Children enjoy learning, and today’s ‘digital natives’ use technology to consume more information at a faster pace than ever before. This aptitude makes for an exciting future, but to make the most of our investments in the next generation we must be mindful of the hurdles on the course.

How should we prepare young people for life and work in this new environment? It is not about any given device or a specific curriculum.  Although both will play a role, there needs to be a wider debate about the education strategy that will guide these choices.

Certainly, technology can help to bring quality education to everyone. It can foster communication and collaboration among students, teachers, parents, academics and employers. This way, children have unprecedented opportunities to level the playing field, to explore, mentor one another, and be valued contributors to their communities. This requires digital literacy, which encompasses not just technical skills and understanding, but also a consciousness of online safety and cyber citizenship. And to make it work, we must improve the economic and operational efficiencies of education systems.

We have exemplary teachers in New Zealand, and teachers must be given the trust, resources, and responsibility to adapt to new requirements of the community.

Microsoft’s education mission is inspired by the company’s broader vision of helping everyone to realise their full potential.

We believe that with modern technology, quality education can and should be available to everyone, everywhere. Rather than just imparting facts and knowledge, education must prepare students for life and work. As the world rapidly changes, that includes opening the door to life long learning.

Students who learn to use, create and value technology can participate fully in the modern workforce and a digitally enhanced lifestyle. When students understand the purpose and relevance of their learning and how it can improve their future they will be more engaged and less likely to lose interest or even leave school.

The digital divide must be reduced progressively by prioritising investment in communities that are under-served by technology. Working together, businesses, communities and the Government have the capability to close the gap to ensure universal access. The Computer Clubhouse and the 2020 Communications Trust are fine examples of what can be achieved here in New Zealand through partnership.

Laurence Zwimpfer, programme director for the 2020 Communications Trust’s Computers in Homes programme, suggests technology needs to reach into every student’s home. 

“Our goal for Computers in Homes is to ensure that every household with a school-aged child has access to a computer and the internet in their homes.  We believe there are around 100,000 families in low income communities without computers but with the support of the Government’s Digital Literacy and Connection programme and from corporates including Microsoft, we aim to plug this gap.”

Overseas initiatives to increase access to technology have shown that netbook computers are cost effective, and there is no need to compromise on classroom essentials such as a long battery life and the flexibility to access the full array of commercial and open source software and services. These devices are ideally suited not only to consuming information, but also to creativity. Also, the technology to revolutionise the capability of slate devices and reduce the cost burden is just around the corner.

As for providing learning material to consume on these devices, the inspiring work of the Khan Academy shows how one person can spark a movement that promises to help millions of teachers and students around the world. One teacher’s experience was to “assign the lectures for homework, and do what used to be homework, at school.” It’s just one example of technology helping students to learn more effectively by giving teachers more time to focus on enriching classroom activities and individual student needs. Here's a TED talk about the initiative:

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates continues his passion for changing the world through education through his charitable work, including a US$1.5 million donation to the Khan Academy.

"Online learning will never replace teachers and classrooms. That personal connection and social interaction are very important to learning. Working in classrooms and on the Internet should be complementary. Using both for what they’re best at, we should blend technology with great teaching. If we do, I think young people will be much more excited about learning, more will succeed in school and learning will become a lifelong pursuit that everyone has greater access to."

We also want to help in practical ways, and we have a number of programmes that are designed to help in this effort through partnerships with governments, educators and parents.

Partners in Learning is designed to help schools to gain better access to technology, and fosters innovative approaches to learning and teacher development. We help to bring education leaders together to share their experiences, recognising that part of the challenge for educators is to be sufficiently skilled themselves in the use of technology to support our children’s learning. 

Imagine Cup is a student technology competition that inspires young people to apply technology to solve the world’s toughest problems.

DreamSpark provides students with free access to Microsoft professional design and development technology that they can use to learn deep engineering and computer science skills, and build new technology of their own.

The Local Language Programme provides people with a choice of language interfaces that broaden the avenues to technology and foster cultural growth. For New Zealand, Māori language packs for Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office are available free of charge.

As well as ensuring that we consider education and accessibility needs in the design of our mainstream products and providing a range of complimentary services, Microsoft also designs technology solutions specifically for education. Many of these solutions are available for free or at an educational discount. For those who are interested in getting technical, we’ll cover some of the specific technology that Microsoft and our partners in New Zealand have to offer in a future blog post.

We are encouraged that leading schools across New Zealand are looking at ways to enhance learning outcomes for the children they serve. These initiatives need to be inclusive and consider the options to ensure that children and their learning experience are the priority. They must not inadvertently exacerbate the digital divide.

There has recently been some controversy about a specific device and its cost. But while the choice of devices, software and services is important, there is a wider discussion to have first about how our nation can make a step-change in our education system and enhance our competitiveness on the global stage supported by smarter use of technology in schools. We welcome that dialogue.

By Evan Blackman, Education Lead, Microsoft New Zealand