Can IBM Reinvent Education? One of America's Computer Giants Takes on the Mission of Transforming How Teachers Teach and Students Learn

By Shapera, Todd | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview
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Can IBM Reinvent Education? One of America's Computer Giants Takes on the Mission of Transforming How Teachers Teach and Students Learn


Shapera, Todd, The World and I


Peggy Walker's trigonometry class in Wellsburg, West Virginia, is working online, figuring out a forensic problem. Describing a hypothetical hiking tragedy, the computer prompts the students to measure the angles of the victims' pelvic arches to determine their sex. They obtain the measuring tools through mouse clicks.

Walker, a teacher for twenty-six years, developed several such multisubject, problem-based lessons using IBM's Learning Village software. She says Web-based lessons can change the learning environment, motivating students when textbooks may leave them uninspired. "When you tell them it's on the computer, they run over to get started," she says. Web-based lessons can also transform teachers into learning coaches instead of merely lecturers; students' roles evolve, too, from passive listening to learning to direct their own learning.

Attempting to apply technology to enhance the way teachers teach and students learn is part of an IBM education initiative that is ambitiously dubbed Reinventing Education. Louis V. Gerstner Jr., former CEO of IBM, seeded the initiative in 1994 by hiring Stanley S. Litow, former deputy chancellor of New York City's Department of Education, to launch the program. To date, IBM has invested approximately $70 million in pilot programs in approximately twenty-one school districts across the United States and in eight countries abroad.

As the name Reinventing Education implies, Gerstner wanted to undertake far more than feel-good, public relations gestures, such as donating surplus computers or giving a few schools a million dollars. IBM was cashstrapped at the time, but Gerstner felt the corporation should bring its impressive research and technology resources to bear to help reform education--the same resources, in fact, that global clients were using to solve their complex business problems.

Litow knew that achieving lasting, replicable education reform would be difficult. "The challenge in education hasn't been the ability to create a successful school, or successful education experience for one child. I can take you to New York schools that are crumbling; in the worst circumstances, they are producing dazzling results. What has bedeviled the world is the inability to bring those successes to scale. That is the challenge we have taken on."

Upon his arrival at IBM's Armonk, New York, headquarters, Litow learned that before he could transform education, he had to reinvent corporate philanthropy at IBM. With Gerstner's imprimatur, he argued that IBM's embrace needed to extend beyond traditional, relatively laissez-faire support of arts or civic programs.

"If the goal is real change--developing real solutions to achieve real gains--

IBM's philanthropy has to evolve from being a little box apart from what the corporation does to being enmeshed in everything the company does," he stressed. "The thing that is given away should be as valuable as what our high-paying clients buy from IBM--the technology, talent, and problem-solving ability of IBM."

Even with Gerstner's support, the idea of involving IBM in the morass of public education wasn't an easy sell. "Why invest in a sinkhole, where we could be tarred with that brush," some skeptics asked. (Some still do.) Litow has countered by justifying the work as an investment in the very image IBM seeks to project globally: developing innovative and lasting solutions to tough problems.

Litow found himself busy reinventing relationships externally, too, redefining the way a giant corporation partners with schools. IBM tapped full-time employees from its research centers and assigned them to work side-by-side with administrators and teachers, who were required to invest their time, talent, and resources, as well. In time, classrooms became minilabs for pilot programs that were continually refined. It became a far cry from the heavy-handed, strings-attached approach of, for example, Whittle Communications which once gave thousands of TVs to classrooms but required the kids to watch commercials.

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