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The Microsoft Education Award
The Microsoft Education Award continues to draw the largest number of applications of all categories of The Tech Awards, attracting 85 applications from 27 countries this year. As in the past, this year’s projects fostered both formal and informal learning in a wide variety of settings. The most common approaches included traditional classroom-based projects aimed at connecting youth to the Internet, community educational technology centers, and Web-based international exchanges.
Last year the Education Awards panel found three themes that united the many applicants, and we saw them again this year as well. First, there was an ongoing commitment to democratizing education. Many applicants used technology to support wider access to education for low-income peoples around the world, especially through educational technology centers based in schools or communities. Yet we also saw new efforts to make expensive content, such as electronic research journals and databases, more freely available in less affluent countries. Other applicants are empowering teachers and learners to build their own knowledge through project-based learning, media production, and deliberative dialogue. Some applicants focused on how technology can spread access to knowledge in the face of growing intellectual property restrictions by building free virtual libraries and databases, using open source software rather than proprietary platforms for learning, and licensing educational materials freely. Others used technology to coordinate educational volunteering and philanthropy projects, including providing information technology advice and technical support to U.S. schools and recycled computers to classrooms in the developing world.
A second theme that carried over from prior years was ongoing work to foster global understanding and exchange. In the long shadow of the September 11 attacks on the U.S., the war in Iraq, and other global conflicts, educators are linking Americans with Middle Easterners, and people of different faiths worldwide, to engage in dialogue and carry out joint service-learning projects via email, Web-based communication, and videoconferencing. Even the humble telephone is being used innovatively by one project that offers a free hotline allowing people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian border to speak anonymously with someone on the other side about the conflict at a time when face-to-face contact has been difficult and dangerous. These examples suggest that communication technology may help us learn to humanize the “other” and build hope for peace. Yet they also reveal that such work is not easy, and that technical links are necessary but insufficient for creating greater global concordance. Creating deep and lasting connections between youth and adults across time, space, and cultures requires institutions that can sustain those bonds, and some applicants are striving to build them.
Third, applicants are continuing to employ multiple combinations of educational technologies rather than seeking a single “magic bullet” for learning. Most projects involved selecting the appropriate tools from a mix of established technologies, such as email listservs, newsgroups, Web sites, wireless networks, CD-ROMs, videoconferencing, satellite radio, film, video, and even microfilm. These technologies were often deployed in course delivery systems (including promising applications for creating interactive electronic lectures and other educational materials), accessibility technologies (such as screen-reader programs that allow the blind to engage in distance learning courses, Braille printers to produce books for the blind, and voice-activated displays of three-dimensional animations that help teach American Sign Language to the deaf and hearing alike), subject-specific software (from computer programming to drought preparedness to HIV prevention and Geographic Information System mapping), and hardware (such as graphing calculators linked via wireless networks for math education).
In selecting the Laureates from 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. We especially considered two criteria: applicants’ ability to provide evidence of their contribution to society, and the potential for replication of their work.
The five Laureates for the 2005 Microsoft Education Award are described below.
Gilbert Clark, Telescopes in Education Foundation, Altadena, CA, U.S.
Students rarely enjoy access to sophisticated equipment that might help spark their interest in the sciences in general, and astronomy in particular. Thanks to Gilbert Clark’s Telescopes in Education (TIE) project, thousands of students have enjoyed the singular experience of using the Internet to control a telescope and CCD camera that may be halfway around the world from their classroom, sparking their curiosity and awe at the universe around them.
Participating schools have used software and remotely-controlled telescope mounts developed by TIE and its partners to make images of the heavens and conduct research using telescopes in the U.S., Australia, and Chile. Students can also work on collaborative research projects with youth around the world through TIE, which is funded by NASA as an education outreach program. Last year, the program benefited 5,186 students and 779 educators worldwide. Its extensive Web site, which includes curriculum and background information on astronomy, had over 108,000 unique visitors in 2004.
Students have accomplished exciting work with TIE’s help. Materials collected by student teams have been used by professional astronomers, as well as by major media such as the BBC, National Geographic, and the Discovery Channel. The International Astronomical Union recently named an asteroid that orbits the sun “Tieproject,” in honor of the organization.
Although TIE is still the only organization providing free telescope time to students from kindergarten to high school, TIE’s technical innovation has influenced other educational institutions. TIE shared the hardware and software developed with its collaborators with many universities that have built their own remotely controlled telescopes. In the future, TIE hopes to refurbish telescopes around the globe in exchange for offering free time to students to use the telescopes for ongoing research and learning.
For more information, see http://telescopesineducation.com.
Design that Matters, Inc., Cambridge, MA, U.S.
