Bill Gates on Education Reform

I’m also impressed by the results in places like Western Governors University. Its low-cost online programs rely on competency-based progression, not class-time or credit hours. It uses external assessments to evaluate student proficiency. And because its students are a little older and possibly more focused in their goals, its graduation rates are high and the salaries its graduates earn are good.

Because of institutions like Tennessee Tech and WGU, I’m optimistic about the potential of innovation to help solve many of the problems with our post-secondary system. But we need more and better information. I’m reminded of a point made by Andrew Rosen of Kaplan, the for-profit education company, that colleges today know more about how many kids attend basketball games and which alumni give money than how many students showed up for economics class during the week, or which alumni are having a hard time meeting their career goals because of shortcomings in their education.

That needs to change.

From here.


I don't believe that we have ever had a process where our educational process has been modified based on outcome. This is a double-edged sword. What outcomes are important? Do we know how to modify our system to provide the outcomes?

We need to adapt our system to reflect the lifetime learning model. Our system of granting degrees that claim a certain level of education is not reflective of ability. You have to actually use something to become competent in it and you really learn something when you teach it to someone else. The things that are not applied evaporate.

It's as if it were just a complicated, rather imperfect, way of signalling who has to potential to learn and succeed on the job--a product of law and history.

I agree. We need to encourage lifelong learning, and increase ROI at all ages.

But what does Gates mean by WGU having students who graduate? Six-year graduation rate appears *very* low here:

NCES's definition of "graduation rate" ONLY includes first-time, full-time undergraduates -- this is pretty much the opposite of WGU's target demographic (if you look lower on that site, you'll see that their sample includes a little over 42% of the 2004 entering class). WGU is mainly going after part-time working professionals who have probably had some sort of higher education already and can only take classes part time. I imagine if you included those, the numbers would look a lot better. As it is, I imagine the 6% statistic is biased significantly downward because the kind of first-time, full-time undergrad who would go to WGU is probably abnormally poorly prepared for college-level work.

Even much higher graduation rates for non-traditional students couldn't make WGU's overall graduation rates high.

I'm surprised how much importance is given to graduation rates in these discussions.

Especially when the discussion is prompted by college drop out Bill Gates.

The second quoted paragraph suggests that Gates sees WGU as a means to reach "kids," i.e. traditional-aged students. That's really not their model. WGU is great at what it does but it mostly serves working professionals looking to get a leg up in their career. In this sense, it's digging more into the market share of online for-profits or community colleges than four-year residentials. Don't get me wrong -- "non-traditional students" are a much larger portion of the higher ed market that most people realize, a portion that's going to grow at a much faster rate than 18-24 year olds over the next 10 years. Still, I wouldn't look to competency-based education as a game-changer for the industry. It's more nibbling around the under-served edges of the market, much the same as Kaplan and University of Phoenix have been doing for some time.

The real problems with viewing self-paced, competency-centered online ed as a sea change in the industry are 1) there is no incentive for middle and upper end of the traditional-aged market [talking high-g and middle-upper income] to go to WGU over a reasonably well-regarded 4-year and 2) marginally-qualified 18-year olds, who will continue to represent the bulk of the increase in enrollment over the coming years, need a lot of attention/support to graduate. Online ed is getting better at cheaply solving 2) with predictive analytics for major selection, CRM-assisted high-touch advising, flipped classrooms, etc., but I don't see it ever addressing 1) in a serious way.

I agree that it would be nice if kids learned critical thinking in university, but isn't it mostly just a 4-year long networking and career research opportunity? When I think about what most people I know did in uni, the savvy ones were getting involved in learning how to be competitive in their target profession and meeting others in their field, e.g. the ones who were editing student magazines or working in research laboratories. If that's the real purpose of university, then maybe this emphasis on coursework is overstated. I think when I went in I was already pretty good at critical thinking, but extremely naïve about pretty much everything, and a lot of my personal progression was more about overcoming the latter than tweaking the former.

