Disagreeing with Bill Gates

Bill Gates and I don’t often disagree. However, at the recent Techonomy conference, Bill was predicting the future of higher education. I took umbrage with some of his comments. Per his usual rhetoric, Bill positioned technology as the panacea for the future of higher education.

Here are some of Bill’s comments:

“The self-motivated [college] learner will be on the web and there will be far less place-based things.”
“College, except for the parties…. needs to be less place-based.”
“Place-based activity in that ‘college thing’ will be 5 times less important than it is today.”
“The room for innovation, thank God for charters, there’s no room for innovation in the standard system.”

Bill’s commentary at the conference was picked up by TechCrunch and posted as “Bill Gates: In Five Years The Best Education Will Come From The Web.”

The post quickly spread like a wildfire throughout Twitter:

“In five years, the best education will come from the web.” – @billgates http://cot.ag/aK6f0Mless than a minute ago via CoTweet

The interesting thing is that the quote that’s being passed around on Twitter as originating from Bill Gates seems to have been actually just the post title from TechCrunch. I wasn’t able to find video or text where Bill Gates actually said what is being attributed to him by a lot of folks on Twitter.

The disturbing aspects of Bill’s quotes from the video are that he seems to have a negative attitude toward the physical spaces of higher education. Bill constructs his arguments around cost and access, but fails to adequately critique his own points. “Self-motivated learners” generally do not include students from traditionally marginalized groups. Bill Gates went to an exclusive preparatory high school and attended Harvard College. His is not a story of overcoming obstacles. Access issues are pervasive in higher education. Socioeconomic status catapulted Gates to where he is today. His arguments around access fail to include awareness of the digital divide in terms of both class and disability. Simply offering more web-based opportunities for learning will not improve access issues. And don’t get me started about the bit about “parties” being the only rationale for “place-based” institutions.

Bill’s rhetoric is consistently anti-student-involvement. Gates approaches his arguments from the position that every student is coming out of an innovative charter school and where self-motivated learners roam the higher education sphere. What Bill is forgetting is that involvement is crucial to student success. Can a student be successful when there primary involvement opportunities take place via the web — absolutely. However, most of our students benefit tremendously from their involvement and interactions within the brick and mortar activities of their educational institution.

Student involvement theory is a foundational element for student affairs professionals. Research has shown that increased involvement leads to higher amounts of persistence and greater academic success.

According to Alexander Astin (1984) [pdf]:

[S]tudent involvement refers to the amount of physical and psycho- logical energy that the student devotes to the academic experience. Thus, a highly involved student is one who, for example, devotes considerable energy to studying, spends much time on campus, participates actively in student organizations, and interacts frequently with faculty members and other students.

Astin (1984) concluded that “the greater the student’s involvement in college, the greater will be the amount of student learning and personal development.”

I wish that Bill Gates would offer a blended approach. Why can’t we have both? Amazing opportunities can be created to support students in both the virtual and physical spheres.

Astin, A. (1984). Student involvement: a developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25(4), 297-308.

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  • I also disagree with Gates; I don’t believe technology will be all that he thinks it will be for education. It’s easy to say that a “highly motivated learner” will benefit from technology’s impact on the dissemination of education content but learning is a slow process. The commitment required for success is reinforced dramatically by peer pressure, something that doesn’t exist much (or at all) online.

    I found this interesting as well: research on the “Net generation” saying that they’re not as connected to the Web as expected. I wonder how this trend, if true, will impact education.

  • Great post. I’ve often described universities as “incubators for awesomeness.” To become the people we’re going to become, we need a space in which to figure that out — academically, socially, recreationally, intellectually, personally, you name it. That’s a university. And it’s a lot more than classes. Perhaps the web could be a viable educational alternative for those motivated, remarkably well socialized and networked self-learners. But some, if not most, students need to be nurtured. All of them need relationships, all of them need an environment to impact and be shaped by. We can create dynamic, engaging, informative experiences on the web, but we can’t replace living.

  • Nathan Byrer

    Bill has consistently missed the target with his predictions and led Microsoft down paths where they had to play catchup. He has missed the target here as well. I do think online education is only going to grow. Credit hour swapping between institutions is becoming more accepted. With many institution between the rock of reduced state funding and the hard place of increasing tuitions faster than inflation, could there be a future where institutions focus resources on the handful of Programs they teach very well and outsource other liberal arts components of an education to other schools? Students would have a physical campus, but may pick the “best of the best” courses from a mix of campuses across the planet using technology as the vehicle.

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  • Dan

    I’m not sure what magical forces you think exist exclusively at a university campus that create the best learning environment, especially considering the cost. If we’re just looking at the topic of learning (acquisition of knowledge i.e. courses), we don’t have to look far to see how inefficient and expensive the traditional model is.

    The problem of learning things is an ugly monster in the traditional model. Look at schools in Detroit now – half of them are closing down, and class sizes are doubling. The traditional model simply cannot support that. One teacher CANNOT feed the attention of 60 young individuals at once, much less 30. College is worse – somehow we think we’re going to communicate ideas to 150 people in a big lecture hall all at one time? It’s disgustingly inefficient and stupid, and completely socially backwards. We demand that people read the books with no direct accountability until it’s too late, and then we attend packed, redundant lectures that often don’t go into any more detail than what the books already have printed! Not to mention the luck of the draw with getting the wrong professor. Ending up with the disgruntled asshole who is tired of teaching, or is only teaching as a side-note to his research gigs, does not always help students.

    Look at what the Khan Academy is achieving – it is mind-boggling. Students who would otherwise be deemed “slow” in the traditional one-size-fits-all classroom lecture model are now grasping concepts at their own pace, with the ability to replay bits of lectures and practice until they truly grasp the concept. Khan is truly concerned with mastery for all participants. You cannot move forward until you ‘get it’. The traditional model instead simply drags people along, whether they’ve mastered anything or not – until it’s too late. Schools that are experimenting with inverting the lecture-homework model into “lecture at home (videos), exercises in class” are noticing interesting phenomena. The classroom is once again humanized. The dehumanized one-size fits all lecture is replaced by: instructors providing short help sessions in class, students helping each other, project-based learning, group projects, experiments, discussions – THESE THINGS ARE MAGIC and do wonders for, as mentioned above, “incubating awesomeness”. Sal Khan mentioned that he received letters from parents of autistic kids saying that they’ve tried everything, but finally the Khan Academy is the thing that just works.

    I think what I’ve described above is representative of a blended approach, don’t you think? What better way to blend it?

    On the subject of access – come on, you’re telling me a $100000 college degree is more accessible than a $500 computer with access to free courses? This post seems to be more focused on nit-picking and hanging on Bill Gates’ words than it is about the overall subject of learning and accessibility…