SXSWEdu: Gates Foundation vs. Microsoft Education: What’s the difference?

On my first day in Austin I had a terrific hourlong conversation with Cameron Evans, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft Education. He had a lot of candid observations and great lines: “The vast amount of data in our education system can be used for good, and also for bad actors and bad reasons,” and on the need for professional development and parent education around new learning technologies: “You don’t want to be in a situation where you give people a library card but they can’t read.”

op-art by simosx on Flickr

op-art by simosx on Flickr

Toward the end I took the chance to ask him about a controversial point. It is an article of faith among many concerned about education that the extensive philanthropic influence of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, headed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is deployed directly in service of the business interests of the Microsoft Corporation. When it comes to schools, where do the interests of one end and the other one begin? (Disclaimer: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which publishes this blog.)

Evans greeted my question with a broad smile. It’s one that he fields fairly often.

“Bill and Melinda Gates have gone out of their way to make sure that the foundation’s work and the work of Microsoft have nothing to do with each other,” he starts, noting that the Gates Foundation often uses open-source technologies.

However, he allows, “There are times we do see eye to eye.” 

Not for nothing, Evans agrees that the Gates Foundation and Microsoft share a single mission. As the foundation puts it, “Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives.” “We share that core mission: everybody should be able to participate fully in life without constraint or impediment.”

The true common ground between the company and the foundation, Evans tells me, has to do with education as a source of human capital and economic productivity. 

“We’re not producing enough human capital capacity in higher ed and K-12. We have an obligation as a corporation to help America be the dominant player in international competitiveness. We should be very clear about this. This is a national issue for a global company. It’s not something we have to apologize for or defend. If the Gates foundation shares that sentiment, so does Intel, so does Lumina, so do MacArthur and Carnegie.” He mentions Microsoft’s legislative advocacy on behalf of the H1B visa for foreign-born technology workers as a sign of their interest in global human capital.

I point out that he’s defaulted to talking about Microsoft’s interest in education from a corporate social responsibility standpoint. This is a party line in any ed-tech conversation, and I wish that corporations would drop it. We all know that Apple, Google, and Microsoft are not just in the education business for the love of adorable, ethnically & socioeconomically diverse children. If they’d be more transparent about where they see the opportunities, we could have an open and honest public discussion about the legitimate role of private actors in providing this public good.

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top to bottom: Cute students using Apple, Google, Microsoft

So Evans says this: Microsoft’s education business strategy is not primarily about hardware–a pragmatic attitude since they’re losing out on hardware.

“Some people think our sole goal is to get kids hooked on our products,” through deployments of items like Surface tablets in public schools, he said. “That they’ll be gateway products, students will be hooked for life. The consumer market today is far more dynamic than that. IT doesn’t decide what technology you use, whether in school or out of it. Consumers are choosing, not school districts, not anybody.”

What IS it about, then? Reading between the lines, by being a strong voice in workforce development and training, Microsoft helps ensure the the continued dominance of Microsoft software programs like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access across the transition to mobile access in the global workplace. “As a technology supplier to governments, hospitals, individual corporations and entrepreneurs we have a responsibility to build capacity,”  Evans puts it. Microsoft has 1.5 billion users on the planet; only 55 million are in the US.

Secondly, on a much smaller scale than that global strategic interest, Microsoft is developing educational data and reporting systems that aim to give students, schools and parents embedded, formative, actionable, continuous feedback and insight about student growth and progress–and to give teachers and administrators performance feedback for professional development purposes. Evans was at SXSWEdu to promote this idea. “A teacher needs data on the student sitting in front of them right now. We need sophisticated, but simple tools to be able to communicate across the board, what is this data, and what decisions do I need to make that are different.”

The Gates Foundation, of course, cares a lot about data, reporting, and teacher quality as well. And here’s the rub: It can be difficult to trust any kind of separation between the interests of the foundation and the corporation because in many cases, not necessarily nefarious ones, they do in fact coincide.

What Apple, IBM, Microsoft and LinkedIn Want with K-12 Schools

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There’s an ever-expanding universe of ed-tech startups out there, alongside the massive incumbents in textbook and educational materials that have moved aggressively into digital products and services. But to get a true picture of the direction of innovation in K-12, it is also helpful to look at how the big technology companies are tackling this market. They view the needs of the marketplace of students, teachers, administrations, governments, and families differently than other players do, through the lens of their core offerings. Four of these companies, Apple, IBM, LinkedIn, and Microsoft, had news this week.

1) IBM: Data infrastructure.

In a thoughtful piece in Next City, my Fast Company colleague Greg Lindsay looks at “P-TECH”, an early college/vocational-technical public high school in New York City established with considerable input and support from IBM. The model, which aims to graduate each student with a technical associate’s degree and a place “at the head of the line” for IBM jobs, and which has IBM engineers mentor each student, is seeing early success and has already spawned five more schools in Chicago.