No, it's not. There are understandably almost no real networking opportunities in college, since everyone is in college or academia, and you learn practically nothing about careers even in your actual major.

When I said networking I was thinking mostly about networking with future colleagues than contemporary industry players.

I really like the idea of course assessments and student accreditation being independent of the teaching institution.

Imagine automated oral exams:
A digital voice reads a question, the students answer is recorded without editing (a control for topical fluency: no roughling through the notes), the student's voice is put through speech-recognition software and then re-audiblized, so you've got double blind grading of synthetic and analytic competency as well as the traditional knowledge assessment.

Just an idea.

This article is a book review of Academically Adrift and the analysis of measuring how well higher education institutions are performing in terms of student skills and growth. The blog suggests that universities should be more concerned with creating quality, industry-ready graduates rather than focusing on “Kaplan statistics” such as how many students attend basketball games.

The authors of the book find “about 45 percent of the students showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning or written communication during their first two years in college”. This a staggering statistic, yet reasonable in a reflection of introductory courses most first and second year college students take. The skill levels required in these courses are more in line with high school level classes rather than advanced education institutions. A growing majority of students are also testing out of these entry level courses and are not required to take the intermediate or upper level courses in english, math, history, and science based on Advanced Placement tests scores they achieved in high school. The focus for students then turns to classes that will either be an easy grade or requirements of their major and not necessarily skill-enhancing courses. Students surveyed suggested “most of their courses required surprisingly little effort. They reported studying only slightly more than 12 hours per week on average”. That is less than most high achieving high school students have to study a week. When the emphasis of higher education is on required coursework for a balanced education and less on a valuable and useful education, or institutions start to fail us.

Not surprisingly, the authors find “more learning takes place among students who take demanding courses and who say their professors have high expectations. Science students make better-than-average progress, even in their writing skills”. Students that are pushed harder tend to either sink or swim, and in college the only option is to swim in order to achieve success. Classes where professors take little interest in their students tend to have students who share the same sentiment. In such a competitive medical market, the pressure towards greater, earlier achievement could explain the increased progress from science students. Also, most universities do not require students to take these advanced math and science courses unless they are of a particular major. These become weed-out classes and are particularly designed to weed-out the underachieving students, leaving on the best and brightest in the higher level classes.

The most persuasive portion of the blog is the focus on what exactly students are gaining from these institutions and how to measure their achievements post-graduation. Instead of looking at “Kaplan statistics” universities should be looking at how graduates of majors are performing in industries, their salaries, and employment rates. This should be guiding the choices of future students and not the quality of dining hall food. The blog states: “because of institutions like Tennessee Tech and WGU, I’m optimistic about the potential of innovation to help solve many of the problems with our post-secondary system”. This is the case in many areas around the country where more skill-based education is needed for economic growth. Not every member of society is meant to go to college. This does not mean they do not require advanced education, but the jobs that are available in our current economy require more hands on approach. Our economy needs electricians, plumbers, engineers, janitors, doctors all the same and none of these educations can be outlined under a generic schedule. Universities need to be looking at employment opportunities and global trends in setting curriculums rather than requiring Anthropology 101 to all incoming freshman.
Additionally, the shift towards online education could be a major benefit to our economy and country’s growth. As our workforce continues to grow older and the technology of our learners evolve, it is important that institutions look to accommodate the new learners of our generation. This could be a forty year old divorcee who is taking classes for the first time or a twenty year old who needs to stay at home to support his family but is taking night classes in order to stay on track. Every educational journey is different and it is astonishing to see the enrollment numbers for online programs and the success rates for some of these institutions based on the necessity and desire for a useful education and not one that merely shows you went to college. It will be interesting to see how online education could shift the paths of future learners. The monetary and convenience benefits of online learning are not to be ignored and are hard to argue against. But as the story always goes, we need more information on how all these statistics will translate into economic success and lifelong educational achievements.

Gates is probably one of the best people to talk about this issue, what with him dropping out and starting one of the biggest, most profitable businesses the world has ever seen.

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