For most people attending this week's SXSW Interactive conference, SXSWedu was just this thing happening while they were getting off the plane. But even as early arrivals hit the tarmac on March 7, Interactive's little sibling was closing out with a keynote from one of the most prominent SX speakers ever: Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
The four-day conference has become the unofficial soft lead-in to the main nine-day event, but its growing importance in its second year was marked by snagging a godfather of the ongoing digital revolution. Conference producer Ron Reed said it was "a pleasure and a privilege to introduce a gentleman that I consider to be an Edison of our age." An apt comparison as, like Edison, Gates is a figure of controversy.
Considered both the grand vizier and the sugar daddy of the education reform movement, his speech moved away from his recent championing of charter schools and towards the growth of classroom computing. While he advocated for its inevitability, he conceded, "We try not to be naive about how complex it's going to be."
Gates was clearly disappointed with progress over the last quarter century. While so many areas of society have been reshaped by technology, he said, all that's really happened in classrooms is that "we've gone from a blackboard to a whiteboard." The switch is little to do with the technology itself: Instead, he argued that "the tipping point" of adoption is price. That is the key to bridging the digital divide, but Gates warned that, by concentrating on making hardware more affordable, such as low-priced tablets, policy makers and the industry ignore that "Internet access is the most expensive piece." Yet that price is dropping: In the late 1990s, it cost $400 to store an hour of video on the Internet. "Today," he said, "that storage is two cents." That opens up the possibility for cheap digital education. In an era of ever-contracting school budgets, Gates argued for re-imagining how cash is allocated. Previously, technology was stuck away in supplemental budgets rather than the core textbook spending. With the lines between textbooks, tests, and interactive content blurring, he argued that learning has not been "just a passive reading experience for a long, long period of time. ... There are people looking at whether they can take the leap and make the textbook entirely digital." His vision of the future of education technology is an open door into classroom innovation – and he encouraged entrepreneurs to move into this new market as fast as possible.
Meanwhile, however, many are wary about another round of corporate raiders stripping the public school coffers. Many edutech firms present themselves as a more classroom-friendly alternative to the draconian testing regimen of firms like Pearson Interactive. Last year it was Pearson's CEO Marjorie Scardino who headlined SXSWedu (see "Education: It's Time to Be Innovative," March 16, 2012), and critics see just two sides of the same for-profit coin. As award-winning edublogger Jac de Haan tweeted, "@billgates message to #sxswedu: 'you might get really rich doing this.'"
Gates completed his talk by introducing three CEOs of the kind that he sees filling this new market: Jessie Woolley-Wilson of interactive math learning software firm DreamBox; Diane Tavenner, CEO of the Silicon Valley-based Summit Public Schools; and Iwan Streichenberger, founder of education nonprofit (and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant recipient) InBloom. All three argued that software and hardware inevitably and fundamentally alter how kids are taught. However, Streichenberger warned the developers in attendance that a one-size-fits-all model and a generic product will never respond to the basic problem: that every teacher teaches differently, and every student learns differently. Inevitably, he said, the firms need to learn to follow their lead. Tavenner echoed that, saying she had approached firms with particular products to fill particular developing classroom needs. The firms would respond, "'No one's ever asked us for that before.' Well, they're going to."
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