“Big Blue has taken it upon itself to reinvent one of any city’s pivotal institutions: public schools,” Lindsay writes. But this isn’t just a philanthropic effort. It’s an expansion of Smarter Cities, IBM’s attempt to rejigger itself into a provider of technical consulting, support services, and cloud infrastructure to cities as well as to companies. “P-TECH and its descendants are seen within the company as test beds for the next plank in its Smarter Cities effort, which is to build for schools what its operations center is for cities: A single system for collecting, aggregating and analyzing data from students and teachers alike, then writing algorithms to prescribe how to cope with a troubled student just as one might try to reroute a traffic jam.”

2) Microsoft: Search and hardware.

Microsoft seems to view schools as a handy way to build brand loyalty and differentiate its second-place search engine, Bing. Like IBM, they are leading with philanthropy. Bing for Schools, currently piloting, is a free, ad-free, safe-filtered search engine with extra privacy controls, exclusively available to schools. It comes bundled with lesson plans and a rewards system that allows schools to earn free Microsoft Surface tablets just by using the search engine. These tablets are also available at a discount to schools.

3) LinkedIn: Connecting to college and jobs.

LinkedIn, the professional social network, announced this week that it will open up membership to 14-to-18 year olds. In a related move, they also announced “University Pages” as a way to encourage colleges to maintain a presence on the site for recruitment and alumni networking.

Getting teens to take control of their social media footprint, and leverage it in positive ways, is a hot topic, as surveys show teens are sharing more than ever online.  LinkedIn has reportedly low usage among young people, and obviously this is a market the company would like to be in. But merely opening the doors doesn’t mean that the kids will show up.

4) Apple: Brand awareness and mystique.

The final education announcement related to a large tech company this week didn’t come from the company itself. A private foundation in the Netherlands announced the opening of seven “Steve JobsSchools” focusing on self-paced, iPad-based learning. This on top of an announcement last month that the LA Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, would have 100% iPad adoption by late next year.

iPads are far from the cheapest computing devices for classrooms, and they fall short on other practicalities. Students and teachers complain abut their lack of a keyboard, lack of a USB drive, inability to support Flash, inability to keep several windows open at once, and to easily highlight or take notes on a text. But iPads are sleek, beautiful, versatile little devices that represent the future. And this may be their ultimate attraction from the educational market.


The 5 hidden powers of games for learning


John Scott Tynes started programming in the early 1980s, in middle school. “The main thing I did was play games and make games,” he said–from text-based adventure games to a crude graphics game inspired by Indiana Jones that featured a “fedora” (as seen from overhead, really, two concentric circles) cracking a “whip.”

Tynes went on to work across the gaming universe, on everything from tabletop role-playing adventures to massively multiplayer online games, and joined Microsoft Xbox to work on arcade-style games and collaborate with Sesame Workshop on games for learning. Last year, his passion for gaming took him in a new direction, as the head of the Imagine Cup Challenge. Microsoft sponsors this annual competition for high school and university students in dozens of countries, who compete in teams building both apps and games for over a million dollars in cash and prizes. The finalists in the are currently heading to St. Petersburg, Russia for the final round of competition.

This year Tynes added a second division to the competition called the Kodu Challenge, open to students as young as nine. Kodu Game Lab is a programming language designed for kids, similar to MIT’s Scratch. It’s a simple, visual programming environment optimized for the creation of games: you can design and customize landscapes, add characters and program actions for them to take following simple rules, using an Xbox controller, mouse, or touchscreen with no typing necessary. The challenge, conducted with the charity Mercy Corps, asked kids to create games around the theme of water. Winners, from hundreds of entries will be announced next month.

As a game designer himself, Tynes did a better job than anyone else I’ve talked to at explaining the various educational payoffs that could come from assigning students to build games.

1) Learn about learning itself. “Learning is an iterative game loop: You learn, try to repeat and use what you’ve learned, you’re evaluated, you fail or succeed, repeat and gain mastery. That’s how you play a game. Games enable a focused, tight loop to gain mastery quickly.”

2) Explore STEM disciplines. ” Students take for granted what’s brand-new to everybody else. They are digital natives. Playing with technology is a great way to encourage students to delve into STEM learning and become more technical.”

3) Collaborate. “I think games, among all the different kinds of software are the most cross-disciplinary we have. It’s not just programming, user interfaces, or usability. The rules and logic of games are themselves a whole other discipline that requires expertise and training. Then there are the vivid images, graphics, pictures, characters, music, sound effects– a world and a story. So even a small game project requires more than one programmer heads down. It fosters collaboration–asking students to stretch outside their comfort zones.”

4) Connect learning to the wider world. “Games engage with elements of fiction. They have characters and a story. That helps and encourages students to put their work into context.”

5) Have fun helping others! “In game design we talk about plateaus of skill mastery. In game design you want the player to enjoy those moments of confidence before we introduce the next round of complications and new rules. That structure lends itself well to positive reinforcement, which is why games can be so engaging to play. [When you design games] making the player feel engaged and excited is an incredibly powerful motivator.”