Bill Gates on College: More Hybrid Courses, Less ‘Marking Time’

In the most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, philanthropist Bill Gates says that even though education “has not been substantially changed by the internet” thus far, the future is likely to bring fundamental shifts toward online instruction.

Gates advocates greater use of hybrid courses, defined by the Chronicle as those “in which students watch videos from superstar professors as ‘homework’ and use class time for group projects and other interactive activities.”

Even if such an approach might be effective for some colleges or programs, what applicability might online classes have for honors programs, which emphasize the interactions of students and professors in small classes?   Should honors programs be on the cutting edge of integrating online learning with instruction in relatively small classes?

But, if so, how would the effectiveness of such honors experiments be assessed?  Gates acknowledges (and laments) that there is a lack of evidence showing “where…technology is the best and where face-to-face is the best.”  One big problem, he told the Chronicle, is that higher education “is a field without a kind of clear metric that you can experiment [with] and see if you’re still continuing to achieve [increased learning].

“You’d think people would say, ‘We take people with low SATs and make them really good lawyers.’ Instead they say, ‘We take people with very high SATs and we don’t really know what we create, but at least they’re smart when they show up here, so maybe they still are when we’re done with them.’”

Clearly, “maybe” is not good enough for Gates and other reformers.  Here it seems that public university honors programs can help in developing curricula that improve measurable skills and that facilitate the transfer of those improvements to the larger university population, including some students who do not have “very high SAT’s.”

Honors curricula are recognized as being highly effective in developing and improving critical thinking and writing skills, both of which are emphasized by the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) tests used by some colleges to measure improvement in important skills between the freshmen and senior years.  (The Gates Foundation has connections with the Council on Assistance to Education (CAE), which develops CLA testing.)

Another advantage of honors programs is that the course work and activities of honors students are never entirely segregated from the larger university and inevitably have an impact beyond honors.  Therefore, honors programs are and have been a natural vehicle for the transfer of enhanced instruction  to the larger university.

A key element in this process would be the assessment of non-honors students who have frequent classes or projects with honors students in order to understand how the interaction is beneficial.  The next, and much more difficult, step would be to determine what parts of the process could be used with similar effectiveness in a hybrid context.

The hybrid model that Gates is exploring can sound a bit like the communication and training structure of an international high-tech company: we watch the CEO in a series of online videos; we note his insights and instructions; and we meet and discuss the ways in which they might be developed, used, and enhanced.  Then we are graded according to our progress.

But given the hard choices by some public universities, the use of more online instruction might make the advantages of an honors education more readily transferable to the larger university if online lectures and instruction were incorporated into the curriculum, provided that at least some of the assumed cost savings could then be used to fund more frequent small-group discussions and projects.

The founder of Microsoft also believes that many students are marking time in school because “if you’re trying to get through in the appropriate amount of time, you’ll find yourself constantly not able to get yourself into various required courses.”

The Chronicle asked Gates if, in response to this problem, he might “create pressure to make universities into a kind of job-training area without that citizenship focus of that broad liberal arts degree.”

“But I’m the biggest believer in taking a lot of different things,” he said.  “And so, yes, it’s important to distinguish when people are taking extra courses that broaden them as a citizen and that would be considered a plus versus they’re just marking time because they’re being held up because the capacity doesn’t exist in the system to let them do what they want to do.  If you go through the student survey data, it’s mostly the latter.”

Whatever effect online instruction may have on university curricula, Gates says that “…obviously, anything that has to do with the universities is going to be figured out by people who have worked in universities, and it’s going to be piloted in universities.”

And in that effort, honors learning innovations could lead the way.







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