Microsoft Opens High School

The Microsoft School of the Future is an architectural oasis, a blindingly white, modern structure like something Le Corbusier might have imagined, plunked down about 100 yards from a busy intersection in working-class West Philadelphia.
The Microsoft School of the Future is an architectural oasis, a blindingly white, modern structure like something Le Corbusier might have imagined, plunked down about 100 yards from a busy intersection in working-class West Philadelphia.

Microsoft Opens High School

The Microsoft School of the Future is an architectural oasis, a blindingly white, modern structure like something Le Corbusier might have imagined, plunked down about 100 yards from a busy intersection in working-class West Philadelphia. Across the street, dilapidated shops and houses with blown-out windows are greying with neglect. But the school, the city's newest public offering, is unabashedly grand, with arachnoid pillars framing the entrance: a monument befitting the Microsoft message.

At Microsoft High, as it is dubbed by the media, students have wireless INTERNET access, digital lockers, classrooms with interactive "smartboards," customized lessons, and the cleanest, greenest facilities in the city - all premised on extensive research conducted on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash. In September, when the US$63-million facility threw open its doors, 170 Grade 9 students - predominantly kids from this inner-city neighbourhood, selected by lottery - were welcomed by a celebration in the state-of-the-art gymnasium. And yes, each of them was issued a laptop loaded with the latest version of Windows.

"They couldn't believe someone had done all this for them," says Mary Cullinane, academic program manager for Microsoft, who oversaw the project. Eighty-five per cent of the students enrolled live below the poverty line, she points out. On the first day, other parents from the neighbourhood, desperate to get their kids into the school, turned up with their sons and daughters, clothes pressed and backpacks in tow. " 'Okay, they're ready to start,' " they said. We had to tell them about the lottery," says Cullinane. Every year, a new Grade 9 cohort will be added. Only a few months in, the facility is already said to have increased property values in the area.

The School of the Future is an experimental educational model, the perfect meshing of public interest and corporate expertise. It is the end result of more than three years of planning or, in Microsoft parlance, of "dreaming big." For some time, Bill Gates has made it his mission to raise the standard of public education in America. In a speech earlier this year at the National Governors Association education summit, Gates called the U.S. school system underfunded and obsolete. "When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm travelling abroad," he said, "I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow."

In 2003, Philadelphia could have served as Gates's exhibit A. The city's school system was in a state of crisis - buildings were in disrepair, resources were scarce, the high school dropout rate was more than 8,000 students per year, and more than half of the city's middle and elementary school students were scoring in the bottom quarter on state tests.

Around this time, Paul Vallas, the CEO of the Philadelphia school district, approached Microsoft and asked the company to join forces with the city to build a school as part of the district's US$1.9-billion plan to construct and renovate dozens of schools. The school would be paid for entirely by the city. In lieu of funding, the Microsoft Corporation - not to be confused with the Microsoft Foundation, known for its charitable contributions to schools - would lend its expertise, specifically in the areas of technology, strategic planning and organizational efficiency. The goal would be to prove that you could build a high-tech, cutting-edge school on a traditional budget, and to provide tools and resources that schools around the world might borrow from. "We had never done something like that," says Cullinane. "The question went all the way up to Bill. We came back within a week and said, 'we'll do it.' "

And so everything in this gleaming, white structure, from the design of the hallways to the streamlined payroll system, is an extension of how Microsoft does business. Based on studies that show that people learn better when they begin later in the morning, for instance, school hours are from 9:15 a.m. to 4:19 p.m., which also happens to mimic an average workday. The school is designed to promote many of the same skills and "competencies" Microsoft looks for in its hiring and cultivating of employees - including the ability to organize, negotiate and "learn on the fly." "I wouldn't say we wanted to make this place like Microsoft," says Cullinane. "I do think we believe there are certain 21st-century skills that are important in a global economy, and I think you'll see that through some of the things we've developed here."

The Microsoft school's education model is based on a theory of continuous, flexible learning. "If you look at most schools, you need to be in a specific chair at a specific time to have a learning opportunity," she says. "We believe that we need to diminish that dependency of time and place." Students, therefore, are provided with subsidized wireless broadband access at home, so they can use their laptops to access school resources 24/7. Even in large classes, they can work at their own pace. A personalized learning program called the Virtual Teaching Assistant allows teachers to quiz students at any point in a lesson and see who is getting it and can move on, and who needs more attention.

Of course, the school would never use such 20th-century terms as "students" and "teachers." The Microsoft team's "rethinking" involved some heavy semantic considerations. Microsoft High's students are not students, but learners. "Student is not an active word. Learner is," says Cullinane. Teachers are educators. Their role is to facilitate learning, not to function as omniscient authorities like those teachers of old. (In the face of the all-knowing Internet, the thinking goes, their knowledge pales.) Learners don't have classes, but much less prescriptive-sounding appointments. The classroom layout itself betrays no evidence of hierarchy. There are no teachers' desks, and no assigned seating.

