Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

The Microsoft Education Award

Michael Kevane

Introduction

 

 
Education Award
Innovations in education, an enterprise trellised with 2,500 years of craftsmanship and rooted in face-to-face encounters between teacher and student, are like morning glories: they bloom early and fade by afternoon, but the seeds propagate new visions that ultimately improve human learning.  The Laureates for the 2006 Microsoft Education Award will keep the vine of education healthy for many decades to come.  

This year 73 organizations or individuals applied for the Microsoft Education Award.  As in past years, a large majority of the applicants are developing Web sites that are useful in education.  There was a wide range of offerings.  Some music and arts sites were devoted to helping autistic children better comprehend the human world of emotions that is so foreign to them.  Some sites were elegant packages of educational materials for teaching sexual education in poor, slum societies.  Some sites were using the new tools of social networking to encourage online communities so that peer teaching and learning could occur more readily.  Another site had created an interactive repository of memories of Palestinians and Israelis committed to peace.  Another tracked the whereabouts of a popular character in a children’s book.  All were delightful and educational.  Other projects were more hardware-oriented.  A number of applications had developed Information and Communication Technology (ICT) centers in developing countries, enabling students and adults to learn how to use computers and the Internet to improve their lives.  Another group of projects used ICT to connect students in different countries; they offer strong testimonials regarding the powerful learning experience of being able to see, hear, and interact with children of the same age, in the same learning environment. Other social entrepreneurs were developing mobile science laboratories, educational videos, and learning based on hands-on photography training.  

 

The large pool of applications presented a difficult challenge to the judging panel.  All of the applicants exemplified the best tradition in the education enterprise: selflessly giving so that the next generations will know more than current generations, and make the world a better place.  The judges had to juggle two important criteria:  evidence of profound or inspiring change and possibility of replicability or scalability. Many interventions carried out by the applicants had clearly bettered learning and knowledge for the populations targeted.  Yet, many of them had reached their pilot-stage potential; they were unlikely to accelerate a slow growth path in any significant way.  Others were clearly full of potential, sometimes in astonishing ways, but there was not yet evidence that the potential was actually realizable.  The selected Laureates had that gestaltish combination of demonstrating both their capacities and their potential.

 

The Laureates

  

Arrow Network Systems, Ltd., Accra, Ghana     

Schools in sub-Saharan Africa remain largely cut off from the Internet, with students having little access at the school site.  While students in urban settings often have access to low-cost cyber-cafes, their rural cousins have no access in their villages.  There are multiple benefits from enabling on-site access in rural areas.  To use the other 2006 Laureates as illustrations, African students might use the Internet Archive or Connexions to access study materials on music theory and performance; their teacher might use Dominic Massaro’s Kid Klok to help students learn to tell time; and parents of a severely disabled child might be given hope that someday EagleEyes might be available to rural Africa.  More broadly, with Internet access students and teachers might be able to read newspapers that do not circulate in print outside of the major cities.  They might contact friends to inform them of important events or emergencies.  They may transfer money to a relative in need or receive funds from a relative living abroad. A number of applicants, in this year and in past years, try to deliver solutions to this “last-mile” problem, of getting connections to the very isolated users in poor countries. Up-front and recurring capital costs of connectivity, know-how for managing even basic computer systems, and government regulatory hurdles remain significant barriers to rural Internet access. 

 

Arrow Network Systems has developed and is deploying a low-cost and effective mechanism for enabling a reasonably high degree of connectivity.  By linking UHF radio to a school-site server, the technology enables a school to download and transmit at very low speeds, for very low cost.  Of course, the transmission speeds are very low, equivalent to a very slow telephone modem, but the school server can function like a mirror of the Internet, enabling non-real-time local access.  In cooperation with a Czech company that makes radio modems, Racom s.r.o., Arrow Network Systems has implemented the project in Our Lady of the Apostles Training College in Accra, Ghana, demonstrating the technology’s capabilities. 

  

While the narrowband technology has yet to be deployed other than in the pilot case, Arrow Network Systems is developing extensive experience in deploying similar networks in the for-profit and state sectors.  The company has deployed networks for Ghana’s Department of National Lotteries, and also networks in Nigeria for private banks to provide online banking and 24-hour ATM access for remote locations.  The potential for replicability of the schools project is high.

More information about the project is available at: http://www.arrownetworks.net/javelin.html.

 

Campus School EagleEyes, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, U.S.

 

Persons with severe disabilities continue to face serious obstacles to opportunities to learn.  All over the world, children with limited physical mobility- whether from strokes, accidents, illnesses or birth defects- can find themselves locked into their bodies, unable to communicate with others and hence unable to develop their knowledge potential. 

