Now that the 2013-14 school year is a couple of weeks in, parents and teachers have a lot more to keep track of. And, so do kids.
“Information” is a major piece of that tracking, which for a large sector of the U.S. population occurs on a computer, tablet or smartphone—something many people take for granted, but that a large percentage of families are still unable to access. This technological gap makes it hard for students to keep up with learning both in and out of the classroom, and equally so, for their parents to find new ways of sharing in their children’s educational experience.
In an effort to close this gap, Microsoft has launched Bing for Schools, a digital literacy initiative aimed at putting Microsoft RT tablets in schools that do not have the financial means to do so. Living in well-to-do communities such as Philadelphia’s Main Line, Chicago’s North Shore, New York’s Westchester, Denver’s Douglas County, Virginia’s Arlington, Dallas’ Westlake and plenty of other prime zip codes, makes this an unfamiliar reality to many students and parents who are accustomed to a houseful of personal devices across the board, as well as tricked out computer rooms at school. As a parent, it is not always easy to convince kids that not everyone has access to the latest, greatest or even a version from five years ago.
The disparity between technology haves and have-nots doesn’t sit well with today’s education, business, social and political leaders, who are well aware of the pace information is disseminated, and how quickly topics explode into conversation around the world. Moreover, knowing how to FIND information via the Internet among the many content curation platforms is also critical.
We all know what kids hear first, “Google it.” The problem with kids using Google, is that advertising is rampant. Something Matt Wallaert, a behavioral scientist at Bing-Microsoft, sees as an unnecessary distraction that can also lead students to digital spaces they just don’t belong in.
“Kids across the country need to have a better school experience overall,” says Wallaert. “Bing is doing its part by helping teachers and administrators bring SAFE, FREE technology into the classroom.”
He also points out that larger schools and districts benefit from bulk buying and from having a technology coordinator. Without those options, smaller schools can’t achieve optimal digital literacy.
“If you want to start making changes at a level where you can have impact, the first thing you need to do is check your toolbox…” he says. “What do you already have, and know how to use, that you can offer those in need? We have a search engine, we have tablets. Schools have students, some have no tablets, and they use a search engine. Why not work together?”
One of the main reasons Wallaert thinks Bing for Schools will quickly exceed pilot program expectations, is that it’s putting the power in parents’ hands. And nobody questions the reality that when it comes to taking much-needed action, parents go about it loudly and aggressively. In this case, it’s an easy sell. Unless of course, your school is attended by Google-employed families.
You’d think a guy so passionate about safe Internet surfing would have a negative experience with his own child as the jumping off point. This is not the case. He simply is the kind of guy who thinks about the kind of world he would want if he was a dad. (It doesn’t hurt that he as an 18-month-old nephew.) “You can’t be in the world as it is now, fast-paced and all about information, and not think about what that’s going to look like in the future.”
Here’s how Bing for Schools gets the job done:
Schools register (either on their own volition, or because lots of parents read blog posts, tweets and articles about the initiative, and clunked their administrators over the head with it) via the website. Both public and private schools are eligible as long as they’re serving students in K-12, and they need to have a static outbound ip address, which is generally the case. The reward: ad and adult-content free search with enhanced privacy protection.
That’s where the fun starts. Kids can go anywhere they want to on the Internet safely and without begin bombarded by ads. With the help of their teachers and parents, they can explore endless amounts of information via short activities and lesson plans designed by Bing to create an interactive experience for well, all those who interact with students. Lessons are broken down as K-4, 5-8 and 9-12, and follow Common Core standards, making it easy to incorporate these into what’s already being taught in the classroom. And, because giving away tablets is a major part of the program, many students will have an opportunity to share what they’re learning and practice search skills with their families.
One of the by proxy goals, is to increase critical thinking in kids of all ages—a skill that is being challenged by the insurgence of soundbite, “expert” analysis, repetitive messaging, videos that capture more attention than books and other short cuts that devalue individual opinion-forming and in-depth perspective. Though its Bi(n)g reward is a Surface tablet, Microsoft is challenging Internet users of all ages, to dig deeper and ask questions.
Along with getting schools involved, parents (and even non-parents) can play a valuable role by switching over to Bing. Even a diehard Google user won’t be able to come up with an excuse not to try it out, knowing that credits earned transfer into a free tablet for their favorite schools.
You can join the Bing Rewards program through your Facebook or Microsoft account (easy to set one up if you don’t have), and begin earning credits right away. The program relies on credit pools, so Facebook works well to create awareness among your friends and family, and all build buzz as you all near that last credit—a whopping 30,000, about 60 regular Bing users a month. When your designated school hits the magic number, it will receive a brand new Surface RT (approx. $249 after current MS educational discounts).
To use a ubiquitous phrase, it’s a no brainer.
And, Bing for Schools is a smart move for Microsoft, because as Wallaert pointed out, the company is using tools it already has in its toolbox, just in a new, more impactful way. Again, a no-brainer.
“In a perfect world,” says Wallaert, “reputation matches action. We’re not asking for undue credit. But, we do want credit for what we’re doing. That, is enabling high-quality digital education for kids who might not receive it otherwise.”
Editor’s Note: If you spend as much time on the Internet as I do, you and I might be able to support several schools here in the Philadelphia region. And yes, I did make the switch to Bing immediately after chatting with Matt Wallaert. However, don’t do what I did and waste three weeks not signed up for the rewards program. I think anyone in Philadelphia knows how important an initiative like this is. Any questions, feel free to email me, or Matt.