Education technology is still at its earliest stages and has yet to live up to its promise, philanthropist Bill Gates told an audience of thousands of ed-tech entrepreneurs and investors at the ASU GSV Summit here. “We really haven’t changed [students’ academic] outcomes,” he acknowledged.
But over the next decade, Gates predicted that the industry could move to a new level of quality as ed-tech providers begin to understand student and teacher needs. “We can surprise people by really making education better—both here in the United States and around the world,” he said.
“Our foundation’s going to do everything we can to help facilitate the creation of great technology,” he said, with a focus on three areas: effective personalized learning solutions, an evidence base that works, and adoption of proven technologies. “Our goal is to help innovators.”
Scaling Up Personalized Learning
Within the next five years, Gates expects most schools to be using personalized learning in at least one way, but it’s a shift that will require more than just technology. Even the layout of the classroom will look different, he said.
“It’s a big challenge, and it’s great that we have early adopters showing the way,” he said, pointing to Summit Public Schools, and its Basecamp initiative in the summer that brings teams of principals together to see how personalized learning looks in action.
Another instructional model, the work of New Classrooms, personalizes middle school math in a way that Gates said is “far more engaging than a typical textbook.” He invited attendees to visit it because it’s a model that “represents the future not only of math, but a number of subjects.”
For literacy, he said he favors products like ThinkCERCA that “meets kids where they are” and helps them with writing.
One approach that would accelerate the promise of personalized learning, he said, “would be deeper engagement” between teachers and entrepreneurs. “Far too many of these digital products aren’t really getting used,” and he encouraged entrepreneurs to continually improve upon and optimize the products that do find success in the classroom.
Evidence of What Works
Using well-designed trials to develop new products is essential, Gates said, which is why his foundation has invested in LEAP Innovations, a nonprofit based in Chicago that conducts such trials. “I believe this idea of head-to-head testing needs to come at different levels,” he said. As a product passes through the first level of proving efficacy, an investment will be needed to get even stronger evidence of its value.
“Investors are going to have to take the long-term approach…because these studies are expensive and take time,” he said.
Entrepreneurs will need to continually improve products, and “for district leaders, it means being willing to be involved in these pilots and really making sure that, when the data’s there, that the best products are getting rapid and high-volume adoption.”
Adoption of Proven Technologies
In K-12, the way products are selected and how money is budgeted “has to change,” and more funds need to be freed up for professional development, he said. Last November, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it will invest some $34 million in cooperative initiatives designed to improve teacher-preparation programs’ overall effectiveness. (The Gates Foundation helps support some coverage in Education Week.)
While teachers’ limited access to digital learning devices has held back progress in teachers’ use of ed tech in recent years, these issues are starting to diminish, Gates said.
Schools need to see some examples of products that are clearly so successful that districts are willing to spend for them, “but I’d say we’re pretty early in that process,” he said.
While many teachers are willing to be pioneers in trying ed tech, district-wide adoptions often don’t get the desired results. “We have to see why,” he said.
$1.1 Billion Market Predicted
The market for digital instruction materials will likely grow by $1.1 billion between 2015 and 2020 in the U.S. alone, Gates predicted. Interest in education outside the U.S. is very strong, too. Last year, funding for ed-tech companies in China doubled, for instance.
Still, “it’s a tough market,” he said. “From a pure profit potential…it might not be the most immediate market to come to mind.”
But Gates gave investors and entrepreneurs a pep talk, saying the work they are doing is critical. “Many ambitious dreams have been achieved,” he said, citing President John F. Kennedy’s promise to go to the moon within a decade—and the country beat the deadline by six months. He also drew inspiration from breakthroughs in preventing diseases, pointing to the small cadre of people who believed smallpox could be eradicated.
Now, Gates said, “we’re very close to making polio the second disease to ever be eradicated.”
“At the end of the day, I believe success comes to innovators who focus on new needs,” said Gates. Among them: Why are kids dropping out now? Why are costs going up?
Innovators who engage teachers and students, and who invest in product design taking needs into account, are the most likely ones to be successful.
For those innovators, Gates said his foundation wants “to work with you to close the equity gap in American education.”
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