In a world where one in five adults cannot read, adult literacy is a critical skill that is difficult for many people to obtain. Because most learners must work during the day, night classes are where many of the world’s illiterate learn to read. Two of the main barriers faced by students in rural villages without electricity are finding adequate books and lighting. In many classes, a single lantern and a lone copy of a text book are all that teachers can employ. Visual learning aids are of little use without sufficient lighting and teachers are often required to write out lessons laboriously on crumbling blackboards.
In response, Design that Matters has developed the Kinkajou Projector, which uses an innovative amalgamation of state-of-the art, repurposed, and abandoned technology. The Kinkajou employs cutting-edge light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and low-cost plastic lenses adapted from children’s toys to project text and images from microfilm (an “outmoded” technology) in developed world libraries. Running on batteries that can be recharged via solar power, the projector displays letters and pictures up to three meters high onto any flat surface, and can also serve as a general source of illumination for the class to read other materials. The projector is designed to be durable and affordable in the developing world. For example, a microfilm cassette that stores up to 10,000 pages of material costs about 12 dollars.
An ongoing evaluation project that is testing a prototype of the Kinkajou in 45 villages in Mali, conducted in partnership with World Education, a non-profit literacy organization, and local African groups, has already helped over 2000 adults learn to read. Next year, Design that Matters will start to distribute the projector more widely in Mali, Bangladesh, and elsewhere in developing rural areas.
The educational benefits of the Kinkajou also extend to the engineering classrooms of some of the top universities in the world. Design that Matters’ collaborative development process involved over 180 students and teachers in researching and designing the Kinkajou, as well as evaluating and marketing it. The projector has emerged from class projects at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Stanford, Worcester Polytechnic, and Cambridge University. Volunteers from companies and non-profits such as Fisher-Price, Optikos, and Cambridge Design Partnership also contributed. Through this process, Design that Matters has introduced design students and professionals to the problems faced by illiterate rural people, and to ways of making real contributions to solving them.
The Kinkajou projector holds great promise for overcoming obstacles to adult literacy education in rural areas of the developing world. Design that Matters offers an exciting model for technical development that brings together university students and the non-profit sector in rich and poor countries to create technologies that meet important needs in an effective and sensitive manner.
For more information, including a detailed design journal that chronicles the stages of the project, see http://www.designthatmatters.org/k2.
Fahamu - Networks for Social Justice, Oxford, UK
In the 1990s, human rights organizations sprang up across Africa, offering the best hope for advancing the social, economic, and political rights of the continent’s impoverished peoples. These new organizations hungered for training in investigating and monitoring human rights conditions, international law and policy, litigation, popular education, campaigning, and lobbying. But the World Wide Web seemed to offer little hope as a medium for distance learning because of its high cost and low bandwidth in much of the region. And civil society groups had limited means to support course fees, travel costs, and staff time for in-depth training.
Based on extensive research into the educational needs and information technology capacities of Africa’s civil society organizations, Fahamu concluded that the answer was to provide high-quality, low-cost distance learning courses on human rights, conducted via CD-ROM and email (rather than over the Web). Fahamu innovated by carefully researching African campaigners’ most pressing professional development needs and the most appropriate technology for addressing them, and then creating excellent teaching materials and methods to do the job.
Fahamu’s educational model involves several kinds of contact and support. In a typical course, participants spend about ten weeks with an interactive CD-ROM designed by an impressive group of educators and instructional technologists, meanwhile learning also from the course tutor and each other via an email listserv. Next, participants attend a three to four day workshop in a convenient location to discuss what they have learned and to plan the third phase of the course. Participants then return home to carry out a project with their organization that allows them to apply what they have learned, overseen by the course tutor. In this manner, Fahamu has taught courses on subjects such as documenting human rights violations, the role of media in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, using the Internet for advocacy and research, as well as capacity-building topics such as financial management and fundraising.
Fahamu’s distance education project is helping to strengthen Africa’s human rights watchdogs. In the past two years, Fahamu’s courses have benefited over 160 organizations in more than 30 countries. Numerous organizations have adopted the group’s capacity-building methods, including the Office of the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN-affiliated University for Peace, and the Association for the Prevention of Torture. Independent course evaluations indicate that students not only learn new skills and content, but that the course experience helps knit together professional networks of human rights campaigners across the continent to share strategies and resources.
For more information, see http://www.fahamu.org.
In2Books, Washington, DC, USA
Youth struggle to develop literacy skills not only in the developing world, but also in many urban public schools that serve low-income students in the U.S. If children’s literacy skills are low by the end of third grade, statistics show they are unlikely to catch up with their peers later, and as adults are more likely to live in poverty and in prison.
