A Conversation With Bill Gates About the Future of Higher Education

A Conversation With Bill Gates About the Future of Higher Education

Bill Gates

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.

Below: A complete transcript of the conversation. First: Three video excerpts from the chat. (We’ll post additional clips throughout the week.)

On Business’s Role in Higher Education

View video here

“If you’re engaged in some inefficient practice, maybe that’s a bad thing.”

On Tablets in the Classroom

View video here

“Just giving people devices … has a really horrible track record.”

On the Meaning of MOOC’s

View video here

“Even though I only have a high-school degree, I’m a professional student.”

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.

Q. That’s interesting. I’m hearing a lot about that idea in the tech industry—such as companies like Microsoft trying to hire programmers—but do you think this could work as well in things like humanities fields where it’s harder to measure mastery?

A. Well, there are a lot of fields where things are fairly objective. If you want to be a nurse or a doctor, there are various exams that are given for those things. There are softer areas, like you want to be a salesman or something, but it’s not even clear what college degree is appropriate for that. Employers have decided that having the breadth of knowledge that’s associated with a four-year degree is often something they want to see in the people they give that job to. So instead of testing for that different profession, they’ll be testing that you have that broader exposure.

Q. The Gates Foundation has given tens of millions of dollars to traditional universities and to some new upstart players in higher education. But with that amount it would be possible to build a new campus of your own—have you considered starting your own university?

A. Well, we have a couple of people who are starting new universities that we’re getting behind. They’re looking at low-cost models where they figure out the right student pool, where they use technology the right way.

For us, our role is different than that. Our role is to make sure that the universities that are out there that already have a lot of professors, a lot of real estate, a lot of reputation, that if there’s ways that they can do things better, like looking at their completion rates and saying, OK, what are the best-practices? And seeing a student who seems to be disengaged, what do you to do to get them re-engaged?

Even these top universities often only have a 60-percent completion rate. And the average university will have something like a 30-percent completion rate. So you have an immense amount of wasted resource, and students who end up with a big loan and sort of a negative experience in terms of their own self-confidence. And so that failing student is a disaster for everyone. And yet there’s been surprisingly little put into finding out who does it well. Even universities knowing their completion rates. It’s only been recently with some things we and others have gotten behind that there have been standard metrics and a willingness to share what is actually a fairly embarrassing statistic for these universities and be able to say if somebody’s got 80 percent, what are they doing? Is it the pool of people they bring in or what they’re doing when they get there?

Q. The role of business in higher education is a hot topic these days. Many new online-education efforts are run by companies, and in some ways the controversy at the University of Virginia over the forced resignation of the president there was partly about how fast the institution should move online and adopt a more business-style approach. What would you say to those who worry that businesses, and in some cases even foundations like yours, are becoming too influential at traditional colleges?

A. Well, if you’re against completion and measuring completion then, yeah, we’re a real problem. Because we’re saying, Hey, maybe we ought to look at that. Because budgets are so tight we’re going to have to find best practices there, and if you’re engaged in some inefficient practice, maybe that’s a bad thing.

Our goal is pretty simple: Seeing the U.S. education system as a real gem. As the thing that’s provided broad opportunity and made the country do very well. And so the question is how do we renew that when others have looked at what we do well and copied a lot of those things. And so their universities are getting a lot better. Their completion rates are better than ours. Their efficiency rates are better than ours. The number of students who go into science and math are better than ours. What is it that we need to do to strengthen this fundamental part of our country that both in a broad sort of economic level and an individual-rights level is the key enabler. And it’s amazing how little effort’s been put into this. Of saying, OK, why are some teachers at any different level way better than others? You’ve got universities in this country with a 7-percent completion rate. Why is it that they don’t come under pressure to change what they’re doing to come up with a better way of doing things? So if casting light on the current state of the system is a good thing, then we’re a positive change. And if not, then people could feel differently.

