“The opportunities in Africa are huge” – Microsoft

November 30, 2012 • Features

With Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Summit well under-way in Prague, Czech Republic, IT News Africa had the opportunity to sit down with Lauren Woodman, Microsoft’s General Manager for Worldwide Education and Government Programs, to talk about the progress of these programs and what the company has achieved in Africa. 

Lauren Woodman, Microsoft's General Manager for Worldwide education and Government programs (image: Charlie Fripp)

Partners in Learning is an annual summit where educators and learners from around the world come together to share ideas on how to make better use of technology to further education.

Educators from around the world are invited share their innovative ideas with delegates and possibly win a prize.

“Having programmes like Partners in Learning is very rewarding in a sense that we get to see what teachers are doing and how they are using the tools given to them. When we started in 2003, we had the conviction that technology was playing a part in education, but we also recognised that it wasn’t being done very well,” said Woodman.

The Partners In Learning programme is one of Microsoft’s longest-running initiatives. Woodman said that it is fulfilling to see its sustainability. “We have the great ability to reach educators and schools, and the benefit to work on a lot of projects. Microsoft wanted to do something on a global scale, and though programmes such as this, we can track their progress throughout the world.”

In terms of Africa, Microsoft has already hosted a global forum in Cape Town, which covered a number of local schools within various programmes. “The opportunities in Africa are huge. With all the work we are doing in Africa, there are huge opportunities for technology to have a measurable impact, and some of the most innovative ideas we have seen have come from Africa,” Woodman confirmed.

South African Charli Wiggill's exhibit at the Partners in Learning summit (image: Charlie Fripp)

A number of African projects have won various prizes at previous Partners In Learning events and a signficant amount are expected to be strong contenders this year.  

In order to win a prize, individuals have to prove that their use of technology is sustainable and will benefit communities through education – and Africa is not short on ideas.

“We have seen both ends of the spectrum in Africa. We started to do a lot of work with the British Counsel in Africa, and it has been hugely impactful. It is partnerships like those that will help to have impact in the local communities. In Africa we have to re-think how we do things, but digital hubs that combine in-school training is already available.”

Woodman said that just one of the many things that Microsoft is doing in Africa is to provide local language support for their various PC programmes that are available throughout the continent – such as MS Word and Excel.

Microsoft recently released a Swahili language pack for Word, and more are sure to follow.

“By having local language programs, it allows us to create a localised experience, and we have done so with dozens of languages in Africa. In that sense we have done tremendous work in Africa, which means that a student doesn’t have to learn French of English to use our products and apps. When you have a localised language pack, the user interface is easier to access for local users.”

Part of their motivation for providing local language support was that users should not have to struggle with the menus or commands, while making the user interface easy while reflexing the local culture – Microsoft has even released some development tools in local languages so that programmers can create software in their chosen language.

Those, and the Partners in Learning programmes are strong indicators that we are moving the right direction. While we have been doing this for many years (this is the eighth Partners In Learning summit) Microsoft is on the cusp of truly seeing the impact we have had.”

As Woodman pointed out, change does not happen overnight. “It takes years for change to be measured. There are lots of things that effect student outcomes, but we have identified things that we need to tackle – and have to examine if we are making investments in the right places.”

Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor

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