64 other countries. The software maker said the $35 million U.S. project will benefit from lessons learned overseas.

A year ago, while drawing up plans for a five-year, worldwide education initiative, Microsoft Corp. faced an important question: Should the new program, with a projected budget of $1 billion, begin inside or outside of the United States?

The software giant’s historic strategy had been to launch such programs in the U.S. and apply resulting lessons to their implementation overseas. But Partners in Learning was different. Because the new program would have a grassroots, community-based focus, the company said, Microsoft decided first to explore and develop a wide range of options on the international stage, where there was no shortage of diversity. By the time Partners in Learning reached America, the company explained, each approach from overseas would come with a wealth of research as well as a team of experienced Microsoft personnel well versed in the project.

In September 2003, Microsoft officially kicked off the program with a staff of 100 company employees and a participatory commitment from five countries–Brazil, India, Thailand, Italy, and Malaysia. It was a small opening, but over the next 10 months, Partners in Learning grew rapidly. By June 2004, Microsoft had spent $250 million, plus staff salary and other company resources, in bringing 64 nations under the Partners in Learning umbrella. The list includes numerous countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America.

The company began its U.S. rollout in the spring, working with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) to develop an online tool to assess U.S. students’ technology literacy. (See “Microsoft launches $35M tech training program for U.S. schools.” ) Going forward, however, Microsoft will focus on individual states rather than a national approach. A recent $3 million agreement with Washington State was the first of several planned state announcements.

“The ISTE tool was really our first initiative,” said Jane Broom, Microsoft’s U.S. Partners in Learning program manager. “The U.S. is bringing up the rear on this, and before we went into the individual communities, our approach was to determine some overall priorities.”

Broom credited other Microsoft employees who laid the groundwork for a U.S. version of the program by working with educators in other countries. Months before Broom’s team began talking to state governors and education officials, Greg Butler, Microsoft’s worldwide director of K12 Education Strategy and Programs, had taken the lead in shaping and defining the Partners in Learning philosophy.

Recognizing that even Microsoft’s pockets weren’t deep enough to fund technology initiatives in dozens of nations for an indefinite amount of time, Butler’s team set out to build programs that could be self-sustaining within five years. In most cases, Microsoft hoped a local community would come to value the program and therefore continue to fund it through tax dollars or other means.

It wasn’t all about philanthropy, either, because Microsoft also stood to gain in the long run. By exposing more students to technology, Microsoft recognized the long-term potential to grow international sales by widening its overall customer base.

In this respect, Butler said the company worked with local educators in the way a venture capitalist firm might work with emerging companies–hence the term “partners.” This same approach, in which Microsoft’s massive funding effort expires after five years, will also be used in the U.S.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank have supported Microsoft’s global effort with additional resources. By offering a big infusion of cash up front, Microsoft and its partners were able to help entire nations get ideas off the drawing board. At the same time, Microsoft stuck to a policy of funding only projects that addressed a community’s basic educational infrastructure needs, giving it a solid foundation before the money ran out.

“These are resources that we are fortunate to be able to invest,” said Butler. “But this is not just about the cash. This is a way we can mobilize people and get them together.”

Soon after the initial launch last September, Butler’s team identified “digital inclusion” as the biggest hurdle most countries faced. Computers are still rare in many smaller countries’ classrooms, and Microsoft money helped put many young people in touch with technology for the first time.

“Digital inclusion really was the key priority for most governments, parents, and businesses,” Butler told eSchool News at the recent National Educational Computing Conference in New Orleans. “… Our goal was to build sustainable models for the long term. Don’t just give people access to technology. Without solving capacity issues, you’re not solving the problem.”

The opportunity to expand an educational technology infrastructure meant different things to different countries. Butler said Microsoft’s investments involved everything from school leadership to expansion of digital content in the curriculum and the creation of student tech-support programs.

In Singapore, a country that invests heavily in education, Butler said teachers were looking for ways to incorporate advanced tools such as tablet PCs into their curricula. In India, schools wanted software to expedite the certification process for engineers and other highly skilled laborers, because demand for these workers is particularly high.

In Chile, university professors wanted funding and Microsoft engineers’ advice that would help them develop learning software for the PocketPC platform. In Iraq, which is rebuilding its entire educational system, Microsoft was asked to set up community learning centers and provide software for basic infrastructure needs, including the development of an overall education policy for the post-Saddam era.

As it grew the Partners in Learning program, Microsoft set up a private internet community for educational users to share their experiences in working with the Microsoft team and to discuss the needs in their countries. This web site, Microsoft said, has already been a boon to the U.S. Partners in Learning team, which is sharing it with American educators who wish to be part of the program.

“We’ve tapped into our international advisory board in starting our project here,” said Broom. “For the past six months, we have been looking to that group of people to help guide us.”

The latest Partners in Learning addition, Canada, should also be helpful to the U.S. team. Funding for Canadian projects is being handled on a province-by-province basis, similar to the U.S. state-by-state approach. Canada is the first nation to be addressed in such a segmented way.

“We found we had to do Canada by provinces, because that’s where the education decision-makers happen to be,” Butler explained.

One Canadian initiative, a series of laptop-adoption studies to measure the results of one-to-one computing, is being watched closely by the U.S. team.

“We’re looking at studies of laptop adoption and the readiness factor in smaller communities,” said Broom. “We want to find out how to scale and sustain that.”

Because other countries receive the bulk of Microsoft’s $1 billion funding effort, it was important to determine how much money the company would spend in any given nation. Butler said Microsoft thought in terms of per-capita, rather than per-company, spending. In addition, Microsoft used the international Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) Index to determine which countries were most in need. PPP is an exchange-rate determination theory that enables economists to compare the costs of goods and services between nations.

Butler said one key issue was a country’s “PC install base vs. its potential PC install base.” This was used to determine the degree of digital exclusion in the country. Nations with more digital exclusion tended to receive more funding.

“We have had a lot of success,” Butler said. “We just did an announcement in Malaysia that will impact 10,000 primary and secondary schools.”

Microsoft hopes the results are just as far-reaching in Washington and the other U.S. states its selects for Partners and Learning. Even states that don’t joint the program, the company said, will stand to gain from any research based on Microsoft’s efforts.

“Microsoft is really helping to develop ‘blueprints’ for programs that states can fund in the future,” said Broom. “That’s why we are seeking states with a strong education department and a governor committed to education.”

Of course, commitment doesn’t just have to come from high-ranking political officials. In the international experiment, leaders in smaller communities were just as influential.

Butler told the story of a female Microsoft employee who drove five hours to set up equipment in a small South African village. When she asked these people why they wanted technology in schools before it reached other parts of the society, they said it was because they realized how important it was for their children to develop these skills at a young age.

“You talk to people in these countries, and you really understand their need for infrastructure,” said Butler. “They’re more willing than U.S. schools to use whatever [outdated] equipment and software they already have. And they’re equally aware of the skills their students need.”

Links:

Microsoft Partners in Learning
http://www.microsoft.com/education/partnersinlearning.aspx

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org