Dear Commons Community,
In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek published yesterday, Bill Gates commented on a number of philanthropic issues related to disease, poverty, and education. He criticized his tech billionaire colleagues who focus on technological gimmickry rather than helping the poor.
Gates was asked about Google’s Project Loon, an effort to bring broadband to developing countries by floating transmitters on balloons. “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that,” Gates said.
I give him credit for his views and activities in the areas of health and poverty, however, his record in education is highly questionable. Here are a couple of excerpts from the interview where he comments on education policy and MOOCs:
Interviewer: The Gates Foundation has been criticized for being so big that it’s somehow distorting the agenda, particularly in education. What do you think of the argument that you and your allies aren’t being challenged because everyone is angling for your largesse?
Gates: When we get into a field, we do take a point of view, and raising controversy is a symptom. Fortunately, there is what’s called the charter school format that lets you try new things. The system is good at shutting down the ones that don’t work and replicating the ones that do. The big actor is government. If somebody says somebody is too big, it would be strange to point to us.
Interviewer: What have you learned so far about MOOCs, or massive open online courses? Are they a superior alternative to traditional classrooms, or is this the best available solution for students who can’t attend a traditional university?
Gates: If you look at who’s used MOOCs so far, it’s an elite phenomenon. The completion rates are very low, and the effect on employability is very low. Yes, it’s promising and exciting. But this notion that “just don’t go to school, just connect to a MOOC,” that’s like telling somebody to read the textbook. You’d have to couple that with student support, study groups, lab activity, and the credential. And until you complete that equation, MOOCs have not changed higher ed.
He is right on both counts. However, Gates does more than take a point of view. He has tried to manipulate and control education policy at several levels by using his Foundation’s funds, influence, media connections, and political appointments to manufacture education crises and to pose solutions that fit his agenda.
On MOOCS, Gates was an early unbridled supporter of MOOCs but now that many colleges and universities have determined that they are not the agents for change in higher education, he has abandoned the ship.
Better late than never!