Bill Gates: education needs much more than just 1 percent of R&D spending

Investments in education technology are beginning to rival the boom in the late 1990s, causing some to wonder if another bubble is brewing.

But, speaking to a packed auditorium of educators and technologists at the SXSWedu education technology conference in Austin, Bill Gates said that given the impact of education on all other parts of society, investment in the sector is “absolutely not” enough.

“If you had to say what is the sector of the economy you’d like the most R&D, the most risk-taking in, because any improvement you make benefits all the other areas of the economy and, more from an equity point of view, allows the country to deliver on its promise of equal opportunity, you’d think that education would be a very high R&D sector. It never has been,” according to the co-founder of Microsoft and head of the multi-billion-dollar Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  “We’re going to have to grow this.”

Advancements in computing, the growing penetration of technology (particularly mobile devices) and the rise of cloud storage have helped make this a “special time for technology in education,” Gates said.

But he also acknowledged that in the late 1990s and other periods, the industry similarly thought that technology could make a dent in improving education and the promised revolutionary advancements never happened.

“Obviously, it begs the question: is it like that time when we were kind of naïve? We can think through that those things weren’t very deep and now it’s pretty obvious that they weren’t going to do that much,” he said. “But there was this belief and so we have to check ourselves and say ‘is it really different this time?’ I think we have data from the early things that really show that it is. It’s just fundamentally very different technology.”

Digital divide still an issue

Gates also made the important point that while technology is pushing its way into the hands of more students, the uneven access of Internet access needs to be addressed.

“People talk about the hardware but, in fact, if we take any reasonable time period, even two years, you’re going to spend more on your Internet connection than you do on that hardware,” he said. “So making sure so that’s either pervasive in the home or public spaces that students have easy access to that becomes pretty important, particularly, if you’re going to expect a lot of ongoing activity outside the classroom.”

When Gates took the stage, many in the audience rose to give the Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist a standing ovation. Over the past few years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has become a major player in education (clearly evident in the number of sponsored events, banners and panels related to the foundation at SXSWedu). But as the keynote continued, some of the commentary on Twitter turned more critical, highlighting the split composition of the conference attendees and a feeling that Gates didn’t go deep enough into issues that need more attention.

One ed tech thought leader wrote:

Another audience member said:

I agree that while he provided important context around why education technology is growing, I was hoping for more. He didn’t provide the bold statements or visionary messages one might expect from a concluding keynote speaker, and especially one who has supported technology in education as much as Gates and his foundation have.

But, the reaction to his speech really drove home that the conference, like ed tech at large, includes many stakeholders with different interests and perspectives. While those in the audience closer to technology may have found Gates’ comments lacking, educators who spend more of their time thinking about managing classrooms than big tech trends seemed to think it was a success. The media specialist next to me, for example, said she found Gates’ keynote “very inspiring.”