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Tech Industry

Microsoft Research goes to school

Technology alone won't solve U.S. tech education woes, says Rick Rashid, head of Microsoft Research.

In 1999, Microsoft started a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with only a vague goal of studying technology and education.

What came out of the iCampus initiative, scheduled to conclude next spring, are several projects. iLabs, for example, enables students to access specialized lab equipment over the Internet. Another project replaces physics lectures with a "studio-based" classroom that favors hands-on experimentation, powered by a heavy use of networked laptop computers.

Beyond the 60 individual efforts--many of which are student-led--Microsoft learned quite a bit from iCampus, said Microsoft Research chief Rick Rashid, who was involved in getting the endeavor started. It was a watershed for the software maker, because it gave the company a blueprint for working with outside universities, he said.

In addition, these sorts of high-profile partnerships serve as a catalyst for companies like Microsoft--which need trained computer science engineers--in influencing policy makers about the importance of technology education, Rashid added.

Earlier in December, Microsoft and MIT hosted a symposium on learning at the university in Cambridge. At the event, many experts sounded an alarm over the U.S. education system, saying it is not producing enough technically savvy graduates.

At a , Rashid said that it's "reasonable to start panicking" about the low number of computer science engineering students graduating from U.S. colleges and universities.

During the conference, Rashid spoke to CNET News.com about how Microsoft's work with universities casts some light on how technology can enhance learning through social experience and hands-on participation.

Q: What did you get out of this iCampus partnership with MIT?
Rashid: I saw it as an experiment in what we--Microsoft--and MIT could do together that would have a long-term impact on education. And to bring the varied technologies that we have at Microsoft, the energies of our people and the educational expertise of MIT, and see what we could do together.

What we expect of a programmer today in order to write software for one of our products requires dramatically more knowledge and expertise than what it did 20 years ago.

There are a number of aspects to it. One is, there have been a lot of "point" pieces of technology--things like iLabs (which gives students access to expensive testing equipment over the Internet). I think it's now being used in 60 different universities.

More to the point, it's leading the way in thinking about how you manage those kinds of courses, which require large, complex pieces of equipment that are very difficult to work with, from a student-management perspective.

That's an example of combining the best aspects of what technology can do and education's ideas on thinking about the problem.

So iLabs forced professors to alter the way they taught engineering classes?
Yes. It isn't about how you use technology to improve education, it's how you rethink education in the context of technology.

Is there something you have been able to take home from this iCampus initiative to your research labs? Or was that not the point?
Actually, it was not the point. We intentionally constructed the project so that there wouldn't be any sort of Microsoft advantage out of it. Really, it was that we were building a relationship, to start opening up doors to new ways of working with universities and the academic community, to create technologies.

We are going to be able to educate or inspire more students, and we really thought that was the main goal.

John Seely Brown gave a talk this morning about how different learning is these days, compared with maybe 10 or 15 years ago, because the Internet is woven so much into students' lives. Do we need to incorporate these tools more into schools?
Probably what's different now is that we are demanding the students know more by the time they finish their education than we used to. Because, in order to do the jobs that we have now, they just have to be a lot more knowledgeable than they used to.

Just take my area of software engineering. What we expect of a programmer today in order to write software for one of our products requires dramatically more knowledge and expertise than it did 20 years ago. That's just because the world has gotten big, better and more complicated, and our understanding of what we do is deeper than what it used to be.

At the same time, I think we have many more tools available for teaching. Students now have access to tremendously more knowledge at their fingertips than they did in my generation. Back in the '50s and '60s, you literally were lucky if you had access to encyclopedias. Those were the days of the encyclopedia salesmen going door-to-door, and encyclopedias were huge investments for families.

So in some sense, the opportunity here is to see how we can use this richness of knowledge and these new tools for simulation, for experimentation, for tinkering with mashups. How do we use those new tools to allow students to learn better and learn faster, to meet the need that they are going to have for entering a job force that requires more knowledge?

The resources that kids have to experiment, to access knowledge and information are very considerable. I don't think our educational system has quite caught up to the opportunities and the possibilities.

Do you agree with Seely Brown's basic point, which was that education needs to be more participatory than it has been, more of a social exercise, than this transfer of knowledge from student to teacher?
I do agree with this general point. I think anybody who is--I taught for 12 years in the university--knows that students teach themselves better than professors teach them, and that study groups and a participatory environment are great.

One of the best ways people learn something and retain it is to learn it and teach it to someone else. The question of whether technology helps or hurts--that, again, gets down to how you redesign the educational process to take the best advantage of technology. We clearly can create communities now.

What is some experimentation with technology and learning that you find promising?
We've got a program we have been doing in some universities, where we developed software so that the lecture can be done with a tablet PC. The lecturer can be putting up notes, writing them while talking and showing them up in the screen. Not only can the students see what he is doing, they can be following it on their own. And they could be making their own annotations. They can be asking questions, which can get fed to a TA (teaching assistant).

The idea is to use technology to take a traditional lecture setting and turn (it) into a more participatory, shared experience.

So, dynamically, during the lecture, people can--anonymously, if they want to--say: "What's this guy talking about? I don't understand what's going on here?" Or it can be chatting back and forth among themselves and showing notes they've taken. Then they can review these, which are kept in a SQL (Server) database. You can refer to them later.

That type of thing may or may not be the precise answer. But the idea is to use technology to take a traditional lecture setting and turn (it) into a more participatory, shared experience, where people can be part of it, as opposed to sitting there listening.

People are really concerned about the educational system in the U.S. Will more participation help people get interested in engineering or, in particular, computer science, which seems to be the area of your greatest concern? How do you see this playing out in your field?
Well, I think there are a lot of things that need to be done. Certainly, (they could be) creating courses and materials and techniques that get students more engaged, get them to learn faster or get them more excited about what they're learning and more inspired by what they're doing.

The reality is our educational system doesn't really prepare (students) to do computer science at all. Through high school, there's very little computer education--that has been the case of K-12, where it's just not considered a priority by the school system. So there, the issue is more one of just general math and science training. There's a lot of work yet to be done there.

What is the role of this corporate-academic partnership, versus just funding computer science at a fair level?
Well, industry can be a catalyst in working with universities. We can apply funding or we can apply human resources or our technology with universities in targeted areas. They're going to take risks or help catalyze new approaches, and iCampus was an example of something like that.

In industry, we tend to make decisions very quickly. Industry can't replace government funding for educational systems and universities--we just don't have the resources to do that. We can't charge (enough) money for our product to pay for the U.S. educational system too.