Q. In blunter terms, some have asked what makes successful business people—even if they are successful at business—qualified to weigh in on the operation of universities?

A. Well, obviously anything that has to do with the universities is going to be figured out by people who’ve worked in universities, and it’s going to be piloted in universities. I don’t think there’s any business people who are just walking out of their office door and walking over to a university and saying, Hey, reorganize your university this way. I’ve never heard of that. What we do is we fund universities who are on the cutting edge. And so it’s people from universities who apply and say, Hey, I want to do this next-generation learning. Because you need the people doing the neat content, and the people who actually sit with the students and motivate the students and help them when they’re confused, help them with the labs, you need those elements to come together.

Take remedial math, which is an absolute disaster. What destroys more self-confidence than any other educational thing in America is being assigned to some remedial math when you get into some college, and then it’s not taught very well and you end up with this sense of, Hey, I can’t really figure those things out. If we can take and bring the right technical things and people things to that, then that would make a huge difference.

So all the grants are to people in universities, and, yes, some people in universities disagree with other people in universities. But if you have a sense that completion is a good thing, then you’re all eventually going to come to a consensus that yes, we can improve.

Q. Still, these grants do create an incentive—and it’s not just your foundation, it’s all foundations—to work toward the goals that the foundation has set out. It sounds like your argument is that you’re placing a variety of bets, in a way, rather than telling universities that this is the way that it should be done with your grant money, which is pretty powerful.

A. We bet on the change agents within the universities. And so, various universities come to us and say, We have some ideas about completion rates, here are some things we want to try out, it’s actually budget that holds us back from being able to do that. People come to us and say, We want to try a hybrid course where some piece is online, some piece is not, and we’re aiming this at the students that are in the most need, not just the most elite. So that’s who we’re giving grants to, people who are trying out new things in universities. Now the idea that if you have a few universities that figure out how to do things well. how do you spread these best practices, that’s a tough challenge. It’s not the quite same way as in the private sector that if somebody’s doing something better, the price signals force that to be adopted broadly. Here, things move very slowly even if they are an improvement.

Q. Some of what you’ve been talking about is getting people to completion by weeding out extraneous courses. There’s a concern by some that that might create pressure to make universities into a kind of job-training area without the citizenship focus of that broad liberal-arts degree.

A. Right now, a lot of the institutions that are all-access are essentially overloaded. That is, if you’re trying to get through in the appropriate amount of time you’ll find yourself constantly not able to get into various required courses. And so if you’re taking more years and more courses simply because you’re being held out of the ones that are required for your degree, that’s a real problem. And there’s not very good metrics about that. Costs are being constrained because the state money is going down. They can only raise tuition a certain amount, and what happens is the federal support for tuition is really very up in the air, like so many elements of the federal budget right now. And so yes, it is important to distinguish when people are taking extra courses that broaden them as a citizen and that would be considered a plus, versus they’re just marking time because they’re being held up because the capacity doesn’t exist in the system to let them do what they want to do. As you go through the student survey data, it’s mostly the latter. But I’m the biggest believer in taking a lot of different things. And hopefully, if these courses are appealing enough, we can get people even after they’ve finished a college degree to want to go online and take these courses.

Q. At a conference in 2010, your said that in five years, “placed-based colleges,” would be less important because of the rise of some of these video-based options and credentials. Should traditional college leaders be worried about their place-based model?

A. If they want to innovate, they should be worried about whether they’re going to pick the right things and innovate in the right way. If the point is, can you just stay the same, I think the answer is no. Other countries are sending more kids to college. They’re getting higher completion rates. They’ve moved ahead of us. The cost of an education just keeps going up. So you’ve go to see if you can change the way the system works. Having a lot of kids sit in the lecture class will be viewed at some point as an antiquated thing. On the other hand, having a bunch of kids come into a small study group where peers help each other, where you can explain why you’re learning these various topics, that will be even more important. And so the skill sets that you want on the university campus and that you’re really valuing and measuring and giving feedback to, I think those are shifting somewhat because we can take the lecture piece versus that study-group piece and make the lecture piece more of a shared element, and not have to have that duplicated again and again.

