Lessons for Bill Gates

Here at Martin Ince Communications, we like our targets big. Having sorted out Japan and China in recent posts, and insulted the late Steve Jobs just a little, we move on to Bill Gates.

Our allies at the Chronicle of Higher Education published an interview with the great man last week. It is here with thanks for the pointer to our friends at University World News.

Gates’s theme is that education is yet another area ripe for the Gates Foundation treatment. Much as the Foundation has changed thinking in tropical disease treatments and research, it just might do the same for schools and universities. And he has a healthy scepticism about the current limited uses of high technology in education.

His first idea seems to be that technology has changed education, at least at the point of delivery, far less than it has other human activities such as work and leisure. He rightly points out that giving people machinery does not alter their behaviour a lot, unless people’s ideas change too. And he is usefully sceptical about the value of big universities putting stuff online for anyone to use: as he says, employers want certificates, not the vague belief that someone has read something.

Many of his ideas are driven by the sheer wastefulness of

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the US college system. Many have completion fates that would spell closure for any UK university. He suggests that Rankings are part of the problem, creating “perverse incentives” for universities to compete for the best students. Odd, that looks to me like a totally rational thing for a university to do. He adds that the problem with Rankings is that they concentrate on inputs rather than outputs. Well, the ones I am associated with, from QS, use plenty of outputs including academic paper citations as well as employer happiness and academic repute.

More interesting is Gates’s scepticism about the future of what he calls Place-Based universities. For one thing, there is already non-place higher education, for example that provided by the Open University in the UK. But people retain a huge desire to “go to college,” not to have it come to them. (They also go to sports events, concerts and festivals, etc etc in numbers, when the same performances are on TV.)

Why is this? Well, Gates points out that the arrival of TV was thought likely to alter university education, but in fact left it untouched. But if the question is why the lecture survived the arrival of TV, maybe a better question is how it survived the invention of printing. The ability to transmit facts without being there has not reduced enthusiasm for personal interaction. Despite Gates’s view that students would like virtual lectures from big-name lecturers, research shows that a face to face lecture from a mediocre lecturer goes down better than a big name on screen.

This means that his idea of the “flipped” classroom – you go there to interact with your fellow students and learn cooperatively with them, and go home for lectures – is a good one but only in parts. Oddly enough, the educational model in which a teacher stands in front of people and talks about the subject does in fact work, for a wide range of subjects and for many types and ages of student. However, he is dead right that technology ought to allow students to learn from one another in new ways. Indeed, he may underestimate how much they do this already.

In addition, Gates’s enthusiasm for universities seems to be set in the context of the crisis of big US institutions, mostly public ones. Their problem is more one of misallocated resources, reduced attractiveness and increased competition than the poor use of technology. The poster child for this mess, of course, is the current train wreck at the University of Virginia. It is a pity that the Gates Foundation, normally so global in its big-picture view of the world’s problems, has gone so US-centric here.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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