Bill Gates Gives SXSW Education Conference Keynote, Cites $9 Billion "Tipping Point" In Digital Learning

"We’ve gone from a blackboard to a whiteboard," Gates said. And also: "Yoda is a great teacher."

"I'm an optimist," declared Microsoft and Gates Foundation founder Bill Gates during his standing-ovation-receiving keynote address this morning at the South by Southwest Education Conference. Gates was, in part, talking about his belief in the power of innovation to transform everything from poverty to health care to toilets.

The he focused on the topic at hand: "In just the past few years technology has finally become part of our schools in a big way, and it’s only getting bigger."

Gates' influence in seeding the ed-tech ecosystem represented by this conference, now in its third year, can't be overstated. [Disclosure: I was a Gates education grantee in 2011.] His interests in standardized testing, charter schools, and technology are at the core of the bipartisan national education reform agenda. In just the last two years his foundation has bestowed $170 million on schools, districts, and startups that are building and testing the potential of data, analytics, game-like adaptive learning platforms, and connectivity to personalize learning, engage students, and get more of them to graduation. That compares to about $410 million in venture investment over a similar time frame.

"What’s really changed in the classroom isn’t much at all," Gates argued. "We’ve gone from a blackboard to a whiteboard."

But this market, Gates argued, is about to hit a "tipping point" due to growth in demand from parents, students, and teachers for learning experiences that better resemble the rest of our wired lives. Taken together, it could be worth $9 billion a year just in public K-12 spending.

In the past, some Gates grantees, like Khan Academy's library of videos, have been viewed as trying to "teacher-proof" education. Perhaps to counter that perception, Gates focused today on the potential of technology to help teachers—enabling them to collaborate, share best practices, give each other feedback, and allowing them to direct individualized instruction to large groups of students. "Digital technology has several features that can make it much easier for teachers to pay special attention to all their students," he said.

He closed with a plea for great educators and great technologists to work more closely together, the same way that scientists work alongside developers in the biotech industry.

Gates shared the rest of his keynote with three of the ed-tech entrepreneurs he's supported. Each represented a different piece of the learning and technology ecosystem. Iwan Streichenberger is the CEO of InBloom, a nonprofit that is building a system to host student data in the cloud and make it more easily accessible to states and districts. Jessie Woolley-Wilson runs Dreambox Learning, an adaptive online math program. Diane Tavenner founded Summit Public Schools, a network of charter high schools in California with extraordinary results graduating and preparing underserved kids for college. It was featured in the documentary Waiting for Superman.

In a separate interview, Tavenner threw a bit of cold water on the notion that the technology community will be the saviors and standard-bearers of next-generation education. Her schools have their own in-house developers building a student-driven learning and assessment platform "until something better exists," she says. "A lot of entrepreneurs I talk to haven't imagined what the schools of the future look like. They see an existing market that's asking for solutions, but I see that as the market that's rapidly going away."

[Images: Flickr users Capslockpirate, and Michael Brown]

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  • CitizensArrested

    The fact that Gates and the rest of the billionaire boys club are focused on and talking about markets rather than trying to achieve an accurate understanding of the problems faced by some of our schools, an understanding they completely lack, is all the evidence needed to see their motivation and goals. It's not about the students.

  • Deb

    He asks" great educators and great technologists to work together," but his actions belie a different sentiment entirely: he does not ask great educators to work with him, does not include the voices of teachers working in classrooms where the rubber meets the road.

    As a parent and as a teacher, I am utterly tired of non-educators having so much say in education policy. Bill Gates is as qualified to "fix" education as he is to fix world hunger by promoting Monsanto, or to fix medicine by funding pharmaceutical companies' research (with his own conditions attached).

    If there were any sign that he truly wanted to "work together" with actual living breathing teaching educators (as opposed to educational specialists who may or may not have even had any classroom time but who now work directly for him/Gates Foundation), that itself would be a start; he can make that start at any time, but I see no signs that it's happening or ever will.

  • leoniehaimson

    Your description of inBloom is inaccurate and highly incomplete.Put data on a cloud and make it more accessible to states and districts which have the data already? No,the purpose is to make student data, including personally identifiable and highly sensitive information, available to for-profit vendors without parental notification or consent.