Bill Gates Admits On Education Tech, ‘We Really Haven’t Changed Outcomes’

JStone /

Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins Director, Senior Fellow, American Principles Project
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Progressive educrats tell us that the onset of the 21st century changes everything about how we educate children. What worked for little boys named Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill is now passe. In its place must be installed sophisticated technological systems for “personalized learning,” which will transform education. It’s becoming clear, though, that the new orthodoxy comes with major drawbacks, so much so that even High Priest of Education Technology Bill Gates finds it necessary to concede a few problems and give the congregation a pep talk.

Recently Gates admitted to a convention of ed-tech entrepreneurs and investors that education technology hasn’t lived up to its transformational promise. Despite the millions of dollars the Gates Foundation and the education establishment have poured into such technology, Gates acknowledged that “we really haven’t changed [students’ academic] outcomes.”

Although Gates hastened to reassure the parishioners that success is likely once the industry gets a better grasp of student and teacher needs, his acknowledgement of trouble in paradise is significant. Return on investment won’t come soon, he warned, and the path to profitability is strewn with obstacles such as budgeting challenges, untrained teachers, and lack of product piloting. But perhaps with eyes on tantalizing business prospects for Microsoft, Gates promised that his foundation will “do everything we can to help facilitate the creation of great technology.”

Gates’s cautionary tale comes even as more objective observers are sounding alarms that “personalized learning” may not be as game-changing as advertised. In September the UN’s Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a report showing that computers and other technology in the classroom don’t improve student achievement. When the UN – the UN! – which routinely pushes and in some cases creates the progressive agenda, admits that a progressive strategy is failing, it’s fair to assume the evidence of failure must be overwhelming.

More recently, one of Australia’s top private schools, Sydney Grammar, decided to ban laptops in the classroom. Headmaster John Vallance pronounced the billions of dollars spent on classroom technology a “scandalous waste of money” that “distracts” from quality teaching. “We see teaching as fundamentally a social activity,” Dr. Vallance said. “It’s about interaction between people, about discussion, about conversation. We find that having laptops or iPads in the classroom inhibits conversation – it’s distracting.”

Dr. Vallance identified a related problem with technological “personalized learning” – when conversation is removed from education, the students find themselves confronted with a uniform point of view. “The digital delivery of teaching materials across Australia has had a powerful normative effect,” he observed. “It’s making it quite difficult for children to learn how to disagree, how not to toe the party line, because they can’t question things – the possibility of questioning things has been taken away from them.”

So according to a prominent educator who has seen the results in the classroom, digital learning increases the likelihood of, well, indoctrination. Bill Gates, who through his vast wealth pushes his well-known political and cultural predilections, apparently sees no problem with this. Parents might disagree.

Other concerns about education through technology are beginning to surface. According to new research, there’s significant cognitive value in expressing oneself through handwriting rather than keyboard. In fact, an Ohio researcher found that grades on state tests plummeted when students were forced to take the exams online rather than on paper. Perhaps novelist Agatha Christie was expressing a scientific conclusion rather than just a preference when she said she always wrote her books first in longhand, rather than on the typewriter, because she could think better than way.

That’s not all. Other scientists are increasingly warning of the damaging effects of too much “screen time” on both brain development and social adjustment. State after state has reported technical difficulties ranging from annoyance to chaos in trying to administer assessments online. And as we’ve written about extensively, much of the sophisticated software used in “personalized learning” operates by collecting reams of “fine-grained” data on children, constructing essentially a psychological profile of each student who uses the digital platform.

So far, this cavalcade of problems and concerns hasn’t deterred the nationwide education establishment, the federal government, and state legislatures from barreling ahead with replacement of real education with digital learning. After all, this is the 21st century, and we can’t simply rely on good books and good teachers anymore.

Will the admission by Bill Gates that this “transformational” strategy just isn’t working finally cause the decision-makers to slow down the headlong (and quite expensive) rush to install digital learning? Such a reassessment – soon — is crucial. Our children are at stake.