Bill Gates On The Future of Higher Education

The Chronicle in an exclusive interview with Mr. Bill Gates talks about his vision for how colleges can be transformed through technology. He argues for radical reform of college teaching, advocating a move toward a “flipped” classroom, where students watch videos from superstar professors as homework and use class time for group projects and other interactive activities. As he put it, “having a lot of kids sit in the lecture class will be viewed at some point as an antiquated thing.”

Knowledge Empowered tries to encapsulate the conversation with  Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder, about future of Higher Education.

Prior to the transcription, you can have a look at the Videos of Mr. Bill Gates Conversation:

 


On his  1995 book, The Road Ahead, where he laid out a vision of education and how it could be transformed with technology.

Mr. Gates: Education has not been changed. That is, institutional education, whether it’s K-12 or higher education, has not been substantially changed by the Internet. And we’ve seen that with other waves of technology. Where we had broadcast TV people thought would change things. We had early time-sharing computing—so-called CAI, computer-assisted instruction—where people could do these drills, and people thought that would change things. So it’s easy to say that people have been overoptimistic in the past. But I think this wave is quite different. I think it’s more fundamental. And we can say that individual education has changed.

That is, for the highly-motivated student, the ability to go online and find lectures of various length—to see class materials—there’s a lot of people who are learning far better because of those materials. But it’s much harder to then take it for the broad set of students in the institutional framework and decide, OK, where is technology the best and where is the face-to-face the best. And they don’t have very good metrics of what is their value-added…So it’s a field without a kind of clear metric that then you can experiment and see if you’re still continuing to achieve it.

On a moving moment in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs that describes a time when you visited Mr. Jobs at his house not long before his passing, and how technology could change education.

Mr. Gates: Well, I’d been involved in the education space because of my full-time foundation work. And so I’d been able to get out to various charter schools, to inner-city high schools, to community colleges, different universities, and learn about the financial situation about what discourages kids. And based on that, you get more of a sense of, OK where can technology come in?

If the kids don’t have to come to the campus quite as often, that would be good. But then what’s the element that technology can’t deliver? And it’s through that that I really have developed a lot of optimism that we can build a hybrid. Something that’s not purely digital but also that the efficiency of the face-to-face time is much greater. Where you take the kid who’s demotivated or confused, or where something needs to be a group collaboration as opposed to the lecture. So I talked about the vision and what type of innovators we should draw in.

 On  EdX out of Harvard and MIT, and the model of certificates or badges for taking free online courses.

Mr. Gates: Well at the end of the day you’ve got to have something that employers really believe in. And today what they believe in by and large are degrees… if you don’t have that degree there’s a lot of jobs you won’t get consideration for. And so the question is, Can we transform this credentialing process? And in fact the ideal would be to separate out the idea of proving your knowledge from the way you acquire that knowledge.

On the Gates Foundation’s tens of millions of dollars to traditional universities and to some new upstart players in higher education…have you considered starting your own university?

 Mr. Gates: We have a couple of people who are starting new universities that we’re getting behind. For us, our role is different than that. Our role is to make sure that the universities that are out there that already have a lot of professors, a lot of real estate, a lot of reputation, that if there’s ways that they can do things better…

… failing student is a disaster for everyone… It’s only been recently with some things we and others have gotten behind that there have been standard metrics and a willingness to share what is actually a fairly embarrassing statistic for these universities and be able to say if somebody’s got 80 percent, what are they doing? Is it the pool of people they bring in or what they’re doing when they get there?

 On the role of business in higher education…and in some cases even foundations are becoming too influential at traditional colleges.

Mr. Gates: Well, if you’re against completion and measuring completion then, yeah, we’re a real problem. Because we’re saying, Hey, maybe we ought to look at that. Because budgets are so tight we’re going to have to find best practices there, and if you’re engaged in some inefficient practice, maybe that’s a bad thing.

You’ve got universities in this country with a 7-percent completion rate. Why is it that they don’t come under pressure to change what they’re doing to come up with a better way of doing things? So if casting light on the current state of the system is a good thing, then we’re a positive change. And if not, then people could feel differently.

 On his views in a conference in 2010 that in five years, “placed-based colleges,” would be less important because of the rise of some of these video-based options and credentials. Should traditional college leaders be worried about their place-based model?

Mr. Gates: If they want to innovate, they should be worried about whether they’re going to pick the right things and innovate in the right way. If the point is, can you just stay the same, I think the answer is no…Yes, universities are somewhat reluctant to give up a piece. So it’s not clear who those innovators will be. But I think its time is coming.

 On  Tablet computers … Microsoft’s Surface tablet , and iPads all over campuses. His views on what needs to happen for factors like tablets to really make a difference.

Mr. Gates: Just giving people devices has a really horrible track record. You really have to change the curriculum and the teacher. And it’s never going to work on a device where you don’t have a keyboard-type input. Students aren’t there just to read things. They’re actually supposed to be able to write and communicate. And so it’s going to be more in the PC realm—it’s going to be a low-cost PC that lets them be highly interactive.

But the device is not the key limiting factor at this point, at least in most countries. If we ever get the curriculum to be super, super good, then the access piece, which is the most expensive part, will be challenging, requiring special policies to let people get access. The device, you’ll be able to check out of the library a portable PC, so I don’t see that as the key thing right now.

To have a complete transcription of the interview, click here.

Adapted from A Conversation With Bill Gates About the Future of Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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