Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

The Microsoft Education Award

Michael Kevane

    Thirty-three organizations and individuals were nominated to compete for the 2007 Microsoft Education Award.  The nominees exhibited a broad range of innovations, but may be clustered into three categories of technological innovation or application: connectivity, availability, and applicability.  The technology of connectivity refers to how educators and learners can have more frequent and effective interaction.  Humans continue to learn best when they sense and respond to the physical presence of others, whether fellow students, teachers, tutors, or mentors.  It is not an accident that the publicity materials of nearly every educational institution feature a teacher leaning over the hunched shoulder of a student busy at a desk.  Technology has a role in facilitating and reproducing that interaction.  Thus, for example, we have traditional two-way videoconferencing, such as that carried out by one nominee, that leverages the teaching experience of several masterful and creative puppetry experts into workshops involving multiple classrooms.  Making puppets, like origami and so many other complex projects in art, requires almost a continuous interactive presence. 

The technology of availability involves transporting knowledge from one place to another without much interactivity.  The Tech Awards has in the past several years recognized MIT’s OpenCourseWare and Rice University’s Connexions as pioneering efforts in making university-level course materials available to everyone, everywhere.  This year brings an applicant from China setting up a virtual museum, reminding us of the power of more traditional museums in making available to students a wealth of materials and experiences.  The museum fieldtrip is a powerful learning experience, as relevant in 2007 as in the past.  Museums now are increasingly able to use technology to make the experience even more profound.  Another kind of innovation in availability is the technology that makes knowledge available to the disabled.  A good example is the MathTrax software from Laureates Sheldon, Smith, and Terry, which helps visually-impaired students sense, through hearing, the nature of a graphical representation of a mathematical equation.

The Microsoft Education Award continues to evaluate nominees whose efforts are focused on making knowledge resources available to teachers and students in more remote regions of the world.  Billions of people live in villages without electricity.  Their needs are not for university-level knowledge, but for more standardized primary level knowledge.  Some of our more interesting applicants were creating systems for bridging this divide: making textbooks more cheaply available in villages; using the ‘talking books’ technology of a sound chip to make available knowledge about depression, anxiety and alcoholism; and, going in the other direction, enabling residents of the developed world to appreciate the enormity of 2003’s tsunami and the devastation wreaked on coastal areas in Southeast Asia.

Technology embodying the notion of applicability includes all those gadgets that are themselves the object of study in an educational setting.  A nominee who teaches mathematics, for example, has found that using model robots in the classroom is a fantastic way to help students get motivated and better comprehend abstract engineering principles.  As an alternative to students memorizing equations and diagrams on the blackboard, the use of robots turns passive note takers into active learners.  The panel continues to receive applications from Information and Communication Technology (ICT) centers in developing countries, where learning how to use computers and software is the pathway to improved writing, reading, and civic engagement.  In the past we have received applications for mobile science laboratories and learning based on hands-on photography training, which are similar examples of this kind of innovation.                              
As these brief remarks suggest, judging a group of quality nominees that span very different kinds of technological innovations remains a perennial challenge for the panel.  The panel continues to look for both evidence of profound or inspiring change and possibility of replicability or scalability.

The Laureates

Canal Futura, Brazil

In developed countries, it is commonplace that educational television programming can be an important complement for formal instruction, especially for pre-school children and adult learners.  The absence of television sets in homes in many developing countries, and the lack of expertise in educational television programming, has created a growing “airwave divide.” Children and adult learners in developed countries have easy access to free educational programming; the typical learner in a developing country has almost no access to educational programming. 

    Canal Futura is one of the largest and most successful educational television programming operations.  It takes advantage of the almost universal home access to televisions in Brazil to provide educational programming 24 hours per day, including original drama and variety shows.  The channel broadcasts classes through which students can obtain degrees.  Funded by the Roberto Marinho Foundation and numerous private sector partners in Brazil, Canal Futura is a model of how the private sector can offer a public service that helps generate a well-educated civil society in which the private sector can continue to thrive.
    The audience for Canal Futura is estimated to be in the tens of millions. One of the real innovations has been to create a network of hundreds of education partners including schools and universities that both use and produce programming and content for Canal Futura.
                Canal Futura’s Web site is: 

Elluminate, Inc., U.S.

    Educators around the world see the virtues in connecting their students with students in other countries, to enable exciting and deeper appreciation of how young people today will share the planet they inherit from their parents.  But the technology of connectivity remains cumbersome.  Elluminate Live! offers teachers everywhere significant opportunities for distance learning through classroom connections.

