Windows of opportunity;Profile;Bryan Watson;Briefing;News amp; Opinion

12th November 1999 at 00:00
Bill Gates wants Microsoft's new education chief Bryan Watson, pictured, to transform the way children learn - with a little help from the company's products. Chris Johnston reports.

BRYAN WATSON'S office is rather small and the inflatable wading pool filled with water, a "beach" (sand on black plastic) and cardboard palm tree - put there by some fun-loving colleagues to welcome him back from a recent sabbatical - do not make the room feel any more spacious.

But on Microsoft's sprawling campus at Redmond, 30 minutes from downtown Seattle, office-size is not an accurate reflection of one's place in the pecking order. Watson is only three levels below the top. Even Bill Gates's office is said to be only twice as big.

To those in the know, the corner location and garden view show Watson is a fair way up the foodchain. So does his very simple email address, which also reflects the fact he's been with the company for a decade, managing its Mexico operation for some years.

Perhaps that time in Mexico helped to make him look even younger than his 41 years. Watson - casually dressed, relaxed and articulate - is the new general manager of Microsoft's education group, a market that has always been important to the 24-year-old firm even if it has had a lower profile than other areas. A British Educational Suppliers Association survey released last week revealed that 91 per cent of UK schools use Microsoft software, which includes Word and Excel, and 72 per cent of their computers run the Windows operating system.

Even with the heavy discounts given to schools and universities, Watson says education will still be a $1 billion business for Microsoft next year. It is therefore not too surprising that he believes the sector's importance to the company can only grow.

The push towards education comes from the very top. Bill Gates, the co founder, chairman and chief executive officer is certainly putting his money where his mouth is through his personal trust, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Two weeks ago he donated pound;2.5 million to provide information technology learning centres in public libraries in some of Britain's most deprived areas.

The foundation hopes to "make an enduring contribution toward increasing access to innovations in education, technology and global health" and is worth more than $17 billion.

It will soon outstrip the world's largest charity the Wellcome Trust (worth $19.2 billion) if the couple keep donating at their curent rate of $5 billion a quarter. Bill Gates's numerous donations to the foundation mean his stake in Microsoft is now worth a paltry pound;45 billion.

In a recent speech to the New York Institute of Technology, Gates said Microsoft had a responsibility to ensure that every teacher has the resources needed to use technology effectively in the classroom.

Of course Microsoft has a vested interest in ensuring teachers use its products, a point Watson readily concedes. It offers two to four-week courses to train teachers - using Microsoft software, of course. But it has a long way to go. A recent US Department of Education study found that only 20 per cent of American teachers feel ready to teach using technology. In the UK, the BESA survey indicated that less than half of teachers were confident and competent users of ICT in the curriculum.

Watson says the company is also attempting to tackle teachers' lack of confidence by working with university education departments, which are "just not doing the job that we need them to do. They're just teaching like they were 20 years ago and if they don't change we won't make any progress," he says.

Running workshops and labs in the schools of education is timely as in five years' time half of the primary and secondary teachers in the US will be new recruits.

Through programmes such as Anywhere Anytime Learning (AAL), Watson says Microsoft is also attempting to change the way learning takes place. In the 500 US schools participating in AAL, every student and teacher has a portable computer and parents, the community and business are more actively involved in education.

"The teacher is absolutely a facilitator - they are forced to be because students have laptops in their backpacks. But it will take a lot of things to create the 'dream school'," Watson says. "One of the big first steps forward is email. I've seen the best success where schools make email the communication form." Several UK schools are participating in AAL.

Twenty-eight British schools participated in the British AAL pilot that ended this summer and the results were good enough to persuade at least 80 to take up the idea.

Although portable wireless devices with Internet access promise to ultimately transform the learning landscape, in the meantime Watson says successful use can be made of even only five computers in a classroom.

Having small groups of students utilise them as learning stations is, in his view, a much better solution than one or two sessions a week in a computer suite.

This is how the school Watson's son attends uses its equipment: "It's just part of their normal day." He adds that every teacher needs to have a computer on his or desk. "If they don't have one they're not going to use e-mail or feel comfortable sending kids to that learning station."

Watson may sound evangelical when he speaks, but that is a trait found in many other Microsoft employees, particularly those who have been with the company for some time. Working for the big M seems a bit like going to church- maybe it is just that they have already seen the light and are simply waiting for everyone else to catch up.

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