Bill Gates thinks that universities are about to become obsolete [Bill Gates: In Five Years The Best Education Will Come From The Web].
"Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world," Gates said at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, CA today. "It will be better than any single university," he continued.This is nonsense on many levels. First, who's going to determine whether any given lecture is the "best lecture in the world?" Second, why will it be online? (Most professors don't want to put their lectures online.) Third, who says that listening to a lecture is the only thing that a university has to offer?
One particular problem with the education system according to Gates is text books. Even in grade schools, they can be 300 pages for a book about math. "They’re giant, intimidating books," he said. "I look at them and think: what on Earth is in there?"In the interests of full disclosure, I am a textbook author. That means I have more of a stake in this debate than Bill Gates. (Of course, it also means that as a textbook author and a university professor, I'm probably more of an expert than the former chairman of a software company.(1))
According to Gates, our text books are three times longer than the equivalents in Asia. And yet they’re beating us in many ways with education. The problem is that these things are built by committee, and more things are simply added on top of what’s already in there.
When they are well done, a textbook is like the best lecture you could ever get. If you want to learn about evolution, for example, then you could hardly do better than reading EVOLUTION by Douglas Futuyma. I can't imagine any series of online lectures that could compete with a such a good textbook.
Textbooks are collaborative affairs that undergo considerable review by experts before publication. Most online lectures are the work of a single individual and they have not been reviewed for accuracy.
The most important goal of a university education is to teach student how to think and a major component of that process is critical thinking. Unfortunately, sitting in front of your monitor reading a lecture is not the best way to learn how to think and it doesn't give you any practice in critical thinking. There's a reason why students need to interact with other students and scholars in a university setting and it's very sad that people like Bill Gates don't get it.
On the other hand, if Gates is correct then it might be a really good thing for universities. The standing joke among professors is that universities would be wonderful places if only we could get rid of the students!
John Hawks seems to be quite sympathetic to the Gates stupidity [Bubbling through college].
1. How did we ever get ourselves into the situation where executives from for-profit companies are thought to be experts on education? They are not. They are just about the last people on Earth I would ask for advice on university education.