  

EagleEyes offers an extremely promising and field-tested technology to enable access to education by persons whose only deliberate movement is eye movement.  The main technology involves placing five electrodes on the skin around the eyes; the electrodes pick up the tiny electrical signals that generate eye movement, and translate those signals to movements of a mouse on a computer screen.  After some training, persons are able to achieve effective control over the computer, and then begin working through pedagogic software appropriate to their level of cognitive development.  The technology and pedagogy has been used successfully at the Campus School at Boston College, and is now licensed to the Opportunity Foundation of America of Salt Lake City for rapid expansion.    

The impact of the technology has been relatively limited in terms of numbers, up to the present time.  But the numerous testimonials available from users suggest that for those who have accessed the technology, the benefits have been enormous in improving the quality of life for severely disabled persons.  Basic cost-benefit calculations from a few example cases suggest that the technology is more effective than alternative teacher and classroom aide-intensive strategies.

 

More information about the project is available at: http://www.bc.edu/schools/csom/eagleeyes/.

 

Connexions, Rice University, Houston, Texas, U.S.

 

Universities are major centers of production of knowledge and education of citizens.  They have always had the virtue and limitation of largely restricting themselves to on-site transmission of knowledge.  The expense of on-site pedagogy has meant that they are required to practice monopoly pricing and restrictive admission; their incentives are to keep the knowledge embodied in their local faculty “locked-in” to the university campus and not to give it away for free.  Providing free seats in lecture halls is a tough sell to a board of trustees.  The Internet is rapidly changing hitherto moribund models of distance education, and universities are responding creatively to the new opportunities, guided in part by the ideal of making knowledge and education available to all. 

 

Connexions, a project largely housed and financed by the Rice University community, offers an exciting innovation in these efforts.  The project is a Web site where university-level knowledge such as lectures and notes, problem sets, course outlines, and academic discussions, can be freely accessed. The key feature of their Internet platform of instructional material is that it is manipulable and shareable.  That is, lectures and learning tools posted by faculty on the site can be adapted by users and then reposted for sharing.  Browsers looking for instructional material or simply using the site to learn can filter their searches by the level of ‘change’ associated with particular works: they can restrict themselves to the original work, to refereed work, to the manipulated and possibly improved work, etc. 

 

The site is benefiting hundreds of thousands of users. A consortium of faculty from major universities is coordinating and working collectively on modules for courses in electrical engineering.  The new University of California at Merced has seen faculty and departments commit to using Connexions as a major tool for Web authoring and distribution of course content.  Connexions also is working with AMDs 50x15 initiative (a 2005 Laureate) to facilitate standardized educational content software to enable maximum access by users in developing countries.

To see some of the material available on Connexions, visit: http://www.cnx.org.

 

Internet Archive, San Francisco, California, U.S.

 

As the Internet grows, petabytes (1024 terabytes = 250 bytes) of information are being created.  But at the same time, petabytes of information are being lost.  Individuals across the world post Web pages and then later delete them.  Servers housing the equivalent of small libraries are left to obsolesce, and their files wither like a morning glory in the afternoon.  Digital knowledge is much easier to destroy than knowledge encoded onto the pages of books and documents.  Early on in the still-short history of the Internet, librarians and archivists recognized that storing digital knowledge for future generations would demand innovations in technology and organization. 

 

The Internet Archive has gone further than other efforts in generating both technology and organization for archiving and making the past of the Internet  available to the public.  They have developed, in collaboration with open source technologists, software to store and access billions of snapshots of Web pages, Web crawlers to continuously build the collection, and new, efficient technologies for converting public domain print into digital format.  Currently the site hosts more than 55 billion archived Web pages.  The site also has developed itself as a repository for public domain audio, video, and text materials.  Tens of thousands of items are currently available, free of charge, including a significant collection of Grateful Dead recordings!

 

The impact of the Internet Archive is difficult to measure.  At the level of users (page views, unique users, interactive users) the numbers are clearly in the millions.  What is their benefit from browsing the “Wayback Machine”?    An example from the author’s experience illustrates the benefits.  During the slow process of negotiating a peace treaty to end the 50 year-old civil war in southern Sudan, the U.S. funded an entity called the Civilian Protection Monitoring Team (CPMT) that investigated and made public reports on cease-fire violations.  After the final comprehensive peace treaty was signed in 2005, the CPMT ceased to function. Eventually its Web site, with all of the investigations, disappeared.  However, the Internet Archive preserved snapshots of the site over time; these are now available to any user interested in the Civil War or in peacekeeping.  In addition, numerous advances regarding digital copyright law are due to the rapid advances of the Internet Archive.

 

The archive can be visited at: http://archive.org.

 

Dominic Massaro, University of California Santa Cruz and Animated Speech Corporatioin, Santa Cruz, California, U.S.

