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On my first day in Austin I had a terrific hourlong conversation with Cameron Evans, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft Education. He had a lot of candid observations and great lines: “The vast amount of data in our education system can be used for good, and also for bad actors and bad reasons,” and on the need for professional development and parent education around new learning technologies: “You don’t want to be in a situation where you give people a library card but they can’t read.”

Microsoft Education
op-art by simosx on Flickr

Toward the end I took the chance to ask him about a controversial point. It is an article of faith among many concerned about education that the extensive philanthropic influence of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, headed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is deployed directly in service of the business interests of the Microsoft Corporation. When it comes to schools, where do the interests of one end and the other one begin? (Disclaimer: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which publishes this blog.)

Evans greeted my question with a broad smile. It’s one that he fields fairly often.

“Bill and Melinda Gates have gone out of their way to make sure that the foundation’s work and the work of Microsoft have nothing to do with each other,” he starts, noting that the Gates Foundation often uses open-source technologies.

However, he allows, “There are times we do see eye to eye.”

Not for nothing, Evans agrees that the Gates Foundation and Microsoft share a single mission. As the foundation puts it, “Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives.” “We share that core mission: everybody should be able to participate fully in life without constraint or impediment.”

The true common ground between the company and the foundation, Evans tells me, has to do with education as a source of human capital and economic productivity.

“We’re not producing enough human capital capacity in higher ed and K-12. We have an obligation as a corporation to help America be the dominant player in international competitiveness. We should be very clear about this. This is a national issue for a global company. It’s not something we have to apologize for or defend. If the Gates foundation shares that sentiment, so does Intel, so does Lumina, so do MacArthur and Carnegie.” He mentions Microsoft’s legislative advocacy on behalf of the H1B visa for foreign-born technology workers as a sign of their interest in global human capital.

I point out that he’s defaulted to talking about Microsoft’s interest in education from a corporate social responsibility standpoint. This is a party line in any ed-tech conversation, and I wish that corporations would drop it. We all know that Apple, Google, and Microsoft are not just in the education business for the love of adorable, ethnically & socioeconomically diverse children. If they’d be more transparent about where they see the opportunities, we could have an open and honest public discussion about the legitimate role of private actors in providing this public good.

Microsoft Education
Microsoft Education
Microsoft Education
top to bottom: Cute students using Apple, Google, Microsoft

So Evans says this: Microsoft’s education business strategy is not primarily about hardware–a pragmatic attitude since they’re losing out on hardware.

“Some people think our sole goal is to get kids hooked on our products,” through deployments of items like Surface tablets in public schools, he said. “That they’ll be gateway products, students will be hooked for life. The consumer market today is far more dynamic than that. IT doesn’t decide what technology you use, whether in school or out of it. Consumers are choosing, not school districts, not anybody.”

What IS it about, then? Reading between the lines, by being a strong voice in workforce development and training, Microsoft helps ensure the the continued dominance of Microsoft software programs like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access across the transition to mobile access in the global workplace. “As a technology supplier to governments, hospitals, individual corporations and entrepreneurs we have a responsibility to build capacity,” Evans puts it. Microsoft has 1.5 billion users on the planet; only 55 million are in the US.

Secondly, on a much smaller scale than that global strategic interest, Microsoft is developing educational data and reporting systems that aim to give students, schools and parents embedded, formative, actionable, continuous feedback and insight about student growth and progress–and to give teachers and administrators performance feedback for professional development purposes. Evans was at SXSWEdu to promote this idea. “A teacher needs data on the student sitting in front of them right now. We need sophisticated, but simple tools to be able to communicate across the board, what is this data, and what decisions do I need to make that are different.”

The Gates Foundation, of course, cares a lot about data, reporting, and teacher quality as well. And here’s the rub: It can be difficult to trust any kind of separation between the interests of the foundation and the corporation because in many cases, not necessarily nefarious ones, they do in fact coincide.

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