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The Microsoft Education Award
As a whole, the applications for this year’s Microsoft Education Award suggest three trends in the use of educational technology. First, there is a democratic impulse that increasingly animates the many creative uses of technology that our judging panel was privileged to review. In particular, as the “shock of the new” induced by rapid technological innovation begins to wear off, educators are moving beyond the initial utopian claims and dystopian fears about computer-based learning and the Internet to focus on how these media can be used most appropriately. Educators are returning to a central question of democracy: how can we support broader access to education that is sensitive to the needs of citizen-learners in diverse social and economic contexts? This question runs counter to trends in U.S. education, which increasingly prioritizes standardized curricula handed down to teachers and schools, and counter to high-stakes testing of students’ basic skills and knowledge.
In contrast, many of our applicants are using technology to empower teachers and learners to construct their own knowledge through project-based learning, through media production as well as reception, and via deliberative dialogue. These efforts involve building in more opportunities for social and technical feedback to technology designers and educators in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of well-intentioned but ineffective top-down models of learning used in the past. Democratizing access to information also is imbued in many applicants’ efforts to share knowledge in the face of growing intellectual property restrictions. Admirable work is being done to build free virtual libraries, to employ open source software rather than proprietary platforms for learning, and to license educational materials freely enough so that they can be used widely.
A second trend involves increased efforts to foster international understanding and dialogue. Projects focused on connecting and supporting children of war-torn regions and preserving and sharing traditional cultures reflect a yearning for contact and understanding that crosses borders in a globalizing but conflict-ridden world. The September 11, 2001, attacks and the war in Iraq have lent greater urgency to creating dialogue and understanding between Americans and Middle Easterners, as well as between Muslims, Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths worldwide. In response, educators are trying to use technology to create deeply felt connections to others across time and space. How can these exchanges between students and teachers create genuine empathy and open, constructive dialogue about our differences, and how they might be bridged? A number of applicants are beginning to meet these challenges, which require careful listening to a multitude of voices, as well as structured discussion that neither fans the flames of hatred nor represses real disagreements and different world views.
A third trend is growing sophistication in applicants’ thinking about how to use technology. We are increasingly seeing projects that employ suites of technologies rather than a single “magic bullet,” evincing growing thoughtfulness about assembling the right tools for the job. Certainly, we heard about promising new inventions in hardware, software, and infrastructure provision, including conferencing software designed to foster high-quality deliberation rather than aggressive and thoughtless “flaming,” solar-powered laptops, an Imax film edutainment dome, and virtual reality applications for enacting online “e-dramas” or simulations supporting a wide variety of learning, from healthcare training to bee-keeping. Yet a majority of projects drew on a creative and appropriate mix of established technologies, such as e-mail listservs, newsgroups, Web sites, CD-ROMs, videoconferencing, satellite radio, film and video, and even the delivery of Internet-based materials to local intranets via CD (to surmount the barrier of high telecommunication costs in Africa). The best of these efforts were governed by thoughtful consideration of the purpose and impacts of learning, the need to build effective organizations that can sustain it, and consideration of how best to incorporate technology into what is happening in the local learning context on “the other side of the screen.”
The applicant pool for this award continues to grow more diverse each year. We received 103 applications from 33 countries, almost twice as many countries as two years ago. Projects encompassed both formal and informal learning in a wide variety of settings aimed at diverse learners. Applicants were engaged not only in traditional classroom-based learning by youth, but also in providing local and regional educational technology centers linked to community organizations, mobile computing laboratories and technology demonstrations that reach rural areas in the developing world, virtual libraries, Web-based international and intercultural exchanges, and film and video production in refugee camps.
Applicants embraced a broad series of educational aims. Some devoted their work to direct academic and vocational instruction of students (in everything from computer engineering to lathe and milling machine training). Others used technology to support teacher training and professional development, as well as curriculum development. Still others deployed media to offer peer support for youth facing a host of social ills (such as bullying and political violence) or in need of mentoring (in science, math, college, and career choices). Many used technology to coordinate educational volunteering and philanthropy projects.
In evaluating the applications, our judging panel relied on several criteria, including how well applicants defined the problems they addressed, described how they applied technology to solve these problems, explained how their work involved a breakthrough in innovation, offered measurable results of their work, and described potential negative consequences. Because there are always more promising ideas than are realized in practice, we especially considered two criteria: applicants’ ability to provide evidence of their contribution to society, and the potential for replicability of their work.
