Bill Gates gave online college education a big boost at the Techonomy (Technology + Economy) conference in Lake Tahoe last week, at the same time giving standard campus-based college education a big kick in the butt. Gates, who was just this year awarded his degree from Harvard University more than 30 years after he dropped out, decried traditional “place-based” universities as too expensive and inefficient.
In his closing speech and interview, entitled, “How to Jumpstart What the Marketplace Can’t,” Gates reiterated his belief that technology is the solution to many of the woes that are currently besetting the American college and university system. Regarding costs, Gates was empathetic to families who are trying to educate their children, but the typical $200,000 cost for a (private) college education was just too expensive for most families to afford. “Only technology can bring that down, not just to $20,000, but to $2,000,” said Gates.
Gates believes the future of post-secondary education lies on the web, and that “place-based activities” will be five times less important than it is today in merely five years. Gates praised online education as a way for students to gain a superior education that will surpass the traditional college model, with “the best lectures in the world” available to students everywhere within a few short years.
Gates also said that “no single university” would be able to match what is going to be available to students on the web, and that going away to college may soon become a thing of the past. In the future, an online education will be something that students who are striving to succeed will be motivated towards, rather than the staid and cumbersome educational system that is now in place. “The self-motivated learner will be on the web,” said Gates, reiterating his belief that non-traditional educational modes may be the best for students as well as the marketplace.
Gates even weighed in on textbooks, disparaging college texts that burden students with unnecessary content and that are “giant, intimidating books,” as a result of being written by committee rather than with just the necessary content in mind. Surely students must agree that accessing textbooks online would be much easier and more efficient than carrying around a six-pound textbook all day.
While Gates may have some measure of self-interest at heart as a self-made billionaire in the technology sector, he’s stepping down from Microsoft next year and focusing more on issues that concern The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation is heavily vested in working to “double the number of low-income adults who earn post-secondary degrees or credentials by age 26,” in the U.S. The foundation wants to see “New technology products and platforms that produce dramatic improvement,” and according to what Gates said at the Techonomy Conference, online education may be a big part of that achievement.