NEW YORK – Online learning with software has made textbooks obsolete, and digital tools are a better choice for today's students, said Bill and Melinda Gates, co-chairs of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In their 2019 annual letter released Tuesday, Bill Gates said even the best textbook can't figure out which concepts you understand and which ones you need more help with. It certainly can't tell your teacher how well you grasped last night's assigned reading. But now, thanks to software, the stand-alone textbook is becoming a thing of the past.
He gives algebra as an example. Instead of just reading a chapter on solving equations, you can look at the text online, watch a super engaging video that shows you how it's done, and play a game that reinforces the concepts.
Then you solve a few problems online, and the software creates new quiz questions to zero in on the ideas you're not quite getting.
"In short, we now have the tools to redesign higher education so that it meets the needs of today's students," he said. But he stressed that all of this is a complement to what teachers do, not a replacement. Teachers get a rich report showing what you read and watched, which problems you got right and wrong, and the areas where you need more help. He said that these tools have been adopted in thousands of U.S. classrooms from kindergarten through high school.
Zearn, i-Ready, and LearnZillion are examples of digital curricula used by students and teachers throughout the United States. "More than 3,000 schools are teaching a free digital course that I fund called Big History, which uses software to give students immediate feedback on their writing assignments," he said.
Melinda Gates said that in addition to adapting to what students know, these online tools also facilitate a new approach to teaching and learning that adapts to who these students are. Students with jobs or families often don't have the time or resources to effectively navigate an inefficient, inflexible learning environment designed to meet other people's needs.
Digital learning tools can help them meet these challenges – by making college more affordable, more convenient, and more effective, she said. Studies found that digital learning not only saves money for students but also helps them get better grades. Another advantage is that those students enjoy a lot more flexibility.
Not having to show up in a physical classroom at a specific time makes a big difference to students who are balancing school with working and raising a family.
"Put it all together, and you have students spending less for more convenient classes in which they perform better. In short, we now have the tools to redesign higher education so that it meets the needs of today's students," she said.