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Microsoft Powers Worldwide Education Leaders Forum 2008

Organised by UNESCO and Microsoft, the Education Leaders Forum 2008 was held on 7th and 8th of July 2008 in Paris. The Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education in Sri Lanka, Malini Peiris, attended this stellar event alongside government leaders and educational influencers from around the world. The event also consisted of some of the most elite personnel in the education industry with the likes of Koïchiro Matsuura, Director General, UNESCO, and Margaret Spellings, US Secretary for Education, amongst others.

The Education Leaders Forum 2008 extended an opportunity to government leaders and educational influencers to share their insight, perspectives and long-standing experience as innovative problem solvers. The forum theme, ‘Success & Sustainability’ was chosen to highlight the challenges ahead for tertiary education leaders tasked to transform tertiary education practice, and to stimulate creative ideas about how to use e-technology most effectively to meet those challenges. The forum explored issues and proposed innovative solutions to the unique challenges of transforming tertiary education.

The forum theme is at the core of the challenge facing countries to enhance competitiveness and drive the transformation of tertiary education to empower national employability in a way that supports long term sustainability. Public Sector Lead of Microsoft Sri Lanka, Premil de Silva explained: “Everywhere, quality tertiary education will need to be responsive, effective and efficient in responding to changing skill needs and new priorities, as well as to changing demographics. Microsoft along with educators and policy makers around the world believe that e-technology can help tertiary education institutions be ready for the future, and equip our university and college graduates with the skills they need to support our economies as they strive for success and sustainability. This forum and the resulting report aim to contribute to building e-readiness.”

Current hurdles and successes in the transformation of quality post secondary education, and the role of ICT in those countries achieving significant improvements was presented through interactive discussions and plenary sessions. Drawing together leading educational speakers and thinkers, the conference program focused on the role of e-technology in the transformation of tertiary education. The first session in the program set out a vision for what using e-technology optimally looks like, across the diverse learning landscape occupied by universities and colleges, as well as the variety of workplace initiatives that support lifelong learning and skill development enabling people and organisations to succeed. A range of barriers stand in the way of implementing such a vision and the second session sought to identify and understand these barriers. Finally, the third session developed strategies for overcoming the barriers, through actions at the level of individual decision-makers, organisations, regions and countries.

The format for Panellist sessions was highly interactive and conversational. The session did not resemble a typical academic or business conference with a long series of PowerPoint presentations, but rather a workshop, in which the panel begins a conversation that then engages the larger group. The facilitator designed a series of structured questions to engage the panel and participants. Panellists were invited to address the group for up to 5 minutes of initial remarks, after which the broader conversation began.

The first session dealt with the vision for building Successful Tertiary Education Systems. Besides providing a strong academic foundation routes that helps leverage career prospects for millions of people every year, universities and colleges all round the world work alongside business to help companies succeed by upgrading employee skills to reflect the needs of a rapidly changing economy. World class fitness for purpose needs to reflect these different roles, as well as the contribution that tertiary education makes to social cohesion, giving many their only chance to gain skills, prosperity and fulfilment. The Forum’s belief is that e-technology plays a fundamental role in delivery as well as mediating the skills to use the technology effectively and supporting efficient use of resources of all kinds across the institution. As student and educator, mobility becomes more important, while the ability of individuals, institutions, certificating bodies and other government agencies to interoperate becomes significant.

The second session dealt with access, quality, and e-maturity in tertiary education. Tertiary education is experiencing unprecedented pressure as increased numbers of people graduate from secondary education, combined with increased demands for new skills and knowledge by adults, exceeding the capacity of current systems to deliver quality education. The session explored the issues that have to be addressed if e-technology is to make an effective contribution to meeting the challenges presented by inappropriate technology infrastructure, affordability and scalability of investment and change programmes, and key influence of educator skills as a potential limiting factor to change. The biggest barrier of all to getting the best contribution from e-technology may be the culture shift involved in putting the learner voice and business needs at the heart of post-secondary planning.

