Bill Gates and education: "Innovation is your only hope"

Have Bill Gates and Barack Obama been talking? Because Bill Gates has some big plans for community colleges.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced Monday that it would be funding a $20 million, multi-year grant program to foster innovation in online instructional tools with a particular focus on community colleges. According to the New York Times, the Foundation will be joined by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and four nonprofit education organizations in using technology to ultimately prepare more students for the high-skill job market.

As Bill Gates described it in a CNET interview,

The people who are going to apply for these grants, they have all been doing interesting stuff. The grant will let them do a little bit more and it will encourage them to come together as a group. The money will help them do more measurement. We think the timing on this is really great and this will be very catalytic.

The first round of RFPs will be focused on "postsecondary online courses, particularly ones tailored for community colleges and low-income young people," according to the Times report. Another round of RFPs next year will include K-12 schools. Bill Gates, not surprisingly, seems to have the right idea on this (the added emphasis is my own):

There are some great laptop schools where things have gone well, and as laptop costs come down, you'll be hearing more about tablet-type devices, Netbooks, iPads in the classroom.

But it's the material that shows up on those devices that really counts. That's where the foundation is focused. We'll have another RFP early next year that is more focused on K-12 online material.

The community college programs are expected to supplement and differentiate in-class instruction and ensure that more students are motivated to pursue post-secondary education by focusing their efforts on classes that meet their technical and professional needs. As many other countries in the world have realized, not everyone needs to go to a four-year college or earn advanced degrees. However, virtually everyone needs to pursue post-secondary education to be competitive in the job market and increase the nation's competitiveness overall. With more than half of our young workforce lacking post-secondary training, it's clear that something needs to give and, as Barack Obama has pointed out, the community colleges are an untapped resource for making this happen.

The so-called Next Generation Learning Challenges will not only fund new approaches, but allow existing successful programs to scale and affect much larger groups of students. For example, Carnegie Mellon found that it could improve recall and performance while reducing necessary time in class and class duration by taking a hybrid approach with both direct instruction and online components. This same approach is now rolling out to community colleges to allow students to complete degrees and training more quickly (and therefore, more cheaply).

Gates also addressed the ability to measure the success of the programs his foundation is funding. Calling again for a common core curriculum, he noted that we would be far better able to determine how well technological interventions worked if all students could be measured against the same standards.