Most radically, the Microsoft School of the Future is bookless - no textbooks, no notebooks, except the kind you turn on. There is a library, but nobody here uses that word either. "When you use the word library, people immediately get the sense that I need to physically go to a place to access information or to do research," says Cullinane. "In the world in which these kids are going to exist after they graduate, that is a ridiculous idea." So instead, there's an Interactive Learning Center, where kids can work in groups or alone. A row of bookshelves looms at one end of the room, completely empty.

There's no arguing with the physical design of the school. Sunlight spills in through enormous windows and skylights. Instead of rigid, grid-like corridors, its architects have incorporated plenty of curvature. The colours - muted reds, greens, blues and yellows - are "scientifically proven" to stimulate the brain, but not too much. There is an indoor "Main Street" complete with lampposts and ample seating, where kids are encouraged to lounge and socialize. Even the cafeteria, which looks like a mall food court - they figure it's an environment in which today's youth feel comfortable - has small, circular tables instead of long, military-style ones, to discourage the formation of social cliques.

But a visitor can't help but wonder how a cash-strapped school district could afford a facility like this. "A lot of people think we're building a technology school, but we're not," Ellen Savitz, chief development officer of the school district of Philadelphia, explains in an official statement. "We've worked with the process that every other school would go through. We work with city contractors, go through the unions, and we're keeping the budget in line with every other school in the district. The real benefit of that is it has forced us to think about costs broadly - not just thinking about what technology is available for us to acquire, but really thinking about where technology can play a role in replacing other expenses." To save on operation costs, for instance, the designers invested in green technologies, including a system that recycles rainwater, a roof that helps conserve energy, and photovoltaic panels on windows that convert light into energy. "And we didn't spend a lot of money on your traditional textbooks," says Cullinane. "That is a ton of money."

This book vacuum, not surprisingly, has attracted some attention. Cullinane has a scripted rebuttal. "We asked, 'what's the information we want these kids to have access to?' " she says. "If that info is accessible in digital format - easily updatable and less expensive to access - well that's where we're going. If we identify information that's not available in digital format, we'll buy the books. Do I want to read War and Peace on a screen? Probably not. Is it the same for kids? They'll tell you no. They don't have to carry around bookbags that weigh 45 lb. They like it."

There are some who agree with Microsoft about the limits of book learning. "I think there's more harm done by books in education," says Jim Slotta, Canada Research Chair in Education and Technology and a professor of education at the University of Toronto. "Teachers get these cases and cases of textbooks and they essentially off-load the responsibility of the curriculum into textbooks. The job becomes textbook marshall. That and lecture are both well-known to be the poorest models of learning by far."

Still, there is much debate over whether kids can learn as well from a computer screen as from a book. In fact, recent studies have indicated that too much technology actually hinders learning by quashing creativity and offering up too many distractions. A study published earlier this year in the British journal Education 3 to 13 found that kids who read stories on computers don't retain information as well because they're often distracted by sounds and pictures. Also, computers don't require children to generate images with their minds, a process that serves as an important mnemonic device. In their 2004 study, University of Munich economists Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann looked at standardized test results from 31 countries and found that while students who never used computers or the Internet scored lower than those who sometimes do, those who use computers more than several times per week scored lowest of all.

There is also a bigger question with the school: should the district pay for a school like this? This is, after all, a public facility. The kids are a captive market and Microsoft has earned lots of good publicity for the project at relatively little expense. "What are they trying to do? They're trying to seduce people into committing to their product," says Jo-Anne Dillabough, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia. "I'm not in favour of anything that takes away from the context of public education."

There are serious questions about the school's basic premises. Heavy emphasis on technology skills means you could wind up creating employable people, but not necessarily well-educated ones. "Education should be a meaningful experience," says Dillabough. "It's not just there to meet the needs of a certain political economy or a certain kind of market." Moreover, some researchers say that technology is a secondary skill, which only becomes truly beneficial in the workplace after you've mastered the basics of reading, writing and math. A 2003 study out of the Institute for the Study of Labour in Germany evaluated data on the British workforce and concluded that "while the ability to write documents and to carry out mathematical analyses yields significant labour-market returns, the ability to effectively use a computer has no substantial impact on wages."

Privacy is a less obvious, but equally serious, point of concern at the School of the Future. Young people are expected to consent to having their movements and behaviours digitally monitored. Kids carry "smartcards" containing their personal information, which they use to mark their attendance and open their lockers. In January, the school plans to introduce a system to track caloric consumption. The kids will use their smartcards to swipe food items in the cafeteria. The nutritional value of those items will be recorded and the school will be able to draw correlations between caloric intake and academic performance. To what end this information will, or won't, be used remains to be seen.

Three months into the school year, students, teachers and administrators are learning as they go. In mid-November, educators from all over the world gathered in the performing arts centre (which, as it happens, rotates on a hydraulic system and converts into smaller spaces at the push of a button) to discuss the thinking behind the model. "High schools in Philadelphia for the first few months average around 50 to 60 per cent attendance rate," says Cullinane. "We're at 93 per cent here. I don't think it has anything to do with technology. I think it has everything to do with the fact that the kids want to be here." And that's got to be worth something.


Maclean's December 11, 2006