Here’s a pop quiz: One of these passages about education technology was from Bill Gates’ 1995 book, “The Road Ahead.” The other was published by Gates this week, nearly 25 years later, as part of Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2019 annual letter.
Can you tell which is which?
#1 — “Instead of just reading a chapter on solving equations, you can look at the text online, watch a super-engaging video that shows you how it’s done, and play a game that reinforces the concepts. Then you solve a few problems online, and the software creates new quiz questions to zero in on the ideas you’re not quite getting. … All of this is a complement to what teachers do, not a replacement. Your teacher gets a rich report showing what you read and watched, which problems you got right and wrong, and the areas where you need more help. When you come to class the next day, she is equipped with a ton of specific information and suggestions to help her make the most of her time with you.”
#2 — “The system then creates a personalized lesson plan for the student. Periodic tests monitor the student’s progress, and the lesson plan is modified as the student masters concepts. The program reports problems to the instructor, who can then give the student individual help. … As textbook budgets and parental spending shift to interactive material, thousands of new software companies will work with teachers to create entertainment-quality interactive learning programs. … Animated characters lead students through lessons that explain basic concepts and then into games that put the concepts to use.”
The answer: #1 is from 2019, and #2 is from 1995.
The point: not a whole lot has changed in between.
Gates has won praise for many of his past predictions, but in predicting the death of textbooks, he was clearly way off the mark in terms of the timeframe. But now, the transformation is really happening, Gates says, writing in the letter this week that “the standalone textbook is becoming a thing of the past.”
“When I told you about this type of software in previous letters, it was mostly speculative,” he acknowledged. “But now I can report that these tools have been adopted in thousands of U.S. classrooms from kindergarten through high school.”
So why did it take so long?
“Well, the textbook market is a tough market,” Gates said in an interview with GeekWire. “Who should really try this stuff out? Where should the R&D money come from for these things? It’s really not like a normal consumer market, and you’ve gotta get the equipment in. So it is moving slower than it should. Educational innovation, we as society way under-invest in. We’re trying to get some of these private sector companies to do well, but a lot of them, as they try to build a sales force, the economics don’t work very well.”
Faster feedback loops, fueled in part by artificial intelligence, are helping to spark the transition, he said. “The feedback used to be like three days later,” Gates said. The delay made it more difficult for teachers and students to work on trouble areas. “Now when you’re just sitting there with your phone or tablet or PC, you’ll get that feedback.”
The proliferation of those personal devices has also increased the adoption of these new technological approaches.
“Having PCs or tablets all the time, it’s much easier now than 10 years ago where you had to walk into the lab and some of them would be broken,” Gates added. “Now, ideally, some of this can be done just on the cell phone screen. Not all of it can, but actually, quite a bit of it can.”
Gates funds his own online course, called Big History, which uses software to give students feedback on their writing assignments in real time. It’s one of several technologies, listed in the Gates Foundation letter, making headway in schools across the country. He also cites Zearn, i-Ready, and LearnZillion by name.
What’s next? Gates predicts in the letter that technology will go through the “same basic cycle you go through for all software: Get lots of feedback on the existing products, collect data on what works, and make them better. This cycle is picking up steam as more states and districts gain confidence about using digital curricula in their schools.”
Listen to the full interview with Bill Gates as a podcast below, subscribe to GeekWire in your favorite podcast app, and watch the video above.