 

Children with learning disabilities benefit greatly from being able to see how facial features move when pronouncing words.  Children with autism, in particular, have difficulty learning vocabulary in context if they do not have visual experience with how people say words.  Face-to-face training, with a language tutor sitting in front of the student, is very expensive, and relies excessively on motivating and training each individual tutor.  Computers, like the audio cassette recordings in the 20th century language lab, have the potential to replicate many of the activities and outcomes of a language tutor.  But facial structure accompaniment of utterances remains a serious software challenge.  There remains a large gap between the cheap expressionless faces and moving mouths of cartoon characters of television, and the nuanced winks of the masterpieces of digital animation.  Getting eyebrows, cheeks, tongue, and mouth to move synchronously with phonemes is the key to enabling computer-based language tutoring to really be effective.  

 

Baldi, developed by University of California at Santa Cruz professor Dominic Massaro, is a software program that combines speech science and facial animation research to generate a three-dimensional animated talking head.  The software can be modified to create a language or reading tutor.  Applications are increasingly evident on the Internet.  Professor Massaro has also taken a lead in extending the application beyond the Academy.  A talking head, nicknamed Timo in its commercial application, is presently used in several schools for autistic children and in schools for children with hearing loss.  Research has demonstrated that the software and pedagogy is very effective, and of course there remains enormous opportunity for scalability.

 

Dr. Massaro’s speech and facial animation software, which has been significantly extended and deployed by collaboration with many other researchers and programs, has contributed to enhanced learning environments for autistic and hard of hearing children at the Bay School in Santa Cruz, California, and the Tucker-Maxon Oral School in Portland, Oregon, as well as at other schools.  The software also appears to be effective in helping adult language learners improve their pronunciation of new languages.

 

Professor Massaro’s work, and demonstrations of Baldi, are available at: http://mambo.ucsc.edu/.


 

Conclusion

 

The 2006 Laureates and other applicants for the Microsoft Education Award prompt an insight about how technology promotes improvements in education.  Many technological innovations lower some costs, but raise others.  These high costs, often in the form of time, thwart certain educational practices from becoming commonplace.  Educators still have a hard time, for example, connecting their classroom with the classroom of another educator halfway around the globe.  The hardware is considerably less costly, but the expertise required to organize the hardware remains an obstacle.  Likewise, students have new difficulties in accessing information over the Internet.  The keyboard, screen, mouse and processor all cost significantly less, and the interface of the computer with the student is dramatically easier to master, but the Internet itself requires experience and wisdom.  In the old days, a student walked through a door, and then a reference librarian (located next to a map of the library), pointed out the way.  Searching for information on the Internet remains a craft, to be slowly passed on through human-to-human interaction. 

 

The 2006 Laureates are good examples of innovations in the field of education that demonstrate the power of technology to reduce that time barrier, enabling teachers to invest more in their students and enabling students to generate even higher learning returns on that investment.

 

The Panel

  

Michael Kevane, Chair, Associate Professor of Economics, Santa Clara University

  

Daniel Crisafulli, Senior Corporate Strategy Officer, World Bank

 

Hans Peter Dommel

  

Carol Ann Giancarlo, Associate Dean, School of Education, Counseling Psychology & Pastoral Ministries, Associate Professor, Liberal Studies Program, Santa Clara University

  

Riku Makela, Senior Technical Advisor, TEKES National Technology Agency of Finland

  

Ewan McPhie, Board Chairman, bridges.org, Senior Managing Director, Diligence LLC

  

Paul Soukup, S.J., Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University

About the Author

Michael Kevane

Michael Kevane

Michael Kevane conducts research on economic institutions and growth in poor countries, focusing on Africa.  New research focuses on the importance of libraries in promoting reading, and the impacts on societies of a reading public.  The research complements his activities as founder and President of Friends of African Village Libraries, a non-profit established in 2001 that operates seven village libraries in Burkina Faso and Ghana.  He has published numerous articles on agrarian institutions in journals such as: World Development, Review of Development Economics, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, and Africa.  A recent book, Women and Development in Africa: How Gender Works (Lynne Rienner, 2004), analyzes how gender operates at the village level to structure the choices that men and women take as economic actors. He is co-editor of Kordofan Invaded: Peripheral Incorporation and Social Transformation in Islamic Africa (Brill, 1998), bringing together cutting-edge research on the province of Kordofan in western Sudan. Kevane received his Ph.D. from the Department of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley in 1993.  His dissertation, “Agrarian Structure and Agricultural Practice in Western Sudan” was the result of several years of fieldwork in village communities in Sudan.  He is past President of the Sudan Studies Association. Kevane teaches economics in the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. 

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