Bill Gates never finished college, but he is one of the single most powerful figures shaping higher education today. That influence comes through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, perhaps the world's richest philanthropy, which he co-chairs and which has made education one of its key missions.
The Chronicle sat down with Mr. Gates in an exclusive interview Monday to talk about his vision for how colleges can be transformed through technology. His approach is not simply to drop in tablet computers or other gadgets and hope change happens—a model he said has a "really horrible track record." Instead, the foundation awards grants to reformers working to fix "inefficiencies" in the current model of higher education that keep many students from graduating on time, or at all. And 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."
The Microsoft founder doesn't claim to have all the answers. In fact, he describes the foundation's process as one of continual refinement: "to learn, make mistakes, try new things out, find new partners to do things."
The interview comes on the eve of Mr. Gates's keynote speech at an event Tuesday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which created the nationwide system of land-grant colleges. The "convocation" will be held in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities.
Q. You have been interested in education for quite a while. I was looking back at your 1995 book, The Road Ahead, and you laid out a vision of education and how it could be transformed with technology. It seems like some of that vision is still only just emerging, so many years later. Did it take longer than you thought it would?
A. Oh sure. 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. If you try and compare two universities, you'll find out a lot more about the inputs—this university has high SAT scores compared to this one. And it's sort of the opposite of what you'd think. You'd think people would say, "We take people with low SATs and make them really good lawyers." Instead they say, "We take people with very high SATs and we don't really know what we create, but at least they're smart when they show up here so maybe they still are when we're done with them." 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.
Q. So who's to blame? Are there things like the U.S. News rankings or other pressures that give colleges the wrong incentives?
A. Well there certainly is a perverse set of incentives to a lot of universities to compete for the best students. And whether that comes out in terms of being more selective or investing in sort of the living experience, it's probably not where you'd like the innovation and energy to go. You'd like it to go into the completion rates, the quality of the employees that get generated by the learning experience. The various rankings have focused on the input side of the equation, not the output.
Q. There's 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 the two you reflected on the innovations you both led in technology. I understand that one thing Steve Jobs asked you that day was about how technology could change education. What did you tell him?
A. 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.
Q. Getting to some of those ideas, you're famously not a college graduate, since you left Harvard early to start Microsoft. So I'm curious what you think of EdX out of Harvard and MIT. What do you think of that model of certificates or badges for taking free online courses?
A. 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. And if you have a great degree then you're considered for jobs, and 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. So even though I only have a high-school degree, I am a professional student. That is, I like to watch courses and do things online. So things like OpenCourseWare, the various lectures that have been put online, I consume a lot of those because I'm very interested.
Continue reading - A Conversation With Bill Gates About the Future of Higher Education
On Business's Role in Higher Education
On Tablets in the Classroom
On the Meaning of MOOC's
On the Role of Technology in Academe
On the Future of His Foundation
On the Future of ‘Place-Based’ Colleges
On Why There Won’t Be a Gates U.