Building the School of the Future

Microsoft and the School District of Philadelphia have worked together for three years to create the School of the Future, an innovative model for incorporating technology into education that opens on September 7, 2006. Rob Stevens, the project’s architect for software solutions, and Mary Cullinane, group manager for Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program, spoke to School CIO about how IT leaders can learn from the School of the Future’s vision and approach.

Q. How much has the school cost so far?
A. The entire project is funded at $63 million, which is a traditional budget for the School District of Philadelphi. The money required toa operate a school is mostly spent on maintenance. But we’ve used LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification guidelines, so that the overall cost of maintenance will be less than the cost for schools that don’t follow these guidelines.

Q. What technologies are you providing students with?
A. Wherever these kids go, whenever there’s a learning opportunity, they have access to an infrastructure has been built to give them an appropriate environment. That means wireless throughout the school, experts from around the world coming in via streaming media, and infrastructure allowing them to communicate with teachers and parents. The collaborative environment will be very powerful. The other area that will be very powerful is the Virtual Teaching Assistant and Virtual Library. With these, we hope to foster a community of learning.

Q. Tell me more about the Virtual Teaching Assistant.
A. One of the principles of this school is to create an adaptive learning environment. When we went to school, every kid had to turn the page at the same time. With the Virtual Teaching Assistant, the class can have an individualized pace. As a teacher, you can put together a quiz, give it to your students, and immediately ascertain where your class is. The quiz comes up as a window on the students’ machines—they each have their own laptop computer. The results go back to the teacher right away, and if a student gets a certain pattern of questions wrong, the teacher can give them extra help in that area.

Q. How do you keep student data secure?
A. We’re relying entirely on credentialed access. Once you log into the operating system, we know who you are. You don’t have to remember multiple passwords. We have very secure passwords that allow, for example, parents to be identified only with their children, so parents will not be able to get information on another child. We’re not custodians of extremely sensitive information. But we do have the ability to protect it. It’s a well-bounded community of learners—people from the outside will have great difficulty getting information.

Q. Which technologies offer the highest return on investment?
A. First, the multimedia capabilities available through Windows Media services give students a wealth of resources that are visual and online. These are the most valuable in terms of the ultimate product, which is educational accomplishment. The Virtual Library, for example, is a repository for different types of digital media. It allows movies, documents, Web sites, and other content to be stored together. Second, we have automatic mechanisms for student enrollment. Whenever a student is added to the school, they automatically get a Windows account for school portals, e-mail, and a personal Web site. This translates into savings of time and administrative effort, which also reduces cost.

Q. How do school portals work?
A. The school has portals for students, the extended community, and faculty and staff. When you log in to your computer, you’re automatically logged in to your portal. If you’re a student, the portal knows what classes you have and shows you a picture of everyone in your classes. The extended community portals allow parents to be more familiar with their students’ teachers, and to find out what happened in the classroom. Faculty and staff can also use their private portal to communicate about students or even view pay stubs online.

Q. Do you have advice about making public-private partnerships work?
A. CIOs shouldn’t limit themselves to the most obvious asset a partner can bring to the table. When someone thinks about Microsoft, they think of software. But the School District of Philadelphia got to see how we hire people, motivate people, and create the culture of our organization. The other thing to remember is that money is great, but people are better. Individuals and their thinking are valuable resources. We’ve had over 45 people at Microsoft touch this project in various ways, and you can’t put a price tag on that.

Q. How can CIOs keep informed about the school?
A. Every step of the strategic planning has been documented on the Web site, for all schools that are interested in following a similar process. U.S. Partners in Learning will host quarterly briefings with schools across the country, and there is also an annual global forum where school leaders can get together and discuss the results of these innovations.

Lindsay Oishi is a graduate student in Learning Sciences and Technology Design at Stanford University.