Elluminate is downloadable software that enables any computer with Internet connection to be turned into a direct broadcasting medium with considerable interactivity.  Audio and video, whiteboards, instant messaging, group workspaces for sharing files, and shared web-browsing are all possible in a very robust environment.  The product is very friendly to low-bandwidth Internet connections, which makes extension to developing country settings a likely source of growth.  As a pilot demonstration project, Elluminate created partnerships between schools in the Brazilian Amazon and in Mozambique, and Canadian schools to have interactive shared discussions of the impact of global warming on local communities.  Elluminate is a rapidly growing company; the product is employed by hundreds of schools in the developed world and has been used by hundreds of thousands of students and educators.

               More information on Ellluminate can be found at:

Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, U.S.
    Educational material is being increasingly offered on the Internet, but with little organizational coherence.  The Technology Benefiting Humanity awards have in the past recognized the MIT OpenCourseWare and Rice University Connexions initiatives to make university-level courseware available on the Internet.  Open Education Resources (OER) Commons is a next generation application in this domain, aggregating and facilitating navigation of the vast quantities of materials becoming available through educational institutions.   In keeping with Web 2.0 advances in software technology that allow considerable interactivity over the Internet, OER Commons enables decentralized users to catalog, evaluate, and share materials. 

    OER Commons already has attracted a substantial user base.  Thousands of users have become members, beginning the process of tagging and reviewing that are essential to creating an emerging resource that benefits from individual experiences on a global scale.  Hundreds of content providers, including the Tech Museum of Innovation, have their content aggregated through OER Commons.

                To find out more about OER Commons, please visit:

Robert Shelton, Stephanie Smith, and Terry Hodgson, U.S.

       Learners of more advanced mathematics who are visually-impaired or who are poorly equipped to comprehend abstract thinking need technological tools to help them understand equations.  Equations are mathematical representations of lines and curves in spaces of various dimensions.  Many of the techniques that teachers use to help students understand these spaces are visual.  MathTrax is software that helps students use other senses and ways of knowing to understand equations.  MathTrax was developed under the leadership of Robert Shelton, Stephanie Smith, and Terry Hodgson.  The MathTrax software creates sound and text representation of graphs of mathematical equations.  The text representations (think: “the line rises, then falls slightly, then rises very steeply, before taking a sudden plunge”) are a valuable addition to the tools of the visually-impaired for making sense of the graph of an equation because the representation is so low-cost (compared with an alternative of printing a raised image that could be sensed through touch).
Tens of thousands of users have downloaded the software since it was made available and user satisfaction, to judge from much on-line praise, is high.

                Experience MathTrax at:

TakingIGlobal, Canada

    Youth around the world are hungry for peer-to-peer international learning experiences made possible by access to the Internet in urban areas of even the poorest countries.  For-profit advertising-driven models of providing international social networking are distracting rather than enabling.  TakingITGlobal has developed and made freely available an advertising-free platform for creating social networks.  The framework guides the users to think about and contribute to greater mutual understanding of the myriad social, economic, and environmental issues that are driving the world in the 21st century. 

    Taking ITGlobal’s ease of use and multi-lingual online platform facilitates peer-to-peer communication around the world.  A browse through the Web site reveals the nearly infinite potential of generating a global space where people can meet virtually, share art, thoughts, concerns, and stories in a moderated and civic way.  Every link offers insights into a new life, and every life helps us appreciate the diversity of points of views that are possible in understanding the human condition.

                You can learm more about Tak-

ingITGlobal at:


    The Laureates and other applicants for the Microsoft Education Award prompt some speculation on what we do not see in the applicant mix.  Thinking about the traditional classroom experience, we have no applicants that help with grading, one of the major time-consuming activities of any instructor.  We have no technology that radically changes the way school districts track the progress of a student through a schooling system, enabling better assessment of schooling performance and response to particular needs of students with learning difficulties.  Low–cost and reliable microphone and sound systems for large crowded classrooms would seem to be a desirable educational innovation; cannot the speaker technology developed for Ipods be applied to bullhorns?  Solar powered lighting for schoolrooms still is not cost-effective, but inventors must be out there ready to conquer a huge need for developing countries as they stretch their limited schooling infrastructure into evening classes.  There must be better tools for digging latrines, a crucial impediment in making schools places where children feel comfortable.  School and community libraries need simple, solar-powered book tracking and inventory devices.  Finally, as someone who frequents small schools in rural Africa, I have to ask the eternal question of every teacher: why is it that technology cannot come up with a cheap, locally-manufactured replacement for chalk that does not produce dust that gets all over your hands and clothes?    
The Panel

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

Stuart Gannes, Director, Digital Vision Fellowship Program

Carol Ann Giancarlo, Director, SCU Assessment Office; Associate Dean, School of Education, Counseling Psychology and Pastoral Ministries and Associate Professor of Education, Santa Clara University


Riku Makela, Senior Technical Advisor, TEKES National Technology Agency of Finland
Ewan McPhie, Chairman,, Senior Managing Director,
Diligence USA LLC

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


About the Author

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.  He is past President of the Sudan Studies Association.  Kevane is Chair of the Department of Economics in the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University.
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