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Microsoft kicks in $1 billion to help students buy under-$300 devices

Microsoft's announcement was made in tandem with the Obama administration's ConnectED initiative to get more technology in schools.

President Barack Obama speaks with a student at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Md., in early February. AFP/Getty Images

Microsoft is donating $1 billion to help school districts buy Windows devices for under $300.

Monday's announcement is being made in tandem with President Obama's ConnectED initiative to foster greater use of technology in schools.

"As much technology as we've brought into schools in the last 30 years, there hasn't been significant change," Cameron Evans, national technology officer and chief technology officer of Microsoft Education, said in an interview with CNET. He added that there still remain wide gaps in schools between students when it comes to who has access to technology.

To be sure, this remains the proverbial work in progress especially when compared with the investments made in some other nations. In Singapore, for example, the Ministry of Education has spent more than $2.6 billion so far announcing a master plan for technology in the late 1990s.

Proponents in this country have long maintained that greater spending on technology can help revolutionize education. A 1997 White House report got the conversation going in earnest but the results since then have often proved less clear-cut. A chicken-or-the-egg debate continues with some studies arguing the benefits of spending on technology while other data suggest that the focus ought to be on hiring better teachers.

Last year the White House announced a plan to ensure that 99 percent of students had access to high-speed Internet within the next five years. Now, with the support of Microsoft and its partners -- a list that includes Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Lenovo, Panasonic, and Toshiba -- school districts will be able to source Windows-based hardware for their students at sharp discounts to what they otherwise might have paid.

The details are different but there are parallels between Microsoft's largesse and the discount programs that Apple pioneered in earlier decades when it sold hardware to the K-12 school districts. The idea was to win hearts and minds when they were young, hoping that they would remain loyal Apple customers after graduation.

"Do we want to win them so they'll be customers later?" Evans said. "I don't think anyone shies away from that. But there's nothing negative or sinister about that. So I'll concede that is happening."

That's in the long-term. More immediately, he said, there's great need for bringing more technology into classrooms. For example, he pointed to snowstorms that led to West Virginia students losing many school days this past winter.

"You and I been so accustomed for the last 10 years to work anywhere we wanted as long as we have a phone or a computing device," he said. "There are still gaps out there in terms of who has access to technology."

"It's a big deal," he added.