Bill Gates on Online Learning in 2010

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

The following are excerpts from “Online Learning,” a section in “2010 Annual Letter from Bill Gates.” According to Gates, “The focus of this year’s letter is innovation and how it can make the difference between a bleak future and a bright one.” He says, “If we project what the world will be like 10 years from now without innovation in health, education, energy, or food, the picture is quite bleak. . . . In the United States, rising education costs will mean that fewer people will be able to get a great college education and the public K–12 system will still be doing a poor job for the underprivileged.”

1. Hybrid approach: “The Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things—especially in combination with face-to-face learning.”

2. Cost effective: “With the escalating costs of education, an advance here [online learning] would be very timely.”

3. Access to the best teachers: “If you are going to take the time to listen to a lecture, you should hear it from the very best. Now that finding and watching videos is a standard part of the Internet experience, we can put great teachers’ lectures online.”

4. Interactivity and individualization: “The online system can quickly diagnose what the students know, provide positive feedback, and make sure their time is spent really improving the conceptual areas where they are weak.”

5. Focus on the best courses: “We need to bring together the video and interactive pieces for K–12 and college courses. We should focus on having at least one great course online for each subject rather than lots of mediocre courses.”

6. Rate online offerings: “We need a simple way of taking all of the [online] education pieces and organizing them and then rating them in context.”

7. Standard course metastructure: “One step that would help is having course standards that break down all of the various things to be learned into a clear framework and connecting the online material to this framework. Over time I think a large community of contributors and reviewers will develop and allow the online material to be easy to access and a crucial resource for all types of education.”

8. Free or fee?: “There is a question of how much of the online material will be free and how much will be paid for. . . . given that schools budget very little for software, it isn’t clear whether the marketplace will be large enough for the for-profit model to make a large contribution.”

Gates says that the “foundation’s key role [is in] investing in innovations that would not otherwise be funded. This draws not only on our [his and his wife Melinda’s] backgrounds in technology but also on the foundation’s size and ability to take a long-term view and take large risks on new approaches.” Sustainability is a critical factor: “A key criterion for us,” says Gates, “is that once the innovation is proven, the cost of maintaining it needs to be much lower than the benefit, so that individuals or governments will want to keep it going when we are no longer involved.”

Update 7.12.10 by JS: For a critical perspective, see Leonie Haimson’s “The Most Dangerous Man in America” (Huffington Post, 10 July 2010); corrected version in the Washington Post.

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