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Bill Gates
Bill Gates at the SXSWedu conference. Photos via Brandon Phenix.

If there was a single nerdy subtext that Bill Gates brought to his closing keynote at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, it was the importance of data.

Useful data. Education data.

Gates, as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was the headliner to a standing-room only crowd of roughly 2,500 at SXSWedu, the newest of the SXSW (“South by Southwest”) events and the only one focused on education and technology.

In his keynote Gates talked very little about the U.S. education work of the Gates Foundation —which is significant and sometimes controversial. Instead, he laid out a grand view of where technology has been applied in education in the past, why it has stumbled, and how he now sees the need.

“I think this is a special time for technology in education,” he began. But then he immediately cautioned, perhaps in light of some less-than-successful early Gates-funded initiatives (such as small high schools within high schools), “we try not to be naïve about how complex it’s going to be.”

On cost. During the last wave of interest and investment in education technology in the 1990s, Gates said that “it could cost several hundred dollars to store an hour of video on the Internet.” The balance in the money equation has now changed, and that same video storage costs pennies, he said.

But although most costs for educational technology are coming down, “Internet access is the most expensive piece” of edtech — even more so than student hardware devices. That, he said, has to change, since Internet access is not just important in the classroom, but for learning to continue at home.

On investment. Despite concerns over whether the recent increase in investor and tech press interest in edtech and startups may be overheated, Gates said the question should be if the investment in education is commensurate with its importance: “I would say absolutely not.” Instead, he contended not enough money is going into education R&D compared with other important sectors. “It would,” he said, “be rational for society for it to be a lot larger.”

On startups. “We do need a lot of risk-takers in this space, and that’s why it’s really great to see this now,” Gates said, in part indicating the audience at SXSWedu. It’s an audience which, uniquely among education conferences, is a peer-to-peer mix of educators, industry vendors, investors, technologists and startups, with the event not beholden to, or for, any one group. “In this space, we either improve the quality of education,” he noted in his close, “Or we stay flat, like we have for the last few decades.”

To illustrate his last point, Gates then shared the stage with a startup and near-startup that had two qualities in common. One is that they both were founded in the Seattle area. The second is that they are involved in education data, whether implicitly intelligently applying it or explicitly connectedly storing it.

Bill Gates discusses the future of education with Jessie Woolley-Wilson of DreamBox Learning.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson, head of DreamBox Learning, said its adaptive web platform currently used for elementary math personalizes instruction by not just tracking which problems are solved, but how they are solved. It isn’t, she said, that teachers don’t have a lot of data now. “They don’t have data that’s easy, that’s relevant, and that’s easy to metabolize.”

Similarly, Iwan Streichenberger, CEO of the Gates-spun-out non-profit inBloom (formerly called the Shared Learning Collaborative), cited one Massachusetts school district pilot-testing inBloom’s web-based warehouse for storing and connecting all of its student data, and then making sense of how to apply the data to instruction. The district, Streichenberger said, has been using 20 different testing engines, meaning it had 20 different data sources and 20 different log-in accounts to manage. As to intelligently using all the disparate data? “There are probably as many reports as people.”

Gates’ keynote, with its undercurrent of data, was a fitting end to a SXSWedu conference where both the promise, and fears about misuse, of education data permeated discussions among the approximately 5,000 attendees. (So much so, that the audience of one session was polled on which three words to ban the panelists from using, with the winners clearly “disrupt,” “personalize” and “data.”)

It’s not that data itself is inherently good or bad. It’s just another tool that can either help inform a well-considered decision, or be used as a crutch to avoid having to think a decision through.

But love it or hate it, data’s importance in the current edtech growth spurt was underscored by Gates’ comments. As inBloom’s Streichenberger concluded, “The key thing is what you do with the information.”

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