Digital Access in the Developing World Becomes a Reality Through Partnerships

One of the profound privileges of my job is that, every year around this same time, we host the Partners in Learning Global forum – this is the Olympics of innovative education. All of the participants (nearly 500 educators from more than 80 countries) are remarkable, but it gave me chills Saturday night as I watched a teacher from Pakistan – a woman named Munazza Riaz – take the stage and receive the equivalent of the gold medal for education. She beamed as she held up the flag of her nation.

Consider the enormous challenges and obstacles Munazza must have overcome to reach this moment. And yet, she is just one teacher – an island of excellence amidst an ocean of schools who don’t have these opportunities – due to lack of training and lack of digital access.
 
There is a lot of talk these days about the cloud. While the cloud offers enormous promise, the reality is that, without access, that promise is empty. In countries like Haiti and throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, 90 percent of rural schools have no electricity. Without power, digital access is a non-starter. And the opportunity divide for young people widens every day.

Nearly one billion young people today face this opportunity divide – a gap between those who have the access, skills and opportunities to be successful and those who do not. Recently, Steve Ballmer announced YouthSpark, a companywide initiative to create opportunities for 300 million youth around the world, helping transform education and expand digital inclusion to empower youth to change their world. 
 
We firmly believe in the power of technology to help close this gap and one of the ways we can move forward is through partnerships. That’s why we are making a $75 Million commitment to unite with six of the strongest humanitarian organizations in the world – World Vision, British Council, SOS Children’s Villages, Plan International, International Rescue Committee and Catholic Relief Services – to tackle education inequalities and close the divide.

The $75 million commitment is in addition to the $250 million, five-year renewal of the company’s flagship Partners in Learning program we announced this past week, a reflection of our commitment to holistic transformation of education systems around the world through digital access to youth and capacity building for educators. 
 
An example of this work – Spark a Child’s Digital Future www.worldvision.org/bethespark – has launched in Kenya, scaling across Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond over the next five years. For $100, individual donors can help ensure that young people in Africa cross the opportunity divide through a holistic approach including not only a device and connectivity, but comprehensive training and professional development for teachers and school leadership.
 
I want to share a story that illustrates how this model can work in some of the most challenging environments on the planet. Our team recently visited Kisapuk community school in rural Kenya. The school sits 35 kilometers off the nearest paved road. There is no electricity available within 30 square kilometers of the site. However, thanks to our partnership with World Vision, the school has been successfully operating an innovative learning lab, running off solar and 3G Internet access. Amazingly, the school has been self-sufficient for more than two years, earning more than $200 a month in income (after expenses), thanks to cell-phone charging services, printing and offline as well as online learning services. 
 
This is in part made possible via a blended model including Windows MultiPoint Server – which virtualizes one computer into 10 or more workstations – dramatically dropping the cost of hardware as well as reducing energy consumption and maintenance costs by 80 percent. In the latest version of the product, which was released this past week, schools like Kisapuk now have a means to accelerate learning inside and outside the classroom by layering in a 1:1. WMS 2012 allows teachers to layer on classroom management, wirelessly orchestrating the entire learning environment from a single interface. It’s incredibly inspiring that the exact same classroom environment deployed in schools within a 5-mile radius of the Microsoft campus is affordable and practical enough for the least-resourced schools on the planet like Kisapuk. 
 
As I reflect on the host of innovative educators around the world who are accomplishing amazing achievements in the classroom, I am filled with hope. Together with inspiring leaders like Munazza, along with our partners, we will bridge the opportunity divide, equipping the next generation of leaders with the tools they need for a brighter future.

About the Author

Vice President, Worldwide Education, Microsoft