Gates Foundation Aims to Put The .Edu in Education

10/11/2010 05:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Picture this: You're sitting at a terminal with multiple screens. You're at once being lectured, taking a test and seeing how you're doing. This feedback loop doubles your productivity and improves your retention, too. At Carnegie Mellon University, this hyper-interactive system is called statistics class.

According to Bill Gates, it might be the future of education, or at least a piece of it. Online learning, to many, is still a mystery, and so the Gates Foundation announced today that it's committing $20 million to develop online learning opportunities -- in hopes that taking (and fostering) virtual action will boost America's sagging college graduation rate.

"The main role we play is catalytic role," Gates said of his foundation's place in the education spectrum. "[We're] getting in on the edge of something like the online learning." Apparently, in Gates Foundation-ese, "getting in on the edge of something" equates to doling out the big bucks for development.

It's all for the best, though, as the often-stigmatized world of online education often goes misunderstood -- or ignored. Though students are signing up for online programs in large numbers, colleges don't often know how weave them into their campus fabric and they're left to flounder.

The success stories are relative and disparate. Carnegie Mellon's online courses will soon run in 25 community colleges. Arizona's Rio Salado College has a program that can tell with 70 percent accuracy on the eighth day of a course whether or not a student is likely to finish. The rapidly growing University of Central Florida already has more than 20,000 online students.

As Gates noted, there's huge potential in the online arena -- and he says education can easily be "twice as effective per dollar" as it is now. "Lots can be done online," Gates said. Don't we know it. Here's hoping the $20 million will unlock the secrets to blending the old and the new.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly indicated that the University of Central Florida had 20,000 online classes. The university has 20,000 students in online classes.