I’m in Poland this week to host the 2010 Education Leaders Forum (ELF) here in Warsaw.  It’s an event that for the fourth year brings together education leaders from around the globe to exchange experiences and discuss the future of post-secondary education, its role as economic driver and strategies for overcoming barriers to implementation. As I reflect back on the last couple of days of meetings, we’ve had some great discussions about education policy examples and ideas that can make significant impact on citizens, their home towns and their countries.

We’re getting to see this year’s ELF theme, ‘Engaging Student Creativity and Innovation: A Key to Global Success’, in action through interactive panel discussions, and keynote presentations that demonstrate how governments and education systems can work together to deliver an engaging, relevant and authentic education experiences. 

There are three keys we’ve been talking about to reach these goals: Access, Employability & Innovation.  We’re seeing amazing examples of innovation at the Imagine Cup finals… having the Education Leaders Forum at the same time as the Worldwide finals for the Imagine Cup is not a coincidence.  We link these two events together because both focus on the importance of technology as key to global success…whether it is obtaining your first PC or access to cloud technologies… which leads to employability, economic stability and national competitiveness.

In today’s information age, there is little question that information communication technology (ICT) can help drive opportunity and provide a competitive edge in the world economy.  World Bank data shows that worldwide, companies that use ICT have over 5% higher profitability than enterprises that do not use ICT.  For every 10-percentage-point increase in the penetration of broadband services, there is an increase in economic growth of 1.3 percentage points.  But this very data that can give hope also creates the digital divide.  The bridge across that divide is access.

Microsoft is committed to making the world where we live and work a better place.  By listening to the needs of governments and their citizens, we’re able to channel the passion of our people and the power of technology to the challenges facing the world today. Microsoft’s Shape the Future initiative is a program that helps governments reach ambitious goals by combining Microsoft products and services, years of citizenship, government and education expertise along with broad public private partnership experience. This program has provided more than 1 million European students access to new PCs in the last 12 months alone.

Over the last several years as Shape the Future has helped governments develop these partnerships, we have learned they should be designed beyond an individual school or an isolated classroom.  Ideally, you should not put the entire burden on a local school, a district or a region, to fund, maintain support, and do so in the context of existing budget, or a one-time appropriation that funds the project, but then could go away.  When this occurs, typically, PCs end up sitting in a closet unopened because no one knows how to use them…or the PCs may break and not be replaced because no one knows how to repair them and the school has run out of funding to buy more.  The best projects are those that are foundational…like the one developed recently in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia where they are creating a sustainable program.

Dimitri Shashkini, Georgia’s Minister of Education and Science, said it well as the partnership came together last month:

“Providing every child with a PC to raise their learning opportunities is one of the top priorities of the President and the Government of Georgia. We are clear in our belief that education is the foundation of our nation’s continued growth and prosperity. By ensuring that all Georgian children can have access to the information society, we are preparing our students and our country to succeed in the global marketplace. This agreement with Microsoft represents the next step in our commitment to progress towards full digital inclusion for all our citizens.”

At Microsoft, we believe we have a responsibility to use our position as a technology leader to help work with governments, to help drive other vendors to really commit to solve this issue, and to help more and more countries get down the road to economic competitiveness.