The growth in the education technology sector is causing some to worry that a bubble to rival the dot-com burst of the early 2000s is brewing. However, Bill Gates, the former chairman and founder of Microsoft and a leading education reformer, is not one of the doubters. Speaking at the SXSWedu conference in Austin earlier this month, he said that considering its potential impact, investment in education is too low rather than too high.
Digital progress over the last twenty years has been incredibly quick and the adoption of technology, especially of the portable variety like tablets and smartphones, has been even more speedy. Such penetration makes this a perfect time for a real push in the education sector, and his own philanthropic organization – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – has been taking an active part.
"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."
He acknowledged that on the surface, today's giddiness over the potential of technology in education is familiar to the kind of excitement the internet generated in the late 1990s when investors seemed more interested in splashy logos than long-term revenue projections. Yet, that experience can be used as a cautionary tale for today's investors so that they will not make a similar mistake this time around.
Among the concerns voiced by Gates was the growing "digital divide" that threatens to split the country and the world into technology haves and have-nots. The key to making sure this doesn't happen is investing in internet access, which has the potential to bring the promise of technology even to chronically underserved communities.
"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."