The grants, called The Next Generation Learning Challenges, are meant to spur on innovators and partnerships in the field of educating online, and they will give priority to people with novel ideas for online classes.
The grant is Gates’s attempt to fix an education system that, by many standards, is troubled. Amid a budget crisis in several states, climbing drop-out rates, and weaker test scores in comparison to several developed nations, technology barons such as Bill Gates see the Internet as a mechanism of inflection: it’s a way to alleviate the burdens by getting more students cheaper education.
However, not everyone is of this opinion. On the other side of the debate are those who say learning should be based on real-life, human interaction, that a disembodied machine doesn’t do the trick the same as a teacher who can look on, give a hand, or whip students into shape if need be.
Professors from this camp point out that they are constantly vying for attention in increasingly connected classrooms. Students often end up on laptops, surfing the Web rather than listening to lectures. They fear that the information overload will make our brains saturated, that instead of listening to important lectures, students will feel compelled to Google, click through emails, or jump on Facebook and hop from link to link to link.
A recent study by The National Bureau of Economic Research, in which students from a microeconomics class at an American university were divided into two groups–one online and one offline, had several findings that don’t augur well for the Internet classroom’s argument.
According to the study, certain groups did decidedly worse online. Hispanic students that took the class online did nearly a full grade worse than Hispanic students to took the class with a live professor. Male students who took the class online averaged about half a point lower than students who went to live lectures. Also, low-achievers, people who were below the university’s mean grade point, did half a grade point worse as well.
As with every debate, there’s always an equally compelling counter-study. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education had this to say on the matter: “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
The report centered on a sweeping analysis of online versus traditional classroom settings dating from 1996 to 2008. The studies it reviewed ranged from Kindergarten to college. The studies, when collated, revealed that students receiving online integration averaged in the 59th percentile while those who did not averaged in the 50th percentile.
According to the New York Times, this is a result of online classrooms becoming more interactive. Where they used to rely on “electronic versions of the old-line correspondence courses,” they now incorporate video, polling, instant messaging, and other collaboration tools. It’s called learning through doing.
Bill Gates’s foundation is providing $20 million in initial funding for efforts that best leverage this method in the college setting.
“You have a lot of very motivated students that if the right tools were online and you could reduce the amount of time they need to go into the college, and reduce some of the costs, they would love to see a great lecture online and test their knowledge online and then, for only a modest piece, sit with other students and talk through problems,” Gates said in a CNET interview.
Gates’s concern is that our education system is not adding the capacity for the students who need it. Most jobs coming into the future require a college degree, yet in America, less than half are on course to get these degrees, Gates told CNET.
“You could really shift the cost structure and how the time is spent if the technology piece is very high quality and directly connected to passing the course and getting the degree and that leads to getting the job that you want,” he said, speaking of technologies role in post-secondary education.
When the debate shifts to students in K-12, however, the concerns grow somewhat deeper. Studies have shown that constant connectivity has lead to increasingly shallow thought processes. Amongst teens, who are more susceptible to addiction, researchers have linked the Internet to attention deficit disorders and depression.
In the K-12 setting, Gates said there needs to be some give and take between teachers and online technologies. “There’s the idea of the hybrid. You’ve got to have effective teachers. The effective teacher is the most important thing,” he told CNET.
When asked what he thought about those who criticize Gates’s foundation for relying too much on technology, Gates said, “If somebody has another idea of how we can provide incredible postsecondary education that is not dependent at all on technology, we are very open-minded and we do a lot of grants.”