Yes, universities are somewhat reluctant to give up a piece. So it’s not clear who those innovators will be. But I think its time is coming.

Q. Tablet computers are big these days. The Surface tablet was just released by Microsoft last week, and iPads are all over campuses, but it doesn’t sound like your approach has been to give devices to students and hope things change that way. What do you think needs to happen for factors like tablets to really make a difference? Or is that not even part of the equation?

A. Just giving people devices has a really horrible track record. You really have to change the curriculum and the teacher. And it’s never going to work on a device where you don’t have a keyboard-type input. Students aren’t there just to read things. They’re actually supposed to be able to write and communicate. And so it’s going to be more in the PC realm—it’s going to be a low-cost PC that lets them be highly interactive.

But the device is not the key limiting factor at this point, at least in most countries. If we ever get the curriculum to be super, super good, then the access piece, which is the most expensive part, will be challenging, requiring special policies to let people get access. The device, you’ll be able to check out of the library a portable PC, so I don’t see that as the key thing right now.

Q. Is there a professor or teacher who inspired you to get into education? And of all the things that your foundation could invest in, why higher education, and where does that passion come from?

A. For the United States, I think the main area that will determine whether we retain our traditional strength or not is what we do in the education system, and I put K-12 and higher ed into that.

In higher ed, there’s a part of it that has been extremely strong in the U.S.—the best in the world. You know it hasn’t been easy for other people to do what we’ve done well. But for the first time now, we see them doing some of those things. The top universities in China, like Tsinghua, is a world-class university, absolutely in the top 50 universities in the world. So we have to double-down, particularly when there’s new opportunity, which technology is bringing, and when there’s a challenge, which all these budget issues are pretty dramatic in that regard. So there’s nothing more catalytic. There’s nothing that was more important to me in terms of the kind of opportunity I had personally. I went to a great high school. I went to a great university. I only went three years, but it doesn’t matter; it was still extremely valuable to me to be in that environment. And I had fantastic professors throughout that whole thing. And so, if every kid could have that kind of education, we’d achieve a lot of goals both at the individual and country level.

Q. As a foundation, what’s next? Do you see new areas, maybe domestic health care, say, or are there other new sectors that the foundation might get into?

A. Basically no, because until we achieve our goals in the areas we picked—globally, it’s really health, agriculture, things having to do with helping poor people, and here in the U.S. it’s education—because these are tough-enough problems. We want to learn, make mistakes, try new things out, find new partners. And so until we’ve done something quite dramatic, which in the best case would be in 10 to 20 years, we’re not going to move on and do something else. So we’ve really picked our areas and hopefully every year we get a little bit better in how we pursue them.

Q. What did you learn from K-12 that you’re bringing to higher ed?

A. In K-12 you learn a lot about the motivational aspects. Why should somebody learn algebra? It’s so far away in terms of connecting that with a job or any life outcome. And how to make things interesting. K-12 has been more homogenized in terms of how it’s done: what the standards are, what the personnel system looks like. One of the strengths of higher ed is the variety. But the variety has also meant that if somebody is doing something particularly well, it’s hard to map that across a lot of different institutions. There aren’t very many good metrics. At least in high schools we can talk about dropout rates. Completion rate was really opaque, and not talked about a lot. The quality-measure things are equally different. We don’t have a gold standard like SAT scores or No Child Left Behind up at the collegiate level. And of course, kids are more dispersed in terms of what their career goals are at that point. So it’s got some things that make it particularly challenging, but it has a lot in common, and I’d say it’s equally important to get it right.

Correction (6/26/12, 11:26 a.m.): This article was corrected to fix a typo. “Tsinghua” University had been misspelled. 


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