Bill Gates: The Internet Will Displace the Traditional University in 5 Years

Speaking at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe last week, Bill Gates argued that the cost of college needs to come down, and the only way to accomplish this is through technology and lessening the importance of “place-based” colleges. That’s how you keep college education open to all. During the talk, he went further and asserted, “Five years from now, on the Web for free, you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”

To be sure, I don’t dispute this particular point. You can already find hundreds of free courses online, and that’s part of our reason for being. But, as I have frequently reminded people, listening to lectures doesn’t mean you’re getting a rounded education. Lectures inform you. They’re great in that way. But you get an education when you couple lectures with readings, when you chew over ideas in a discussion section, when you analyze the lectures and readings in critical papers, when you take exams that force you to synthesize everything you’ve learned during the entire semester, etc. Right now, it is very hard to accomplish this online. On a relative basis, e-learning tools have evolved strikingly slowly during the past decade. The widely deployed tools are often still klunky and rudimentary. And it still takes considerable time, money and labor to produce a truly excellent online course. (At least that’s what I have found during my ten years in the space.) Will we make progress here? Yes. Would I welcome it? Of course. But will we offer a substantive and highly scalable online alternative in five years? Very doubtful, unless a catalyst comes along who can dramatically sweep away the existing major players (who just bog things down) and introduce some serious innovation. Mr. Gates, are you that catalyst?

via Wired Campus

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Comments (14)
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  • Maddy says:

    Thanks for this. I agree with your opinion. One of my classmates is from China and mentioned that forums develop informally around the open source materials that are translated (eg. MIT courses) as students try to turn them from information sources into sources of learning. So maybe it’s a numbers game.

    It’s interesting that Mr Gates wants/needs to immerse students for 80% of their waking hours for ICT based learning (poor kids). Indicates that ICT might be cheaper, but it doesn’t sound very effective.

  • AC says:

    That’s a pretty strong claim about needing 80% of kids’ waking hours or “you lose.” Is there strong evidence on this?

  • AC says:

    Also, you know what might be a good thing for Bill Gates to finance? Quality open-source textbooks. Although some are available, it seems that is some low-hanging fruit to reduce costs.

  • jerry brooks says:

    Mr. Gates is a very lucky man..not to say that he is not smart, but his opinions are shaped by the very environment that has given him fame and fortune……If one thinks that the singular purpose of a University education is to accumulate facts and develop a particular skill then I think he is wrong…..How many people that have graduated and are gainfully employed are even working in the “chosen field”….certainly not everyone….and more to the point…the college experience is one of interaction both from and intellectual and social point of view. I am 77 years old and when I watch the growth of the “social network” activity on the internet, I am concerned that both intellectual and social communication will be lost…..compound that with Mr Gates vision of a future of kids sitting in front of screens to get the foundations of “learning”. If he is an influential thinker and others take up his ideas and run with them then our future is really in trouble.

  • JayWhy says:

    Disclosure alert: Melinda Gates is on the board of directors at Kaplan University, one of the leading online for-profit universities. Bill’s statements supporting the model come at a time when the entire for-profit education industry is under tremendous scrutiny by the Dept of Education, which can be summarized in the GAO report released last week.

  • Antoine says:

    It’s about time education is made available to all. Add innovation in display technologies to this and finally the school of the 21st century will be created. Can’t wait to take as many courses as possible :)

  • Seamus says:

    It would be wonderful if education were made available to all, but it’s unlikely to happen in the near future for very good social reasons.

    As Bourdieu and other theorists have argued, the education system, in particular its formal components (degrees, tests scores, etc), plays a huge role in creating, maintaining, and justifying social distinction. What you actually learn during a degree is of far less importance than it what it says about your social position and willingness to get with the program.

  • Steve says:

    Modern education is a joke. You sit there listening to some boring professor on an uncomfortable chair talk in a monotone voice for an hour. If you’re lucky, there are only a few idiots in your class who slow the pace down with questions they should have answered for themselves in the required reading … if you’re unlucky, the entire class are that way (*cough cough* nursing students clogging up and accounting for about 90% of my Organic Chemistry classes). What is innovation in today’s colleges? A professor who uses powerpoint and maybe uses some computing? Total rip off. Places like are MUCH better and about 1/50 the price. The only problem is that you can’t get into a graduate school with online training.

  • Seamus says:

    “The only problem is that you can’t get into a graduate school with online training.”

    And there in lay the point unofortunately.

  • Stephen says:

    University training gives you 2 things: A piece of paper to demonstrate your position in the social strata to others, and access to a set of connections who will boost your chances of success in that society.

    Everything you covered in every university course and more has been easily accessible through the library system for years. So if knowledge and education are your reasons for attending college, then either you are not really being honest about the power of the two reasons mentioned above, or you are not as smart as you think you are as social conditioning has conned you into getting into huge amounts of debt to inefficiently gain information that is available for free.

  • Raymond says:

    Though many people are turning to online courses due to the time and money savings it was worth it to me just to have the whole college experience and studying online takes away from that experience (social and academic).

  • Lisa Nielsen says:

    No! No! No!

    I disagree that the online/open courseware can’t do the trick. I also disagree that people who want to learn something need a test to “force them to synthesize” everything. If someone wants to learn something they can participate in these courses/watch these lectures and figure out their own way to make meaning. That is what they should be learning to do in school rather than the idea that they have to be forced to learn.

    Take for instance a student I know named Armond who is passionate about the transportation system. He went to a primary school that honored that and rather than forcing him to take tests, they provided opportunities for learning. He found his own discussions on discussion boards. He wrote blog posts. He made videos. No one forced him to do this. He did this because he wanted to learn. (If you want to know more visit:

    When we stop thinking we have to “force” people to learn and start allowing them to follow their passions, they will learn whatever they want, and know how to discuss and synthesize what they’ve learned.

  • Mae says:

    Of course On-line education is the future, especially for the undergraduat education.
    1. Most of the classes in undergraduat learning is reading the textbooks and listening the lectures, very few discussing topic, at the first two years or three years.
    2.The tution and living cost is high pressure for most of the students. By learning on-line, students will have much more time to study instead of doing services or delivery for making money.
    3.I totally agree what Steve said. Learning on-line in my own speed, time and envirnment to aviod interuption from other students is the best way for me.
    There are a lot more reasons to prove on-line education must be the future, such as trouble to find parking lots in college, no way to turn the lecture back like video(no one can garateen focus on lecture during every whole class time),ect..

  • Baha says:

    Hi, 5 years have passed now, what do you think in the presence of edx and coursera and others?

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