Alan Yates is general manager of the worldwide education group at Microsoft, where he works with education customers and leaders around the globe conducting groundbreaking work in support of the educational and economic aspirations of emerging markets. With three advanced degrees from Harvard and Stanford, Alan has also been a teacher and a state public policy director. He will be attending the African High Level Policy Maker and Industry Leader Round Table and Retreat on ICT for Education, Training and Development in Ghana on May 27th, 2008.
eLA: Why is eLearning so important for Africa?
Alan Yates: We live in a digital world. For a child to be mainstream – so they can get jobs, be productive citizens and give back to their communities – they need to be confident with their digital skills. To put it simply, digital learning is the bedrock of lifelong learning.
eLA: Are there are any specific eLearning challenges for Africa?
Alan Yates: We work with countries around the world, and there are enormous similarities in all emerging markets. The infrastructure is sometimes lacking, the overall capacity is hard to support, and teachers are in short supply. In fact, the shortage of teachers is one of our key challenges. We constantly face the issue of how to scale teachers and their expertise to meet the demand for students. Every marketplace sees this issue, but it’s pronounced in Africa where more than sixty percent of the population is children. This can be daunting, but it’s also incredibly exciting because of the potential for local economies.
Another issue for Africa is the incredible variety of local circumstances. It takes local stability and political will to put eLearning in place. However, information technology can sometimes magically bypass a lot of those issues. When you have children who have access to PCs and the Internet, all of a sudden, magic things happen. Technology is an equalizer, an amplifier. We fundamentally believe that it’s more than just access to a PC; rather, it’s access to a lifetime of learning.
eLA: How is Microsoft addressing the need for capacity building in the teacher community?
Alan Yates: We have a number of projects and programmes that we’ve been putting in place over the years. It really starts with Microsoft Partners in Learning, which focuses on building capacity and applying learning to both teachers and students and then on helping schools adapt their curricula to eLearning. Whenever you hear about programmes like Innovative Teachers, at the most basic level, we’re training teachers.
The unique thing about Partners in Learning is that teachers are so involved in the process. We have Partners in Learning programs in 101 countries around the world, and there are millions of teachers involved. Teachers figure out how to be efficient and how to scale to meet the students’ demands. In many cases, teachers come up with unique solutions that we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of.
eLA: Do you have any examples of innovative teacher solutions?
Alan Yates: A recent example is from South Africa. Not everyone has a PC or Internet connection at home – but everyone has a mobile phone. A teacher came up with the idea to adapt the curricula to mobile phones so that students could receive their coursework and homework assignments by text message and even do self-assessments. This was not a solution that we would ever have thought of, but it made sense for that particular market. It’s a great example of adapting Partners in Learning to local circumstances.
Partners in Learning can easily result in models of great behaviors like these. A lot of what we try to do is to promote the students, teachers and schools who are making a difference for themselves and their communities. Every year, we send a number of teachers to regional Innovative Teacher conferences, where we highlight those teachers who are really doing great things – not just to scale education, but who are also creating new types of learning and who tap into the learning cycle for children.
eLA: You mentioned the potential for local economies. Can you talk a little bit more about how eLearning and Microsoft help economies?
Alan Yates: Partners in Learning is really the start of what we hope to accomplish. It’s absolutely fundamental because it gives students a gateway into lifelong learning. Worldwide, these 21st century skills become extremely valuable for the students we reach. We’re also extending our programmes. For instance, we’re establishing IT academies that graduate students who have the technical skills that are in demand. We help match students who graduate with Microsoft certification to companies who need workers with those skills. Essentially, we’re creating a currency for skills that people can use. As education increases, economies become better and more self-sustaining. This is one of the most exciting aspects of what we do – as more children are given ICT training and education, their possibilities expand exponentially. They grow their local software economy, and they’re not just employable locally; they can go anywhere else around the world, too.