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Partners in Learning Network: Trials and Triumphs

Donna Preston


The Partners in Learning Network, an education initiative from Microsoft, is a dynamic web resource that connects teachers and education leaders in professional development communities enabling them to share challenges, solutions and teaching resources.

Perhaps more familiar as the Innovative Teachers Network (ITN), the Partners in Learning Network (PiLN) was transformed in November 2009 when it re-launched as the next generation of this already globally popular site with the inclusion of new social networking technology.

How has the integration of new social technology changed the experience for teachers? Teachers register on the Network by supplying a valid email address and completing their personal and school profiles. This now allows them to find other teachers with similar interests and experiences, create communities in which to discuss hot educational topics, build shared workspaces, and share content and best practices with peers in their country, region or even the wider, global community of teachers should they so choose.

These communities create opportunities for new ideas and experiences.They also serve as a primary vehicle by which teachers can be exposed to and share courseware, curricula guidelines and content as well as being invited to participate in a variety of competitions, webinars and conferences.

But, what are Microsoft’s motives behind a venture of this kind? According to Anthony Salcito, Vice President, Worldwide Public Sector – Education,

“High-quality education is the foundation for success and growth. There is a need for empowered teachers, strong school leaders, better curricula, and the ability for students to connect with one another and the rest of the world. Through various highly successful initiatives, such as the Partners in Learning Network or the Innovative School Programme, Microsoft reaches out to more than twenty million teachers and students on the African continent, bringing access to technology and high-quality learning content”.

The Partners in Learning program is one of Microsoft’s flagship programmes and is a global initiative designed to actively increase access to technology and improve its use in teaching and learning. Tom Kucharvy had this to say on his blog,

Although Microsoft is genuinely focused on ensuring that education technology produces optimized results, one can be excused for suspecting something of a conflict of interest. The Partners in Learning program is, after all, run out of the company’s Public Sector Markets group—a group that is focused on, and rewarded for increasing sales into its target market.

Microsoft, however, makes no secret of this affiliation or of its desire to dramatically increase the penetration of IT into schools. In fact, it refers to Partners in Learning as a “social enterprise” rather than a “social responsibility” program. It believes it has a responsibility to help improve educational systems in all countries to facilitate the countries’ and the peoples’ economic development, to create a more robust market for technology and to develop a better equipped workforce. In other words, what’s good for the world—or at least for the world’s education system—can also be good for Microsoft’s business. No conflict in that.


Access to the African Teaching Community

The original iteration of the Network proved successful in developed world countries and thousands of teachers signed up. Because of poor connectivity, however, many developing countries could not be a part of it. As a consequence of new technical developments throughout Africa, bandwidth has improved significantly.

Although many African teachers now have an opportunity to join the Network, many are still excluded. Teachers need to sign up for a Windows Live ID account before they can register on the Network. It is possible to convert any existing email address into a Live ID address, but this process is somewhat cumbersome and time-consuming. It requires a verification process whereby teachers must confirm their details via email first.

Many teachers are lost during this process as they forget to check their mail to complete the registration process.

Language Constraints

Despite global popularity and these advances in connectivity, uptake on the African continent has been considerably (and understandingly) slower than the rest of the globe.

Building a vibrant community of African users is no small feat, especially when you consider the high linguistic diversity due to an estimated 1500-2000 languages that are spoken across the continent. Currently, the African Partners in Learning Network is only available in English. This excludes French, Portuguese and KiSwahili speaking teachers, which forms a major contingent of the African teaching force.

Microsoft has plans in the pipeline to take on new languages. This does not entirely address the problem, however, as a completely new site is required in order to launch new languages. Essentially this would mean, for example, that all French-speaking African teachers would be directed to their own French version of the Network. French-speaking and English-speaking teachers would therefore be isolated from one another and not benefit from collaboration with the wider African teaching community. But this may be an intractable problem for now.

Technological Infrastructure

The Partners in Learning Network is a global initiative. Each of the individual country sites are governed by one main architectural framework. Essentially, this means that functionality added by developed countries with available budget is to the advantage to those who lack the additional funding. On the other hand, though, due to the single architectural platform serving each of the sites, there is not currently sufficient scope for countries to ‘opt out’ of certain functionality additions if they do not specifically serve their goals.

This is particularly true in the case of Africa. Africa is a unique continent with unique contexts.
Over the past two years the Partners in Learning Network has evolved with many new developments and improvements. During this period the needs of the African users have evolved too as more users have registered. As part of this, there is growing demand for users to be able to select country-specific home pages, rather than a generic ‘African’ homepage.

In particular, several African education ministries have expressed interest in creating their own national presence within the framework of the Africa Partners in Learning Network. This is partly due to lack of funding and resources that would otherwise have enabled them to establish their own web infrastructure independently.

A change of this magnitude has substantial impact to the core structure of the Network. Microsoft is currently exploring ways in which this request could be best supported.

Building Locally Relevant Content

While Microsoft supplies a variety of supplementary materials to users accessing the Network, the majority of resources and material should be contributed by the teachers themselves.
The Network was designed so that African teachers can easily interact and collaborate with their counterparts elsewhere on the continent and benefit from African produced resources.
The predisposition amongst African teachers, however, has historically been to hold onto their intellectual property, more as a natural response to fear of criticism than unwillingness to contribute towards educational growth.

This lesson was first observed by South Africa’s Department of Basic Education when launching the education portal, Thutong in 2006. Thutong aims to deliver information, curriculum, and support materials to the South African schooling and FET College community. Thutong enlists Departmental subject experts to provide expert opinion on the curriculum and encourage the South African education community to share their teaching and learning materials. However, despite these noble efforts, community participation has been marginal. The South African teaching community, not unlike the wider African teaching community, are at times anxious that their contributions may seem paltry in comparison with those from more advantaged circumstances.


The Partners in Learning Programme and Partners in Learning Network is slowly evoking a shift in the minds of educators across Africa.

Each year Microsoft brings together the most innovative teachers from around Africa to compete in the regional Innovative Education Forum (IEF). The Microsoft Innovative Education Forum recognises teachers who are using ICT in engaging ways to promote teaching and learning.

In 2009, 50 African teachers gathered at the Pan-African forum in Mauritius. Moliehi Sekese, a teacher from Lesotho, demonstrated that lack of technology, or infrastructure should not put a damper on creativity or sharing one’s own innovative experiences.Moliehi teaches at Mamoeketsi primary school, a rural school with 700 students and only two laptop computers. The school had no electricity until one year ago, and so the computers were charged from her home.

A winner at the Pan-African event, Moliehi went on to receive the Educator’s Choice Winner Award at the 2009 Worldwide Innovative Education Forum held in Salvador, Brazil. Her project on the scarcity of indigenous plants was amongst those submitted by over 400 teachers from around the world. Through these forums, African teachers are experiencing a new way of sharing content, breaking down barriers and becoming genuine thought-provoking leaders and active content contributors. Sekese’s project, as well as many other exemplary teaching and learning resources, can be found on the Africa Partners in Learning Network.

The Partners in Learning Network is one of the fastest growing social networks for educators globally. Since its re-launch in 2009, it has reached over 3 million education leaders, teachers and students from 102 countries, providing education leaders, teachers and students around the world with supportive peers and mentors, new content and curricula and tips and tricks for teaching in creative and effective ways.

The African teacher contingent on the Partners in Learning Network also continues to grow steadily. There are now over 150 public communities on the Africa Partners in Learning Network and the membership base continues to grow.

These communities contain teachers who, despite circumstances, continue to share ideas and best practices with their peers and facilitate the creation of collective knowledge.

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