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.

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