REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 17, 2005 — What was originally planned as a meeting among several education leaders to discuss Microsoft’s progress with its Philadelphia School of the Future Project turned into a major gathering of more than 200 education and government leaders from more than 30 countries seeking ideas on how to reform schooling for the modern era. On July 6-8 Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program hosted the first Worldwide School of the Future Summit on the company’s Redmond campus to discuss the integration of technology with education, and to share thoughtful approaches on building schools, curricula and education systems that give all students a chance to succeed in the global, digital economy of the future.
“We were inundated with requests to attend the three-day event,” says Anthony Salcito, general manager for Education, Microsoft U.S. Public Sector. “We actually had to cut people off because of space constraints. And the word on the conference has spread now, so we expect the conversation on the issues covered in the forum to continue.”
According to Salcito, the enthusiasm for the first-time event stems from the fact that education reform is a challenge in every community and every government around the world, and from the growing recognition that a holistic approach, strategic planning, community support and leadership development are all necessary to effect the right kind of reform. Salcito says forums and events such as the Worldwide School of the Future Summit are a critical piece to Microsoft’s overall mission when it comes to education. Microsoft’s industry-leading Partners in Learning initiative works with technology industry leaders, curriculum vendors, education policy leaders, governments and other groups to think more strategically about their technology investments rather than jumping too quickly onto the latest technology trends.
“There’s a wide variety of things that we do to help individuals and large and small organizations operate more effectively and efficiently, and it’s all built on our belief in the power of technology to help improve lives,” Salcito says. “Teaching, learning and education are great places to bring our contributions, beginning with the foundation that the most successful solutions of any kind start with — a well-thought out planning process.”
According to Salcito, the forum itself had its beginnings with the Philadelphia School of the Future project, a cooperative effort between Microsoft and the School District of Philadelphia to create a technology-based education model that can be replicated in communities around the globe.
“As we began to conceptualize the high school in Philadelphia, we reached out nationally and globally to pull from other activities that were similar in nature, and there are plenty across the world,” Salcito says. “Those connections and the growing interest in the news of what we were doing in Philadelphia made it clear we had to bring that community of influencers together in Redmond, to make sure that we’re really helping to move the needle on overall technology reform in high schools.”
A major theme of the conference was that true integration of technology in schools goes well beyond simply getting computers and Internet access into the classroom. The goal of the Philadelphia school is to rethink the process of creating schools from the ground up — starting with the student. Joan Schmidt, president of the National School Boards Association, says that although the fundamental focus of every school district worldwide should be the student, some organizations are sometimes too quick to give their students the latest technology available rather than think through exactly how that technology actually helps the learning process.
“We need to be careful that we nurture creativity and remember that technology can be a tool that enables much greater imagination, greater capability in our students,” Schmidt says. “We don’t want students to simply log on and look things up like they used to do in the library. There is much greater potential than that for technology to positively impact student learning. We talk about infrastructure and we talk about content, but we can never lose our focus on the learner, and how he or she is going to interact with those things.”
With that focus in mind, the Philadelphia School of the Future project set a goal of rethinking the roadmap for technology and how it is used in schools across the board. According to Ellen Savitz, chief development officer of the School District of Philadelphia, issues such as staffing, infrastructure, budgeting processes, space allocation and the very business of running schools and classrooms have been dissected to find where technology can provide an advantage.
“We’ve asked ourselves questions like, what type of principal and teacher do we need for this school? How are we going to approach curriculum design, student collaboration, teacher preparedness?” says Savitz. “A lot of people think we’re building a technology school, but it’s not that at all. It’s a regular high school, but what we’ve tried to do is raise the bar for how technology can play a role in improving the entire operation, thinking beyond the classroom student/teacher experience.”
A computer-generated image of the Philadelphia School of the Future campus, which will be located in Fairmont Park, West Philadelphia.
One of the major challenges the group has faced is that it is building the school with the district’s budget. Most schools of the future projects are run as charter schools outside of the standard budgeting practice, which tends to result in budgets three or four times the norm for other schools in the same districts.
“We’ve worked with the process that every other school would go through,” says Savitz. “We work with city contractors, go through the unions, and we’re keeping the budget in line with every other school in the district. The real benefit of that is it has forced us to think about costs broadly – not just thinking about what technology is available for us to acquire, but really thinking about where technology can play a role in replacing other expenses.”
The holistic, real-world approach taken by the Partners in Learning program and the School District of Philadelphia has resulted in a roadmap for building schools that is generating interest across the globe. For example, the effort has created a “competency framework.” Based on the framework Microsoft uses in its own internal hiring process, the competency framework helps the educational organization as a whole identify what competencies are needed to build and maintain a strong organization. These competencies help students, teachers, administrators and community members grow and develop as members of the learning community. That kind of comprehensive matrix of skill sets, success factors and competencies had not been created before the Philadelphia project, and many school districts are understandably interested in the results.
Other developments include creative financing tactics as well as re-thinking the school’s use of space, and optimizing the buildings from an environmental and efficiency perspective. For example, solar-powered reflectors across the school’s windows will help to conserve energy. The traditional heating and cooling systems will be replaced with energy efficient systems. And lavatory water will be obtained from rain collection systems being built on the school site.
In the area of space optimization, the school includes a performance center that converts into classroom space when not in use, and a redesigned library, called the Interactive Learning Center (ILC) that includes access to resources and technologies, enabling a more collaborative environment for students and community members. According to Salcito, by rethinking all of these factors, not only are students better served by the facilities, but costs are redirected into more critical areas.
As another major part of the effort, all of the intellectual property associated with the Philadelphia school is being collected for dissemination on the Web and forums such as the Worldwide Schools of the Future Summit. This includes the technology blueprints, the planning and budgeting processes, the human resources framework, and other information generated by the project.
“We’re thinking broadly about how we share these resources,” says Salcito. “There will be research that goes on to determine the impact on student achievement, and a lot of work will be done to package up the intellectual properties so we can disseminate them across districts and countries who need help building smart, technology-enabled schools that give students a better chance to compete and learn. So, we want to take what we’ve learned and scale it up to make school reform and design an issue that we can help address globally, beyond our success in Philadelphia.”
For most attendees at the Schools of the Future summit, that is the essential focus. How can these lessons and best practices be applied in their own districts, and what innovative practices can they add to the conversation? The idea is that, for the business community, for industry, for people everywhere, learning is a basic aspect of life. And for technology to be effective, it can’t just be added to the classroom or put into a computer lab for kids to visit an hour a day. It has to be immersed and engaged in learning process from the ground up.
“We really have to bring technology in meaningful ways,” says Schmidt. “That means helping people learn to explore, create, express and play. It means bridging the cognitive gap, not just the digital gap.”