Each of the five education Laureates uses technology to democratize some aspect of education. Several are democratizing access to knowledge, extending the benefits of learning to constituencies previously excluded by income, geographical location, or disability. Some are democratizing the educational process by empowering teachers and students to create and share curriculum and materials. One is democratizing school funding by conveniently matching needy classrooms with individual philanthropists.
Baruch College Computer Center for Visually Impaired People and Touch Graphics, New York, New York, U.S.
The visually impaired often struggle to master graphical concepts in math, geography, science, and other fields that rely heavily on maps, pictures, diagrams, and other visual information. In addition, the blind and low-sighted have been unable to take advantage of many existing multimedia educational materials because manipulating a mouse or other pointing device presents a barrier to those who cannot see.
To overcome these barriers, Baruch College’s Computer Center for Visually Impaired People teamed with Touch Graphics to develop the Talking Tactile Tablet, an inexpensive computer peripheral device that allows visually-impaired users to take full advantage of graphical multimedia applications. Users place raised-line and textured drawing sheets on what looks like a small flatbed scanner connected to a computer, then press on areas of the tactile image to hear descriptive audio associated with different areas on the screen. A Graphical User Interface (GUI) allows users to navigate easily by using standardized icons and tools that appear in the same screen locations as users move between applications.
Mindful that similar efforts have failed in the past because of a lack of educational software that could be used on such a device, the developers are bringing the Talking Tactile Tablet to market along with a catalogue of applications, including an atlas created by National Geographic, a memory/matching game, software for delivering standardized tests in several disciplines, and a college statistics textbook. Just as important, Baruch and Touch Graphics have created an authoring tool so that others can create their own audio-tactile materials, allowing the visually-impaired and other developers to participate in multimedia production for the device.
The Talking Tactile Tablet offers many opportunities for replication and growth. It relies on an open-source platform that permits modification and development of new applications. Because the images do not include written or Braille text, they can be created easily and cheaply in different spoken languages. The U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation have recognized the Talking Tactile Tablet as an accessible tool for learning across multiple subject areas, and it is being used in the United Kingdom to develop national curricular materials.
Being honored as a Laureate will help Baruch College and Touch Graphics draw attention to this promising technology as it comes to market, thereby extending educational opportunity to the visually impaired, and allowing society to enjoy the fruits of their intelligence and creativity.
For more information, see http://www.touchgraphics.com.
DonorsChoose, New York, New York, U.S.
DonorsChoose is addressing the crisis of school funding in the U.S. by creating a kind of “eBay™ ” for educational philanthropy. At the DonorsChoose Web site, public school teachers submit funding proposals tailored to their students’ educational needs, and donors choose which projects to fund directly. DonorsChoose thus matches and empowers individual teachers and “citizen-philanthropists” to meet students’ needs efficiently, attracting new contributors to schools that serve mostly low-income students.
Charles Best, a recent Yale graduate who went on to teach at a Bronx, NY public high school, was inspired to create DonorsChoose out of frustration from lack of funding for essential classroom materials and experiences that would enrich his students’ learning, as well as unequal and top-down distribution of resources that prevented teachers from offering solutions targeted to their students.
The simple but powerful interface of the DonorsChoose Web site allows donors to define their criteria for giving (such as school poverty rate, grant amount, or purpose), as well as to browse and search funding proposals. Accountability of recipients is ensured through an e-procurement system for verifying teacher requests, purchasing materials, and delivery. Donors see the results of their giving through photographs of activities made possible by their funding, thank you notes from students, and impact letters and receipts for expenditures from teachers. Gift registries even allow contributors to bring their friends and family into the circle of giving.
DonorsChoose has had a significant impact on New York’s public schools. Donors from 49 states have funded 2,800 teacher proposals, giving $1.45 million worth of materials to benefit tens of thousands of students.
The organization is distinguished as well by its careful attention to avoiding the negative impacts of its program. DonorsChoose recognizes that there is still a role for large charitable grants to fund operating expenses, and so discourages foundations from imitating its highly targeted funding. The group has been careful not to present itself as a substitute for greater public funding of education. Instead, it has brought in new money, as 72 percent of its contributors are first-time donors to schools. Rather than providing another channel for wealthy communities to fund their own childrens’ schools, DonorsChoose uses marketing strategies and financial incentives to prioritize grants to low-income classrooms; without excluding any proposals, the site has directed 86 percent of its funds to students living at or near poverty.
