Bill Gates talks education tech

In an interview, Bill Gates discusses the role technology can play in improving education. The Gates Foundation is launching a new multiyear program today aimed at getting more tech in the mix.

Bill Gates has been taking online classes for years. Now, he thinks it's time to make sure a whole lot more students do the same.

Today, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is announcing a new multiyear grant program that will give millions of dollars to those with novel ideas on how to use technology, and in particular online courses, to improve education. The Next Generation Learning Challenges are aimed at both funding new ideas and getting various groups to partner and expand on some of the good ideas that are being tried out, but only at small scale.

Bill Gates, seen here on a college speaking tour earlier this year, is pushing for technology to take a bigger role in transforming our education system. Ina Fried/CNET

But with all of the problems facing education, can technology really make that big of an impact?

Gates seems to think so.

"What's surprising is given how the Internet has changed how we buy airline tickets and books and how we look up things, is that formal education hasn't changed hardly at all," Gates said. "The technology sector deserves its blame--it could be doing more here. But now is the time."

Online classes can be a big part of the solution, particularly at the college level, Gates said. But it's not enough to just put classes online. Schools have to adopt them as part of their degree programs if they are going to appeal to people other than self-learners like Gates himself.

"If you watch those videos, nobody is going to give you a test and a degree," Gates said. "It just sits out there for the self-motivated learner who is not focused on a degree. That's too small of a group to have a huge impact."

For a long time now, Gates has been talking about ways that community colleges could reform themselves by using a combination of recorded lectures from top professors combined with locally held discussion sections and labs.

In a telephone interview last week, Gates talked about the new grant program, the opportunities of technology, as well as what he sees as the problems that tech alone can't solve.

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation:

Q: We know that technology can really help people buy things or discover things, but to what extent can we use it to help teachers teach better?
Bill Gates: There's many aspects here. One is that you can simply take the people who give the best lectures and record those lectures and make them available. Instead of asking, in music, hundreds or thousands of people to go and sing, you record the people who are very good. The very best are what people get.

This set of grants--the $20 million being announced [today] are postsecondary. We'll have another round that is K-12 focused next year. In our K-12 work, we are doing quite a bit of work where you videotape teachers and not only assess good practice but then make those videos available so people can look at, OK, here's where you made the concept interesting, here's where you calmed down the classroom, here's where you got the kid who was not paying attention...We're doing a lot with video. That's over in our "measuring effective teaching" set of grants.

They are using this panoramic camera that sits in the classroom and not only captures the teacher, but because it's panoramic, it captures the students as well. You can see whether they are paying attention. The analysis of those video clips is very interesting and it's far less disruptive to have that camera sitting there, because everyone just learns to ignore it, than having a bunch of adults coming in and out at various points in time.

What we are talking about here is putting interactive stuff and video online and getting a bunch of colleges to work together, measure the quality, and get to critical mass. That's this round of grants.

This came up I remember during your college tour and we were talking in that session with the folks at MIT. You talked about how one of the things that was missing was the scale element.
Gates: A big missing part right now is, that U.S. education is--you have got to pass certain courses, and if you pass certain courses, then you get a degree and the degree is a key thing for getting a job.

If you just have a bunch of material online, that might help you learn statistics. It's really not that attractive if it doesn't help you pass a course that leads to a degree. Getting the great lectures and the great interactive stuff so they are part of official curriculum in these universities and then measuring which ones are doing it well--there's a lot of things that are holding it back. The MIT Opencourseware stuff, if you watch those videos, nobody is going to give you a test and a degree. It just sits out there for the self-motivated learner who is not focused on a degree. That's too small of a group to have a huge impact.

Are there other kinds of ideas that aren't in the realm of what the foundation is already doing that you hope these grants will spur? Are there areas where there haven't been enough investments?
Gates: One of them is this new learning techniques category. One of the beauties of RFPs (requests for proposals) is you get a lot of ideas or meet with people you may not have seen.

There's all sorts of teaching things: like using game paradigms, like how you do measurement. There's one category where you don't have to collaborate with anybody. You just have to show us something that's new and different and we'll give you a grant. We'll see some neat things, we'll fund some neat things, but we're willing to have a fairly low success rate on that.

There's also grants in here that are really to take what is being done and bring a bunch of institutions together to really get behind it and get it being used by 40 times as many students as it is being used by today. Once you get it being used more, then you measure it more, you get more feedback, you can afford to put more into it. None of this online stuff is really at critical mass. The people who do videos are kind of separate from the people that do the online interactive testing part. You'd think you'd want to bring those together.

