Microsoft is forging ahead with a series of education alliances that it hopes will reshape teaching and training. Chris Johnston reports
With an operating system that drives 90 per cent of the world's computers, education may spring to mind as one of Microsoft's core businesses. But Bryan Watson, general manager of its education group, believes it will only become more important. He says it will be worth more than $1 billion to the company next year even with the heavy discounts given to educational purchasers.
The importance Microsoft places on education was underlined this month with the announcement of a plan to forge closer links with the world's top research universities through its I-Campus initiative.
That is not the only alliance it has with higher education. The company is also working with education departments in American higher education institutions in an attempt to improve the information technology skills of their graduates.
Watson is blunt about the needs for its "teacher.training" scheme: "(Education departments) are just not doing the job that we need them to do. They're just teaching like they were 20 years ago."
He says the time is right for the outreach programme, which sets up workshops and labs in the schools of education, as half of the primary and secondary school teachers in the US in the next five years will be new recruits. It is an ideal opportunity to ensure that teachers can properly integrate IT into their lessons. "But if the schools of education don't change we won't make any progress, so we'll make some big investments there," Watson says.
Microsoft upset many British universities when it changed the way they paid for its software from an outright-purchase scheme to the site-licence based Campus Agreement. Watson says it has been well received worldwide because it lowered the cost of licensing an entire university and provided it with the most up-to-date software. "I think it's the way of the future. You'll see commercial licences from us that have the same subscription form, a licence to use the latest and greatest. I don't think people care whether they own it or not."
There has been some internal opposition to the concept, but Watson expects few institutions will exercise their right to unsubscribe because of the company's loyalty-building training programmes like teacher.training and a companion HE scheme, Microsoft Mentor. It aims to help academics maximise the use of the Office suite in research or teaching.
He rejected claims that the $10,000 payments made to academics in the Microsoft Scholars scheme were for saying nice things about the company. "If we pay academics, it is for their best practice or methodologies. It's certainly not to get nice quotes. We would be out of this business pretty fast if we paid people to give us nice quotes."
Higher education users were more demanding by their very nature, Watson concedes, but he adds that Microsoft learned a lot from a "very smart customer set". Some of these customers are looking to Linux, the open-source operating system, as a possible alternative to Microsoft's Windows. That prospect is something the firm has to keep an eye on, he says.
One way Microsoft is trying to meet the challenge is by making its source code available to any higher education institution that wants it. However, he doubts Linux could replace Windows, "especially since education has a challenge managing their software as it is. Linux does not have a great story for supportability."
The company is also expecting competition in the form of a big push from Sun's StarOffice suite in the near future. Watson believes it will still be possible for Microsoft to maintain its market-leading position in the future, but it will be in a different way. "It's not about PCs as much in the future as it is about great software on different types of devices. That could be hosted services over the internet or whole new types of devices." He feels the key will be ensuring that the company continues to play to its greatest strength: writing great software. Finding a distance learning model that really produces results, as Microsoft is also attempting to do, would be another way to continue playing a key role in education."
Microsoft Mentor: www.microsoft.com/education/train/mentor