"We currently only direct about 1 percent of total R&D [research and development] dollars toward edtech...our investments don't match our mandate," said Bill Gates, Microsoft Founder and now Co-Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to a packed crowd of attendees on the last day of SXSWedu in Austin.
Gates believes education technology, facilitating personalized, interactive learning, is key to closing the achievement gap dividing Latino, African American and poor students from the rest of the country, and preparing all American students for the future of global competition with the rest of the world.
Edtech -- shorthand for broadband-powered education technology -- holds the potential to transform learning from a classroom-bound process, whereby groups of students are taught by a single teacher at any given time, to a rich, personalized experience for each student. Broadband-powered "textbooks" are actually gateways to learning that can be presented via streaming video, audio and moving graphics.
"Education technology collapses the barriers between textbook, assessment and feedback," said Gates. New technology will make the tablet, netbook or other devices both a gateway to knowledge, and a two-way path to better and more useful data related to student learning.
Gates highlighted the dramatically reduced costs of accessing and storing video online in comparison to the 1990s. "Today one can store video online practically for free, opening remarkable possibilities for education," he said.
The proliferation of wired and wireless broadband across the country since the 1990s also means that families now access the Web via increasingly powerful networks that deliver robust content at home or anywhere.
Gates ended his talk by showcasing business leaders who are developing cutting-edge solutions. Dreambox CEO Jessie Woolley Wilson discussed the role of data in driving student outcomes, and Inbloom CEO, Iwan Streichenberger discussed the individualization that technology offers education.
English language learning is a regular topic of discussion for the edtech sector. SXSWedu featured sessions on the subject. But edtech may hold promise for closing the achievement gap not just because what it could mean for Latino and other ELL learners, but because of technology's ability to create two-way learning pathways on mobile devices that young students choose today.
In an engaging environment that could include learning as play and engagement with video and music to fortify learning, this could be revolutionary. Driving more and better data in an integrated fashion could also go a long way toward lessening the anxiety and connected public outcry over assessments as well.
If Gates is right, bringing education technology to the masses requires a multi-stakeholder approach, including the private sector and schools. The advance of edtech also requires the most large-scale training effort of many decades to prepare generations of teachers not only to use the technology, but also to be self-guided learners themselves through a career of rapidly evolving tools that cannot be mastered in a one-time, graduate school clinic.
The long-term evolution of these tools will require teachers to recommit to a career of rethinking their own pedagogy in the context of evolving technology -- a new fact of work life for teachers that will demand significant, high-quality, professional development.
The education technology experiment is poised to change schools forever. To be beneficial, we must ensure that its implementation holds the principles of equity and access as its first cause. The promise of edtech must be designed to meet our mandate for universal, equitable and high quality education.
Jason A. Llorenz, Esq. Is Senior Fellow, Rutgers University School of Communication and Information Studies and Director, Innovation Policy for LIN@R. Follow him on Twitter @llorenzesq and follow LIN@R technology tweets @LINAR_technolog.