Where is our education system headed if we don't add more technology to the mix?
Gates: Well, It's less acceptable, it's not adding the capacity (we need).

At least once you get postsecondary, technology is one of the few things that can really change that. When you say K-12, there's a lot that can be done in teacher personnel--helping teachers learn more, be more effective, and all that. That, in the K-12, may be even more important--assuming it can happen--than the technology piece. The technology piece is [still very important].

When you get into postsecondary some of those personnel things are interesting--measuring who is doing well and rewarding them--but these technology pieces are probably the thing that will bring the most change, that is, raise the average quality and improve the accessibility. You have a lot of very motivated students that if the right tools were online and you could reduce the amount of time they need to go into the college, and reduce some of the costs, they would love to see a great lecture online and test their knowledge online and then, for only a modest piece, sit with other students and talk through problems.

You could really shift the cost structure and how the time is spent if the technology piece is very high quality and directly connected to passing the course and getting the degree and that leads to getting the job that you want.

One of the criticisms that is sometimes leveled at the Gates Foundation is an overreliance on technology. I'm curious what you think the limits are of the role that improved technology can play, particularly in K-12 education.
Gates: Every time I turn on my lamp or turn on my car, I think I am "overusing" technology. I haven't been plowing the field and growing any crops. We live in a society that has some dependence on technology.

"If somebody has another idea of how we can provide incredible postsecondary education that is not dependent at all on technology, we are very open-minded and we do a lot of grants. I think technology should be part of the mix. Of course, that's our background."
--Bill Gates

What's surprising is given how the Internet has changed how we buy airline tickets and books and how we look up things, is that formal education hasn't changed hardly at all. The technology sector deserves its blame--it could be doing more here. But now is the time [because of] the cost of the devices, the pervasiveness of the Internet, now is the time.

The people who are going to apply for these grants, they have all been doing interesting stuff. The grant will let them do a little bit more and it will encourage them to come together as a group. The money will help them do more measurement. We think the timing on this is really great and this will be very catalytic.

If somebody has another idea of how we can provide incredible postsecondary education that is not dependent at all on technology, we are very open-minded and we do a lot of grants. I think technology should be part of the mix. Of course, that's our background.

What do you see as the role of computers and tablets in K-12? We heard a lot several years back about one-on-one computing, and it seems like we hear less about that these days. I don't know if that is the economy and local funding issues or if there is a new way of thinking.
Gates: Like a lot of things in K-12, because you don't have strong measurement, identifying which things make a real difference--it's not as well-known as you like. There are some great laptop schools where things have gone well, and as laptop costs come down, you'll be hearing more about tablet-type devices, Netbooks, iPads in the classroom.

But it's the material that shows up on those devices that really counts. That's where the foundation is focused. We'll have another RFP early next year that is more focused on K-12 online material.

There's the idea of the hybrid. You've got to have effective teachers. The effective teacher is the most important thing. And yet how do you leverage their time so that kids are watching and trying things out (online), either out of school hours or when the teacher is with a small group of students?

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Those hybrid models are really just beginning to emerge and be measured. Unless you get some really great content, the idea of just having the tool alone probably just has modest benefit. If you get the content right and widely available, then it has a much, much bigger impact.

There's nothing that has emerged yet where all the schools are using a common set of content, and the amount of budget that K-12 school systems have for online stuff is pretty modest. We really need a nudge to get things moved in the right direction.

You just got back from China. Did you see things being done there or elsewhere internationally in terms of educational technology that you think might be worth pursuing in the U.S.?
Gates: Well, the focus on results in Asian education systems and the willingness to go to school a lot of days and long hours and the focus on science and math and nonfiction reading that they have there is a bit daunting. There is some good online stuff starting to happen in those countries. This is not a dimension where they have solved it and have an answer.

The online technology piece is not why the Asian systems are getting better results at this stage. It's more classic school day, teacher personnel systems...some cultural elements where they are very strong.

If we don't adopt technology, that's another thing that they could get out in front on, because like the U.S., they are experimenting. They have a standard curriculum. One thing that favors innovation is if you have a countrywide curriculum, because then everything gets measured against that. That's why this thing we are doing called the Common Core to get the U.S. to have a common curriculum at least in math and reading and writing, we think is so important. States are saying they are going to do it, but it is at the early stages. The real test of whether they are serious about it and getting it rolled out, that's over the next four or five years. That would give us what India and China have, which is a nationwide curriculum that everything is measured against.

About the author

    During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried has changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley. These days, most of her attention is focused on Microsoft. E-mail Ina.

     

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