Source: Gates Notes, Jan 2015
Better software will revolutionize learning
Our foundation gives more money to education than to any other cause in the United States because it’s the best lever we’ve seen for giving every child in America a chance to make the most of their lives. Some of the work we fund is focused solely on U.S. students and teachers. But a core piece of it — online courses — will be a global asset, available to anyone with a smartphone or tablet.
As high-speed cell networks grow and smartphones become as cheap as today’s voice-only phones, online education will flourish. For people in rich countries, it will be an important step forward. For the rest of the world, especially in places where growth is creating demand for educated workers, it will be a revolution.
The technology has already come a long way, as you can see at sites like Khan Academy, and it will advance even more in the next 15 years. Before a child even starts primary school, she will be able to use her mom’s smartphone to learn her numbers and letters, giving her a big head start. Software will be able to see when she’s having trouble with the material and adjust for her pace.
She will collaborate with teachers and other students in a much richer way. If she is learning a language, she’ll be able to speak out loud and the software will give her feedback on her pronunciation. (Some sites do this today, but the technology will improve a lot.)
There is one thing software will never do: replace teachers. Even the most self-motivated student needs guidance and support. But software can play a crucial role, for example by connecting teachers to each other. They will be able to upload videos of themselves and get advice from their peers, watch the best teachers in the world at work, and get real-time feedback from their students. These advances will be important in the United States, and they’ll have an even bigger impact on teachers in developing countries where enrollment is high but achievement is not.
Education is a great leveler. But if the factors that hold girls back are not addressed, and if access to education isn’t equal, then education will become another cause of inequity, rather than a cure for it.
This is especially important because when a young woman gets an education, it has a powerful ripple effect. As an adult, she’ll earn more money. If she has children, they will be twice as likely to live past the age of five. Her daughters will be twice as likely to go to school themselves. There’s no way to get around the fact that more girls need to be in good schools, and for longer. But online education will open up new opportunities for girls with the means and motivation to take advantage of it.
Earlier this year, Melinda and our daughter Jennifer spent several days with a farming family in Tanzania.
As the cost goes down and incomes go up, more people will have the means, and we’ll be well on our way to providing high-quality education for everyone.