What came out of the iCampus initiative, scheduled to conclude next spring, are several projects. iLabs, for example, enables students to access specialized lab equipment over the Internet. Another project replaces physics lectures with a "studio-based" classroom that favors hands-on experimentation, powered by a heavy use of networked laptop computers.
Beyond the 60 individual efforts--many of which are student-led--Microsoft learned quite a bit from iCampus, said Microsoft Research chief Rick Rashid, who was involved in getting the endeavor started. It was a watershed for the software maker, because it gave the company a blueprint for working with outside universities, he said.
In addition, these sorts of high-profile partnerships serve as a catalyst for companies like Microsoft--which need trained computer science engineers--in influencing policy makers about the importance of technology education, Rashid added.
Earlier in December, Microsoft and MIT hosted a symposium on learning at the university in Cambridge. At the event, many experts sounded an alarm over the U.S. education system, saying it is not producing enough technically savvy graduates.
At a panel discussion, Rashid said that it's "reasonable to start panicking" about the low number of computer science engineering students graduating from U.S. colleges and universities.
During the conference, Rashid spoke to CNET News.com about how Microsoft's work with universities casts some light on how technology can enhance learning through social experience and hands-on participation.
Q: What did you get out of this iCampus partnership with MIT?
Rashid: I saw it as an experiment in what we--Microsoft--and MIT could do together that would have a long-term impact on education. And to bring the varied technologies that we have at Microsoft, the energies of our people and the educational expertise of MIT, and see what we could do together.
There are a number of aspects to it. One is, there have been a lot of "point" pieces of technology--things like iLabs (which gives students access to expensive testing equipment over the Internet). I think it's now being used in 60 different universities.
More to the point, it's leading the way in thinking about how you manage those kinds of courses, which require large, complex pieces of equipment that are very difficult to work with, from a student-management perspective.
That's an example of combining the best aspects of what technology can do and education's ideas on thinking about the problem.
So iLabs forced professors to alter the way they taught engineering classes?
Yes. It isn't about how you use technology to improve education, it's how you rethink education in the context of technology.
Is there something you have been able to take home from this iCampus initiative to your research labs? Or was that not the point?
Actually, it was not the point. We intentionally constructed the project so that there wouldn't be any sort of Microsoft advantage out of it. Really, it was that we were building a relationship, to start opening up doors to new ways of working with universities and the academic community, to create technologies.
We are going to be able to educate or inspire more students, and we really thought that was the main goal.
John Seely Brown gave a talk this morning about how different learning is these days, compared with maybe 10 or 15 years ago, because the Internet is woven so much into students' lives. Do we need to incorporate these tools more into schools?
Probably what's different now is that we are demanding the students know more by the time they finish their education than we used to. Because, in order to do the jobs that we have now, they just have to be a lot more knowledgeable than they used to.
Just take my area of software engineering. What we expect of a programmer today in order to write software for one of our products requires dramatically more knowledge and expertise than it did 20 years ago. That's just because the world has gotten big, better and more complicated, and our understanding of what we do is deeper than what it used to be.
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