Bill Gates is the college drop-out who became the richest man in the world. His role in the world of learning is twofold; first, he built Microsoft, the world’s leading provider of software tools such as Word, PowerPoint, Excel etc. that came to dominate how we write, present and, arguably, teach and learn; second, his later personal and philanthropic interest in education. As one of the most significant technological creators and innovators, his interest and active participation in the learning game has grown.
Microsoft Office and learning
Microsoft Office has had a huge impact on teaching and learning. As the de facto word processor, Word is the tool used to produce most educational content; books, papers, articles, notes etc. PowerPoint is arguably the most popular and influential teaching presentation tool that technology has ever produced. It fits the dominant pedagogy of most Universities and colleges (lecturing) and also the structure of conferences and company presentations. Its effect has been profound, if not always attractive. ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is a not uncommon criticism but that is not the problem of the tool but traditional teaching methods that encourage way too much text and too little though on pedagogy, design and communication. OneNote for note taking and Outlook for personal communications may also be said to have influenced the world of learning. Although not a Microsoft developed product, Microsoft owns Skype, which has proved to be an immensely popular communications tool for collaboration, tutoring and so on. More recently Microsoft Teams has been used extensively for teaching and collaboration, especially during the Coronavirus crisis. It is easy to underestimate the role of these tools in teaching and learning but their direct influence has been global and long-lasting.
Interest in education
In the 90s Gates would trot out homilies at schools, which he lifted from a book by Charles Sykes, such as;
RULE 3 You will NOT make 40 thousand dollars a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice president with car phone, until you earn both.
RULE 4 If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss. He doesn't have tenure.
RULE 8 Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.
RULE 9 Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.
RULE 11 Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.
They are interesting, in that they take several swipes at ‘schooling’ with a strong bent towards self-reliance, hard work and the idea that education is somewhat misaligned with real life.
At the curriculum level, his Big History idea is a view of history that goes back to the start of the universe and includes deep time concepts such as the big bang, star formation, element formation, earth and the solar system, life, collective intelligence, agriculture through to the modern revolution and what we commonly see as ‘history’. Gates promotes this as a multi-disciplinary approach which pulls things together in a consistent big picture narrative.
Education and equality
Gates is a fan of Thomas Picketty’s book Capital and agrees that inequality is a problem, where democracies are distorted by capitalism and wee witness unchecked accumulation of wealth. Government, must, he thinks, take corrective action. However, despite his broad agreement on, say getting rid of taxes on labour, unlike Picketty, Gates prefers taxes on consumption, not capital. Despite being an icon of capitalism, he does have a belief in the reuse of his accumulated capital for social goods, especially, but not exclusively, education. Education, for Gates is the great leveler and he sees software as revolutionizing education so that it does not, in fact, produce more inequality.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
When Gates gave up his position as CEO of Microsoft in 2000, he switched his attention to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He believes that technology, both hardware and software, will literally ‘revolutionise’ learning, especially in developing countries. His funding reflects his researched interests, such as personalized/adaptive learning, across the educational system, aggregation of good ideas for teachers and world-class content. One, among many, major organizations he has continued to support is the Khan Academy.
Gates has taken a keen interest in Higher Education with a focus on using technology to lessen failure. The problem for Gates, is not that too few people are going to college, but that too many go and fail. Enrollment in post-secondary programs has grown enormously but not enough people are finishing. In 2015, more than 36 million in the US, one fifth of the working age population, have gone off to college and left without a degree. Given the fiscal constraints, he sees technological innovation as the way in which education will solve its current problems and continue to scale. Part of his solution to drop-out from college is his support for the common-core, a set of standards that aim to bring students up to a common standard for college entry. But he also supports more personalized, adaptive learning and support systems, using AI, that are more responsive to failing students’ needs.
Many see Gates, and other tech philanthropists, as having an undue influence on education, with access to politicians and press, which is way out of proportion to their actual input. Some argue that they distort reform, with little more than their personal, pet projects and ideas. His critics point to the issue that it is not schools that are the problem but poverty. An early 2000 project to set up schools in 45 states to increase attainment is now seen as a failure. Many argue that this pushed politicians towards a belief that Charter schools were the answer to poor grades. This has not turned out to be true. His support for the Core Curriculum has also come under attack for its ‘one size fits all’ approach to the curriculum and therefore teaching.
Gates has had a long-standing interest in education, way beyond the interest taken by other significant technological leaders, such as those at Google, Apple, Facebook or Amazon. It is a deep and personal interest that has a very practical approach – smart funding and support of ideas, institutions and real initiatives that will scale to improve learning. Microsoft continues to provide tools that shape the learning landscape.