Serious software for schools with savvy

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The Independent Culture
Bill Gates doesn't just want you to use his software - he wants your children to use it, too. Stephen Pritchard talks to Liz King, Microsoft's education specialist, about her belief that what works in the office also works in the classroom.

Liz King is a marketing professional, an enthusiast for education, and a mother. Her job as Microsoft's education supremo draws on all three characteristics. A Microsoft employee since finishing business school, King is now responsible for a market vital to any computer company. As the Jesuit order used to say of young men joining the priesthood, "capture them early, and they stay with you for life".

As general manager of Microsoft's education customer unit, King reports direct to the chief executive, Bill Gates. The company invests substantial sums, in the US and overseas, in promoting its software, including the Office suite, with education discounts, and by donating copies to teacher training colleges. Liz King firmly believes that software does not have to be written for education in order to be good for education.

It would be easy to dismiss Microsoft's motives as self-serving. Already the leader in business applications, the software giant could use its marketing muscle to squeeze out smaller suppliers from schools and universities.

It is an accusation King has heard before, and one that is belied by her genuine and easy enthusiasm for her work. There is, she concedes, a debate among teachers about whether to adopt "curriculum" or bespoke educational software, or industry-standard, "productivity" applications such as Word and Excel.

She believes that teachers will choose Microsoft programs for day-to- day tasks such as word processing because they are good, not just because they are made by Microsoft. "We hope people choose them because they are the best products. We encourage people to try our products; we believe the free market approach is the only one that leads to success," she says.

King, who is now 39, joined Microsoft in 1988. As the company's head of corporate communications, she persuaded Bill Gates to adopt the slogan "Where do you want to go today?" She moved to education in 1996. The timing was appropriate; she had just returned from maternity leave. Education was an opening she "jumped at"; as well as having her own baby, she is stepmother to two school-age children.

King was in London last week to launch a series of Microsoft initiatives for education in the UK, including a network of IT training centres for teachers. There are still teachers who think that installing computers leads to lower standards in schools. Winning them over is a challenge, even for a company the size of Microsoft.

The problem is perhaps more acute in the UK than in the US. Here, past government policy favoured computers from Research Machines and Acorn, in the guise of the BBC Micro. Some teachers are wedded to the older systems, and few schools can afford wholesale replacement programmes.

King believes IT companies have a responsibility to help schools deal with older hardware. Microsoft has developed a system, using a technology known as Hydra, which at least gives older computers access to modern servers. And, as any practising teacher will agree, it is a rare school that claims to have too many computers.

Without teachers' support, though, even the smartest software will not make it into the classroom. "You can provide all the access you want, have great servers, but if the classroom teacher doesn't want technology, no technology will occur in that classroom. The classroom teacher, we believe, is the linchpin of technology adoption," she says.

Some teachers, King admits, are frightened by technology. "They are scared that the kids know more than they do, or that they will relinquish control. They are not sure how a computer can help. The best people to persuade teachers to adopt technology are other teachers."

Microsoft has its enthusiasts in the profession. Liz King points to one regular attender of Microsoft's US seminars, who uses Excel in a kindergarten.

Software, King admits, is no substitute for creative teaching. "We are trying to see how technology enhances learning. We are trying to figure out how you can learn more, and how you can learn better, by the use of technology." Children in fact co-operate more, not less, when they use a PC.

What happens at school is only part of the story. Employers frequently point out that school leavers and graduates know too little about technology. This is where Microsoft has a real edge. "We are trying to prepare students to take their place in work or in higher education," says King. "It is particularly important that students are able to use the tools, so that they can call on them as they progress through life."

King does not believe that cut-down software really helps children to learn. Business software, she believes, enriches learning, especially as Internet technologies take off.

"The Net makes the difference," she says. "Technology is good at retrieving bits of information from lots of different places. Getting the information is no longer 80 per cent of the job, so you can take that information one step further."

She sees students using ordinary business programs for research, analysis, and even presenting information. This comes into its own as schools turn more to project work.

"Curriculum software used to be perceived as the reason for teachers to gravitate to technology," she points out. "What I think is capturing the imagination of teachers is the notion of productivity software as a blank slate."