Low income students who successfully scale the educational and economic ladder tend to be supported by adult encouragement, discover a deep interest in a subject, have the ability to think about themselves as adults, and develop excellent literacy skills that allow them to think critically and communicate well about what they read. In2Books fosters these abilities in Washington DC’s low-income schools through a uniquely comprehensive literacy program that is coordinated through In2Books’ extensive Web site (http://www.in2books.org).
Students and teachers who participate in In2Books receive five books to keep during the school year. The program pairs each student with an adult pen pal who reads the same books as the student and exchanges letters discussing the books over the year. Teachers receive professional development and classroom materials to boost their literacy instruction. Families get take-home activities related to the books and are invited to family literacy events. Each year, students in grades 2 through 5 benefit from increasingly complex books and curricula, offering continuity of experience and the opportunity to deepen reading skills.
In2Books’ collaborative online technology successfully joins online and offline instruction, currently connecting 5,000 students with 2,500 pen pals. Independent evaluators have found that In2Books has earned deep respect from participating teachers, students, pen pals, and families, and has increased students’ reading test scores significantly compared to classrooms that do not take part in the program. In2Books is expanding to serve Chicago schools, and there is good reason to believe it can be replicated successfully elsewhere.
MIT OpenCourseWare, Cambridge, MA, USA
If some have claimed that sharing of digital content on the Internet threatens to make intellectual property obsolete, they have not been paying attention to U.S. and international law. Over the past decade, in part in reaction to the rise of the Internet, intellectual property rights have been expanded and extended to an unprecedented scale. The danger is that if we protect intellectual property too aggressively, we run the risk of raising barriers of cost and control to the free flow of information, thereby stifling innovative thinking, blocking access to education, and creating monopolies of knowledge in a few hands.
Running headlong against the trend toward restricting access to intellectual property and high-quality educational materials, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has invested substantial resources in sharing its course materials online. The MIT Open- CourseWare Web site offers visitors free access to the syllabi, lecture notes, course schedules, reading lists, assignments and even some video lectures from one of the world’s foremost technical universities. Over 1,100 MIT courses in 34 disciplines already are online. The course materials may be copied and modified for any non-commercial use as long as republication attributes the work to the faculty member who created it and adapters share any new derivative works in the same manner as MIT does. As a result of this “creative commons license,” affiliates have already translated over 100 courses into Spanish and Portuguese and made MIT’s materials available via mirror sites in Taiwan, China, Russia and Uganda.
Since it was launched in 2002, the site has been used by educators for curriculum development and by independent learners interested in self-study in 215 countries and territories around the world. MIT’s extensive user research reveals that site traffic is growing and increasingly international, averaging 12,335 unique visitors per day, the bulk of them self-learners from outside the U.S. Visitors often use the site to research engineering subjects, using the site to learn about technology itself. User surveys indicate high levels of satisfaction with the site.
As the first university to attempt to provide a comprehensive and easily searchable collection of its courses online at no charge, MIT has set the standard for other institutions’ forays into making their educational materials available on the Web. MIT’s site is a model of depth, breadth, and excellence of educational materials that other universities are starting to follow. MIT is actively assisting other institutions in adopting the OpenCourseWare model, sharing their commitment to spreading knowledge, and their expertise in doing so successfully, with the world.
For more information, see http://ocw.mit.edu.
This year’s Microsoft Education Award Laureates remind us that technological innovation involves much more than technical invention. We commonly think of technology as referring to tools (hardware, software), but it also includes related techniques (ways of using tools) and organizations (social arrangements that surround the tools, and that develop and channel the techniques for using them). Thus, the technology of the assembly line encompassed not merely the machinery of the conveyor belt (tools), but the extreme division of labor associated with working on the line (techniques), and the social structure of the factory floor with its highly regulated time for work and breaks (organization). Technological innovation depends as much, and often more, upon methodological and organizational innovation than upon the invention of new tools. What distinguished this year’s Laureates from the many other worthy projects was not that they had developed new devices, but that they created new ways of combining and using established apparatus, and that they showed the organizational sophistication to use it wisely and effectively to foster learning about important subjects. This gives reason for hope both for the future of education and technology.
Chad Raphael, Chair, Associate Professor of Communication,
Santa Clara University
Hans-Peter Dommel, Assistant Professor of Computer Engineering,
Santa Clara University
Stuart Gannes, Director, Digital Vision Fellowship Program, Stanford University
Riku Makela, Senior Technical Advisor, Tekes, National Technology Agency,
Ewan McPhie, Policy Director, Bridges.org, South Africa
Paul Soukup, S.J., Associate Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University