DonorsChoose is already expanding, extending its model to North Carolina, Colorado, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004. Its technical savvy, low overhead, and ability to attract support from business leaders, educators, and low-income schools all augur well for continued expansion in the U.S., and in other countries that face similar school financing problems.
For more information, see: http://www.donorschoose.org.
iEARN-USA, New York, New York, U.S.
The International Education and Resource Network USA (iEARN-USA) fosters collaborative service-learning across international borders, building teachers’ and students’ understanding of their role in local and global communities.
Instead of focusing on one tool, iEARN-USA helps educators employ a broad palette of educational technologies, from video conferencing to Web-based tools, to support project-based learning in its international educational network. Through its Web site, the organization provides online forums that allow teachers and students from around the world to meet one another and join over 120 ongoing service-learning projects. Projects can be tailored to individual classes’ needs. Participants on the site find a safe and structured environment in which young people can communicate, and have an opportunity to apply and compare knowledge in cross-cultural contexts. The group’s projects foster research and critical thinking skills, experience with new technologies, intercultural awareness, and community involvement.
All iEARN projects culminate in an exhibition of student work. These have included magazines, creative writing anthologies, Web sites, letter-writing campaigns, reports to government officials, arts exhibits, workshops, performances, and charitable fundraising.
Among iEARN’s many projects, those focused on connecting students from nations and cultures that are often in conflict stand out. The Community Voices, Collaborative Solutions (CIVICS) program enables teachers of English in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka to work together online with their U.S. counterparts to discuss and help their students take action on pressing community issues. The Friendship through Education project encourages U.S. schools to connect globally, focusing especially on forging links between American students and those in predominantly Muslim countries.
The organization has accomplished much since its founding in 1988. Approximately 750,000 - 1,000,000 students each day are engaged in iEARN collaborative projects in over 20,000 schools in 109 countries. The group is also recognized as a global leader in offering professional development and technical assistance to educators on collaborative education using technology. For example, many other applicants for this year’s Microsoft Education Award noted that they had presented their students’ work at iEARN’s annual conferences, which convene educators to share best practices from their classrooms.
As more schools come online worldwide, there is continued room for iEARN to grow by attracting more participants. Given its expertise and experience in the field, iEARN should be a significant force for global educational cooperation, service, and understanding in an often troubled and divided world.
For more information, see: http://www.iearn.org.
Andrew E. Lieberman, Asociaon Ajb’atz’ Enlace Quiché,
Santa Cruz del Quiche, Guatemala
Guatemala is still emerging from the ashes of a 36 year civil war that ended in 1996, after killing over 200,000 of its citizens. A 1999 report by a government truth commission found that during the war military and paramilitary squads carried out a genocidal campaign against rural, indigenous Mayans, thousands of whom fled their ancestral homes and fields. Today, the country’s rural poor continue to endure the lowest development indicators in the Western hemisphere and ongoing threats to their culture.
Andrew Lieberman founded Asociaon Ajb’atz’ Enlace Quiché in 2000, sensing that information age technologies could be used to preserve and strengthen traditional Mayan cultures and foster locally-led development. Lieberman’s group has established a network of rural educational technology centers that empower indigenous teachers and students to foster learning about their culture and language. Enlace Quiché helps local organizations create digital teaching materials, including online courses in Mayan language and interactive CD-ROMs. These materials, many created by students, are fed back to the technology centers for use in curriculum. The group has also created a virtual community for bilingual language learners and educators, where visitors can share resources and ideas. Rather than using “cutting edge” technology, Enlace Quiché has adapted appropriate tools in a country where newer computers and reliable Internet connections are scarce.
Despite the tremendous challenges of working in this context, Enlace Quiché has quickly made a difference. It has helped form a critical mass of Mayan professionals with the technical skills to realize their own educational vision. The areas where Enlace Quiché is active now enjoy some of the highest levels of technology use in the country. The organization has built technology centers in 28 schools with over 6,000 students and 400 teachers. Participants have created 14 high-quality instructional CDs, including the Jun E (A Destiny) interactive CD-ROM, which was recognized by the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society as one of the top 40 e-contents worldwide.
