Bill Gates unveils school-technology initiatives

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates outlined Wednesday a vision of education in which students worldwide use high-speed Internet connections and curriculums that draw on online resources such as Wikipedia to become more globally competitive.

"We are now on the verge of something where technology will make a difference," Gates said in an address before the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Advances in hardware, software and connectivity and are enabling a "user-centric" focus for technology, letting people access information over vast distances inexpensively, Gates said.

The address by Gates concluded the two-day Government Leaders Forum, an annual Microsoft-sponsored conference attended by government leaders throughout Europe. The delegates addressed education issues and how Europe can become more competitive through the use of IT.

Gordon Brown, the U.K.'s chancellor of the exchequer who oversees financial matters, warned in a speech before Gates' address that the number of jobs that require no skills in the country will drop from 3.4 million today to only 600,000 by 2020. Those who don’t have access to education programs and acquire IT skills are "at risk of being unemployed over the next decade."

"We cannot afford to ignore the potential of any child," Brown said.

Microsoft is backing several educational programs aimed at integrating technologies into classrooms that some young people may already be encountering outside of school. Teachers may have trouble keeping up with students who are using such devices as the Xbox Live gaming system at their homes, Gates said.

"When they [students] come back into the classroom, and there's a chalkboard there, that teacher has a hard time living up to the level of drama and richness," he said.

Gates announced that Microsoft will expand the company's Innovative Schools initiative, which looks at ways to better integrate technology and learning, to an additional 12 countries: Ireland, the U.K., France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Qatar, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Hong Kong.

Microsoft has undertaken a variety of projects as part of the program. In Philadelphia, the company joined the city's school district and built a 750-student high school, called a School of the Future, that focuses on how technology can improve student performance. It opened last September.

The company provided technical guidance, which included the building of a secure Web portal for parents and students for access to assignments, class schedules and grades.

In the U.K., Microsoft backs the Building Schools for the Future program, a £40 billion (US$78 billion) government program to revamp secondary education. The company assists local authorities on ways to integrate technology into education.

In Taipei, students at Zhong Lun High School have improved their acceptance rate from 36% to 50% since it became a School of the Future two years ago, Microsoft said. The company also helped with a distance-education facility for teachers, where they can design and publish e-learning material.

At the start of his address, Gates spoke of Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American steel magnate who later used his wealth to fund libraries and educational institutions.

Next year, Gates will step down as Microsoft's chairman to focus on the philanthropy through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on global health and development issues.

Gates recalled one of Carnegie's statements: "He who dies rich, dies disgraced."

"I’m working on avoiding that, but it's a high responsibility," Gates said to laughs.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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