The discussions further dwelt on delivering on the needs of employability. This session explored efforts to identify, measure and build into systems approaches to learning that will help students be capable of meeting social and economic needs in the knowledge economy. During the session, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training forecast skill needs upto the year 2015, concluding that demand for skills and qualifications is being driven upwards in most occupations.

The third session dealt with strategies where the theme was Innovation in 21st-Century Learning and Teaching. To meet the demands required in the 21st-century workplace, new skills and knowledge are required. This is putting pressure on the learning and teaching process, and the ways e-technology can be used to enhance, extend and in some cases, replace, traditional methods. The session focused on the application of current and new ICTs to tertiary learning and teaching. Institutions and government need to have strategies to address issues around curriculum change, educator readiness, technology infrastructure and the diverse needs of teaching and learning and research. Right around the globe we see universities and colleges facing up to the challenges of e-technology led innovation, often by adopting and adapting the same current generation technologies that businesses use to build capacity in new markets.

It also touched on becoming e-ready and building institutional readiness. Post-secondary institutions aim to become responsive, demand-led organisations using e-technology to improve participation, achievement and progression. Personalised learning programmes and e-assessment can leverage on e-technology to respond to the diversity of learner needs. Flexible access to institutional resources and services from the workplace can make employer-led learning a reality. However, any substantial change to existing modes of delivery involves business continuity risk and needs substantial change management investments – current generation collaboration and business intelligence tools can help leaders manage the risk. What is involved in building institutional e-readiness? This session explores a framework that leaders might use to visualise their thoughts about balancing out the pedagogical, business and technical elements of e-readiness.

Coinciding with this high profile event was another dynamic Microsoft endeavour, the Imagine Cup, a competition for students worldwide conceived by the global IT giant, which encourages innovation, design and practical implementation of a range of skills from students worldwide. This competition gives students the ’real world’ skills and provides a sense of excitement as they create their own solutions to solve real world problems.

This year’s theme was ’Imagine a world where technology enables a sustainable environment’ and during the conference 370 teams from 61 countries and regions participated in the finals in Paris, each with their own solution to this pressing and important problem. The Education Leaders Forum provided opportunities for delegates to engage with Imagine Cup students and their entries in which two teams from Sri Lanka also participated. Now in its sixth year, Imagine Cup has grown to be a truly global competition.

The Secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education in Sri Lanka, Malini Peiris, commented: “I wish to convey my greatest appreciation to Microsoft for making it possible for me to attend the Education Leaders Forum 2008 in Paris. It was a great opportunity for me to further understand the globally emerging challenges in Higher Education for success and sustainability. This participation also exposed me to better realize the increasing demand for new skills needed for the knowledge economy in the 21st century and also to the need to address this demand through e-learning. This is very much relevant to Sri Lanka’s situation as our Higher Education which is provided free, is not within the reach of all. To meet the ever increasing demand for higher education, Sri Lanka has to launch an aggressive plan to expand e-learning facilities. this also should go hand in hand with the assurance of quality of such programmes. All speeches at this forum were thought provoking and I again appreciate the opportunity given to me to meet the world leaders in higher education, listen to them and share experiences with them. I would also like to thank Microsoft for sponsoring our students for the 2008 Imagine Cup as it is an unique opportunity for our students.

Both these events proved to be the highlight of the year for academics, policy makers and students in the higher education space, who have experienced the tremendous potential for e-learning in their sphere. By having a senior minister from the higher education ministry attend this event, it is hoped that Sri Lanka is demonstrating its commitment to taking the e-learning quotient further, thus transforming tertiary education in the country.

Education is a key factor to creating sustained social and economic opportunity worldwide. Microsoft is investing in programmes, products and partnerships that support the company’s vision for education: ensuring that high-quality education that is relevant, accessible and meaningful at scale, so citizens of all ages and economic backgrounds will have real opportunities to develop the skills needed for employability and economic opportunity.