Online Learning Gets High Praise From Bill Gates

Software and devices like the iPad might help students, but debate rages on how to use the technology.

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In his 2010 annual letter, recently posted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website, Bill Gates makes a pretty strong case for incorporating different elements of the Internet—specifically, online video and interactive lessons—into both K-12 and higher education. "A lot of people, including me, think this is the next place where the Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things," he writes.

It is a fact that "online learning," "educational technology," and "distance education" are buzzwords that are practically ubiquitous among today's teachers, education gurus, and even high-profile business executives. The buzz right now centers on the learning implications of Apple's new iPad tablet; last summer, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch made headlines when it was announced that he would be launching an M.B.A. program, the Jack Welch Management Institute, with classes being offered almost entirely online. "Online education is going nowhere but up. It's for real," he told BusinessWeek magazine. Using data collected from degree-granting online learning programs nationwide, U.S. News has found that the number of such programs increased by 75 percent between 2001 and 2008.

 [See our online education listings.]

There certainly is no shortage of content. Many colleges and universities are posting free videos of their lectures online (many of these courses can be found on the website Academic Earth), and a special channel within Apple's iTunes software, called iTunes U, offers a plethora of digital lessons from colleges nationwide. However, Gates says that so far, technology has hardly changed formal education and that online learning should be more than just lectures. His thinking is that it should use of lessons tailored to individual students' learning needs, and that there needs to be a way to take all of the educational content that's online and organize it and then rate it in context. "If you search online for a video on photosynthesis, you get tens of thousands of results, including a lot of student projects," he writes.

Other educational technology experts agree with Gates, but they say his proposals barely scratch the surface of how online learning can benefit students. "I think this is the right direction, but I would take it even further," says Eileen Lento, an education and government strategist for Intel, who holds a Ph.D. in human computer interfacing. She cites a piano lesson in real time between an American student and a teacher located in Germany, with the piano linked to the instructor's computer, as an example of how certain software programs can mediate learning experiences that otherwise could not take place. And at Virginia Tech, some professors use interactive digital whiteboards to teach lessons that can go to students who aren't even in the classroom, says Lento.

Michael Horn, the executive director of education for the nonprofit think tank Innosight Institute, takes issue with Gates's goal of integrating online learning into the traditional school system. "What I think we want to use online learning to do is to escape the traditional factory model that treats every student the same way on the same day," he says.

Yesterday's extraordinarily hyped unveiling of the iPad by Apple CEO Steve Jobs holds significance for online learning in schools, experts say. The presence of other tablet PCs and supercompact "netbook" computers has been growing in schools, but Lento says the enhanced reading features and multimedia capabilities of the iPad might make it a powerful teaching and learning tool.

[Read Apple's iPad: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.]

Horn says that if the iPad is able to capture and store pen strokes rather than just keystrokes, teachers would be able to gather much richer data on students' learning progress. But he doesn't think the answer to our educational problems is a piece of hardware. "The question is what kind of system the technology is used in," he says, "and if it allows for students to individualize their learning and to follow different paths."