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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