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Will Education Technology Finally Live Up to Its Potential?

Hardware is relatively cheap, broadband isn’t and software has had a negligible impact on education. Those are three takeaways from Bill Gates’ recent SXSWedu keynote, which is noteworthy for its frank analysis of how technology is—and isn’t—changing education.

There never has been—or ever will be—any shortage of education pundits, but Gates is always worth listening to partly because he’s putting his money where his mouth is via the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. So are U.S. taxpayers, who aren’t seeing much ROI: Despite doubling K-12 spending over the past quarter century, U.S. scores in math and literacy are about the same, Gates said. Meanwhile, 20 other countries spent less over that period but increased results substantially. How?

“Largely that’s not been done through any use of technology,” Gates said. “It’s been done through the teacher personnel system, culture, focus.”

Gates rattled off examples of attempts: “Many times people said there’s going to be a revolution. TV sets rolled into the classroom. Quizzes being done on the computer. In terms of real instruction, none of those pronouncements ended up being true. In the late ’90s, there was a wave of optimism, but those pieces didn’t come together.

“What’s really changed in the classroom isn’t much at all. We’ve gone from a blackboard to a whiteboard, sometimes touch-enabled, that you connect to the Internet. But software is playing a very modest role.”

Even so, Gates remains optimistic that technology can eventually make a difference, such as by personalizing the learning experience and making information more relevant to students. One reason is because certain costs continue to plummet. For example, in the late 1990s, storing an hour of video on the Internet cost about $400, Gates said. Now it’s 2 cents—almost free—which helps make the business case for distance learning at every education level.

But what isn’t free is the hardware—such as PCs and tablets—and the broadband necessary to knit everything together. “Even [in] just two years, you’re going to spend more on the Internet connection than on the hardware,” Gates said.

Although Gates didn’t discuss how to reduce broadband access costs, private initiatives such as Google Fiber and public ones such as the U.S. National Broadband Plan could help. But those are broad initiatives rather than specifically focused on education, and in that sense, they’re the norm.

“You would think that education would be a very high R&D sector,” Gates said. “It never has been. Neither the government nor the for-profit opportunity has been that big.”

That could change if innovators are lured by the potential for more spending on educational software and services, which Gates said historically have been funded from supplemental materials budgets. More funding could be available as the boundaries between books and videos disappear. “As the boundaries between them are broken down, now we can think of innovators doing educational software as competing for all of the different budgets: textbooks, assessment,” Gates said.

That would add up to a big potential market: about $9 billion in the U.S. alone, Gates said. “Innovators who win in the most demanding markets, [which] the U.S. I’d expect to be, will have opportunities on a global basis.”

But if 25 years of increased spending on education more technology in classrooms haven’t goosed test scores, why would this time be any different? That’s the elephant in the room—or the emperor’s new clothes—and Gates didn’t address it, at least not head on. Instead, he brought out a trio of technology executives and educators. One of them was Diane Tavenner, CEO of Summit Public Schools, a charter school where a lot of Gates’ vision is playing out.

“At first, it looks like this amazing, engaged learning that you’d see in the best classrooms in the country,” Tavenner said. “But if you look a little closer, the space looks different.

“You’re not going to have these isolated classrooms with a single teacher and set of students. The spaces are much more open. It’s much more free-flowing. You’re going to see pods of kids collaborating, and some working independently.”

If that kind of environment eventually becomes the norm, it’s going to require a rethinking of classroom AV. For example, does each classroom now have only one interactive whiteboard or one projector, or multiple ones to support multiple breakout groups? It’s all ad-hoc, which ought to do a great job of preparing students for the workplace, where some offices now are eschewing traditional conference rooms for flexible workspaces where several people can quickly get together to collaborate. That’s why education technology managers should keep an eye on how their corporate counters are accommodating that change.

Tim Kridel has covered the technology and telecom industries since 1998 for a variety of publications including AV Technology, Pro AV, and InAVate.