The companies, such as Microsoft and Cisco Systems, say they are putting education first, and then letting technology follow, often using a few universities as laboratories to see what technologies might be needed, and in which environments. The more cynical view of this, of course, is that the companies have a subtle sales pitch and are building relationships first in the hope that long-term business will result. The truth is probably a mixture of both.
“Too often technology companies are just seen as vendors,” said James Garner Ptaszynski, senior director for higher-education strategy in Microsoft’s “world wide public sector” division. “We are information workers, and universities should take advantage of that.”
Evidence that some technology companies are globally expanding their work with universities emerged here at the World Innovation Summit for Education, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. That conference, with about 1,200 attendees from 120 countries, was held for the first time this year in the foundation’s new conference center, which has on its facade sculptural forms similar to Sidra trees, where Bedouins often held meetings in the shade.
The conference itself took a high-technology approach, with heavy use of social media and Webcasts of key sessions. Conference organizers loaned participants iPod Touches, so attendees without smartphones could access conference updates. The high-tech tone ran into some resentment. A Brazilian participant in one plenary session said that “technology does not equal innovation,” and a Palestinian participant in another session said he found asking questions via Twitter, when participants in sessions could just raise their hands, unproductive.
Microsoft, the only one of three WISE sponsors that was not an oil company, announced a partnership with the International Association of University Presidents at the meeting. The partnership will help Microsoft gain access to about 400 university chief executives around the world who are wrestling with educational problems that could use technology solutions. Microsoft will also expand a series of “Academic Summits” that seek to connect Microsoft leadership to academic presidents, provosts, and chief information officers. This year’s schedule of summits includes one that will be held later this month in Zagreb, Croatia, followed by one in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for Latin American academic leaders. Microsoft will assist in faculty-development workshops and has set up a social-networking site for higher-education leaders.
Microsoft executives said they want to connect with academic leaders other than chief information officers, some of whom may be more interested in making sure the hardware and software they have is running well, or in the next generation of purchases, rather than more visionary developments. In short, Microsoft says it wants to go beyond viewing technology as plumbing that connects academics and become involved in the architecture of education, where learning takes place.
Microsoft is also expanding a primary- and secondary-school program, “Partners in Learning,” to higher education. Microsoft leaders say they will use the program to listen to what universities want, just as they have done with schools. In West Philadelphia, says Anthony Salcito, a vice president for education with Microsoft, families made it clear that what they really cared about wasn’t getting Xboxes or other fancy technologies into the classrooms but creating schools where students felt safe. He says Microsoft responded with card keys, digital lockers, and X-ray machines that were hidden inside doorway frames, so security checkpoints wouldn’t make the schools feel like jails.
In working with universities, he says, Microsoft will try not just to augment or reproduce the classroom experience but to ask broader questions, like, “What does the experience of a book mean?’
At WISE, one of the conference moderators was Michael Stevenson, the vice president for global education at Cisco, which is best known for the technologies, such as routers, that connect computers and move data around the Internet. Mr. Stevenson quickly shifted into fifth gear when asked about Cisco’s plans for networking with universities.
First, he expressed concern about the capabilities of graduates that universities are producing. Businesses and universities, he said, need to work together to improve graduates’ skills. The proficiencies that are too often missing, he said, are communication, creativity, and the ability to solve complex problems while working with others across different cultures and time zones. Companies are also looking for graduates who are aware of what is going on around the world, not just in their own country.
“You don’t call the British government on the day it has fallen and try to sell it routers and switches,” he said. “But it is all too easy to do from a desk in California.”
As an employer of 70,000 people, Mr. Stevenson said, Cisco can’t take college graduates, train them, and wait until people are in their mid-40s to have those vital skills. So Cisco has begun to work with universities to find ways to make sure that graduates are steeped in their disciplines while still having acquired broader global skills.
At the institutional level, he said, Cisco is seeking out universities that are forming their strategic plans, rather than those that already have fixed objectives. Cisco hopes to link up with universities that “see technology as instrumental in helping to get them to their new strategic goals.” Those objectives may include reaching a larger student population through distance learning, setting up branch campuses that need technology to connect them with the home campus, or changing their teaching paradigm to have students solve complicated problems that draw on a variety of disciplines. “We can develop our next generation of products and services by working with our most ambitious customers,” Mr. Stevenson said.
Some of what is needed, technology executives argued, is better organizational design at universities to take advantage of technology and broader thinking about marrying technology with education. Mr. Ptaszynski, of Microsoft, said the application of technology in education has actually been very slim in the 30-year evolution of the desktop computer and the Internet. Universities, he said, need to go beyond “buying shiny new devices and thinking that they will solve our problems.”