Gates: 'Higher education has not been substantially changed by the Internet'

BIll Gates
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Devin Coldewey

Bill Gates sounds off on a number of education issues in a recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. He states that higher ed hasn't really changed that much despite exposure to an incredibly transformative medium, the Internet. That's because, as he sees it, the change won't start with technology, but rather with the institutions themselves.

(Gates, of course, is co-founder of Microsoft, and Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBCUniversal.)

Despite making many small changes, most universities have resisted major ones like remote learning and virtual classrooms, though they have embraced cost-saving measures like distributing course notes online. Things like free multi-user video chat, unlimited file space, the availability to students of new means of showing their mastery of material — few of these have been integrated in any serious way.

Simply making those tools available doesn't mean they'll be used, though, Gates points out:

Just giving people devices has a really horrible track record. You really have to change the curriculum and the teacher.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.

A recent study that provided hundreds of Kindles to schools in Ghana found that devices actually did have a positive effect, though they note that it was largely because the teachers themselves were empowered and motivated to improve their lesson plans. Plans by the One Laptop Per Child program to "airdrop" tablets into remote areas may not see such immediate results.

But the Gates Foundation isn't acting as a think tank, producing ways to improve education and shopping them out to universities. They work as a funding engine, and wait for ideas to come to them, Gates said:

We bet on the change agents within the universities... People come to us and say, We want to try a hybrid course where some piece is online, some piece is not, and we're aiming this at the students that are in the most need, not just the most elite. So that's who we're giving grants to, people who are trying out new things in universities. 

The system he envisions is a hybrid, where the digital realm handles the things it is best suited to (distribution of static lectures and notes, non-real-time collaboration), and getting together in the physical world is done when it is most useful (discussion, tutoring, office hours). And practices that result in higher completion rates and more useful degrees should be studied and popularized, something he is amazed isn't done today.

He cautions that it's a long and slow process, though: education is a large ecosystem and there is much in the way of history and tradition that is resistant to more efficient methods, perhaps for good reason. And although he famously never graduated from Harvard, he considers himself extremely lucky in the opportunities he's had, saying: "If every kid could have that kind of education, we'd achieve a lot of goals both at the individual and country level."

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website is coldewey.cc.