Lieberman is currently focused on extending the Enlace Quiché model across Guatemala and to other indigenous groups in Latin America. There is good reason for hope, as the technology centers have proved to be largely economically and technically self-sufficient, and successfully tied to school curricula. The virtual community is gathering steam, with over 140,000 hits and 140 new users per month. Recognition as a Laureate will help Lieberman and Enlace Quiché reach others with their successful educational model, which uses new media to foster respect for the heritage of the indigenous as well as their own skills and vision for development.
National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal, Kathmandu, Nepal
The Himalayan mountain region is one of the most seismically active regions on earth, and faces growing risk of a devastating earthquake in the near future. Affordable building methods and technologies are available now that would make existing and new construction significantly more resistant to seismic damage, but builders and citizens are largely unaware of these solutions. Rapid population growth in countries like Nepal is driving the spread of informally constructed, “non-engineered” buildings that will leave inhabitants especially vulnerable in an earthquake. While more than 80 percent of new buildings are built informally, few resources are being devoted to teaching earthquake engineering to the builders and their clients who are covering Nepal’s cities and suburbs with structures unlikely to withstand a major quake.
The National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) is meeting the urgent need for earthquake safety education by targeting these informal builders, as well as others who can direct government attention to the problem. NSET offers dramatic public demonstrations featuring its Shake Table, a converted laboratory research tool that simulates earthquake damage to buildings. Two identical looking scale models of structures, one built with traditional methods and one with modern methods, are placed on a platform that rests on a series of rollers and springs that simulate the movement of the earth during a quake. The structures chosen are tailored to the target audience: schools for schoolchildren and teachers, hospitals for healthcare workers, and so on. As viewers watch the weaker building collapse, the Shake Table offers powerful evidence that contemporary but affordable structures are more likely to survive, thereby generating public knowledge about, and demand for, safer building practices.
NSET gives Shake Table demonstrations as part of training programs for builders, policy makers, and health and disaster response personnel. Yet it has also conducted targeted outreach to elements of the public in municipal wards, schools, and community organizations. The demonstration reaches even the illiterate with a clear message about the problem of earthquake safety and its solutions. NSET has adapted a sophisticated research tool to help foster understanding of, and support for, safer building practices from the bottom-up, literally educating people where they live about the need for change.
The Shake Table has been demonstrated across Nepal and adopted for use in India, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. NSET trains engineers and masons in these countries to build the table and models and to run the demonstration effectively. It has produced a video of the demonstration and published accompanying guidelines for earthquake protection for school buildings. This simple but powerful method of teaching improved building practices should continue to spread, especially as it has drawn the attention of international agencies, such as the United Nations Center for Regional Development.
For more information, see: http://www.nset.org.np.
The democratization, internationalization, and technical sophistication evident in this year’s applications are cause for hope for the future of educational technologies and those who use them. But the judging panel often found ourselves faced with the question of how promising projects can be replicated more widely, despite the need to build many of these initiatives from the grassroots upward. How can the process of replication remain sensitive to local cultural, social, economic, and linguistic differences? For if it fails to do so, it is unlikely to succeed educationally.
Perhaps this is less a matter of “scaling up” successful programs than “reaching out” to include more communities of learners, a process that will inevitably transform these efforts. Perhaps this process is not so much one of offering a model from one social context to be “adopted” in another, but of communicating it and engaging in a dialogue with teachers and learners about how successful work can be translated rather than replicated. The “best practices” conveyed are likely to be educational processes that are judiciously supported by technology, rather than ephemeral combinations of software and hardware. The best of these processes will involve empowering teachers and learners to adapt and develop their own materials based on thoughtful examination of the Laureates’ work. And, like this year’s Laureates, the best of the best will have profound answers to education’s oldest question: knowledge for what?
Chad Raphael, Chair, Associate Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University
Christine Bachen, Associate Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University
Hans-Peter Dommel, Assistant Professor of Computer Engineering,
Santa Clara University
Riku Makela, Senior Technical Advisor, Tekes, National Technology Agency,
Ewan McPhie, Policy Director, Bridges.org, South Africa
Stuart Gannes, Director, Digital Vision Fellowship Program,