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Microsoft: UMass a tech 'showcase'

Company recognizes Amherst campus for teaching innovations

AMHERST -- Microsoft Corp. is naming the University of Massachusetts at Amherst its first ''Information Technology Showcase School" in the nation, a recognition of the university's efforts to promote new technologies in the service of teaching.

''We see the university as a true pace setter in higher education," Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, who will disclose the designation during a breakfast visit to the campus today, said in a prepared statement.

Over the past decade, the university has used $1 million in grants from the company to create the Microsoft Center for Women in Engineering and Science. In addition, it created a minor in information technology and incorporated computers and technology in classrooms to allow professors to hold snap polls during lectures.

This semester, students in Gino Sorcinelli's Introduction to Business Information Systems class are working on research projects with students at the National University of Ireland in Galway. Every other week, Sorcinelli's students discuss their projects with their counterparts across the Atlantic through a Web-based teleconferencing program.

Nathan Murphy, a junior who plans to go into real estate, last week teleconferenced on his project about security issues, using Hewlett-Packard Co. as a case study. He said he was less than totally impressed by the technology.

''I find it interesting, but I feel like at this point we're definitely not using the system to its full potential," Murphy said.

Sorcinelli said many of the technologies UMass is experimenting with are just maturing. ''These are baby steps," he said.

Richard Rogers, a professor of resource economics who also serves as the faculty adviser to the provost for undergraduate education, helped forge the relationship between Microsoft and UMass.

Rogers, who has been using interactive learning tools for almost 10 years, said, ''I'm not a gadget guy, I just look like a gadget guy when I'm teaching." Many of these tools, he said, help ''make a large class feel a bit smaller."

Philip DesAutels, a Microsoft ''academic development evangelist" based in Waltham who was instrumental in awarding UMass the designation after visiting the campus, said he was impressed by the longstanding commitment at UMass to using technology in the classroom.

''Rather than saying, 'here's technology, find a way to teach,' " he said, Microsoft is interested in seeing how teachers are utilizing technology in the service of teaching.

Benefits to the university from this designation are primarily ''recognition for a job well done," Rogers said. ''The Redmond PR machine will kick in" during the coming year to disseminate ideas and practices coming out of UMass, he said, referring to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash.

Beyond that, Microsoft will give money to existing initiatives to bring women into information technology and will help extend the infrastructure on campus for using technology in classrooms and lecture halls. A new 23,000 square-foot ''Learning Commons" in the basement of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library is scheduled to be dedicated today. It includes 164 computer workstations, a suite of software, and staff available to assist students.

The showcase schools program, which eventually will include five colleges and universities, is part of a broader effort to address problems affecting the technology industry, according to Ted MacLean, general manager for Microsoft's New England operations.

''The US economy alone needs to add nearly a million new IT-related jobs between now and 2012, yet we have this fundamental issue at the academic level of not generating enough candidates to fill those roles," MacLean said.

Ever since the technology bust in 2001, enrollment in IT programs has dropped as much as 80 percent in some schools, he said.

The showcase program ''really exemplifies our commitment to education," MacLean said.

Since 1998 Microsoft has given UMass approximately $1 million in research grants and funding and about $10 million in software and equipment donations.

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