Bill Gates on the Future Wall-Free College in Your Pocket
_no books or 8am class,
just learning

Bill Gates has some thoughts about education.
Specifically, how its future might look.

He recently visited Arizona, where Rio Salado College and University of Phoenix are broadening access to education.
improvements include:

  1. Low costs (compare Rio Salado’s $84/credit-hour vs the 2011 average $250/credit-hour for in-state, public tuition);

  2. flexibility (many classes start new sections every week);

  3. online and mobile integration (U of Phoenix offers an app for studying and course management from anywhere, anytime).

These innovative offerings help solve practical problems for modern education. Given the 40% college dropout rate, ever-rising costs of tuition, associated increases in post-college debt, the need to stay competitive, and the desire to explore new areas of knowledge, anything that lowers friction is certainly welcome. Given that these two institutions alone serve over 350k students, you also can’t argue with demand that’s clearly there.

Emerging online teaching platforms (like MOOCs) count millions of members, however course completion rates rarely break 10%. Many are completely free and open, while premium services (that may offer certificates of completion) still allow free class-auditing. Some platforms (like Udacity) are mostly geared toward teaching in-demand tech skills, while others are more broad, engaging the entirety of academia. Clearly such frameworks can be successful, we just don’t know best practices yet.

The archetypal dropout success story, Gates is naturally a self-motivated, life-long learner. Commenting on his morning routine of exercising while listening to online classes, he notes:

In my experience, what separates the great courses from the mediocre ones is the quality of the professors, whose passion and expertise bring their subjects to life, as much online as in-person. That’s why it’s critical that during this time of transition we keep our focus on the instructors. They are the ones who inspire and guide students. The best online learning technologies expand the reach of the most inspiring professors by allowing more students to be part of their classes.
_[emphasis added]

While Arizona State’s model for the New American University focuses on building and blending academic infrastructure to increase funding, research, and innovation, Gates has a different vision. He sees the future of education in terms of effortless accessibility to the human infrastructure of knowledge. It is similarly about connectivity, but on a personal level, regardless of the difficulties of time and space (we have the technology). It is about sharing, distributing one’s expertise to as many open minds as possible.

Considering the root of “professor” means “to declare openly”, the web offers the highest vocational volume. Traditional lecture halls and office hours lose meaning in the digital world, however. What do teaching, engagement, and learning look like when lectures are podcasts, discussions are comment threads, and texts/readings interactive online notebooks? How does a quality educator not only “declare openly”, but gain a commendable reputation?

This seems to suggest that just as researchers increasingly build brands for their work (as in ASU’s case), educators need to build brands for their teaching. CVs come loaded with references to lecturing and presentations, but beyond hastily-composed and oft-biased end-of-term student reviews, lecturers and professors can’t readily demonstrate the content, interactions, or even overall value of their teaching. Likewise, engagement and participation are critical, but hard to measure beyond final grades. Given the right teaching tools (like interactive text, data, and code) and platforms for dissemination and feedback, multiple concrete forms of learning can actually be realized.

Final Thoughts:
Humans are natural scientists.
We want to know. We want to learn. We want to find things out.
Imagine a future where anyone can get a quality introduction to Greek History or Quantum Mechanics or the Nature of Thought and Consciousness. Not an exhaustive (read: exhausting) Wikipedia-style article, but curated content presented by an expert in professing.

We have all had instructors that inspired, sharing their knowledge and their passion, why not make these moments more open and widely available?