Press Room




Bill Gates
Association of Community College Trustees
44th Annual Leadership Congress
October 2, 2013

Thank you for inviting me here today, and thank you for supporting our local economy by coming to Seattle. Seattle has been host to innovations in aerospace, computer technology, biotechnology, internet commerce, and really great coffee. I am confident that Seattle will also inspire great ideas for community colleges during your time here this week.

As community college trustees, you’re all facing the same huge test. You’re trying to help your institutions educate more students to a higher standard when funding is flat and higher education is more important than ever.

As someone concerned about education and passionate about technology, I’ve been frustrated to see how little technology has changed the way we teach our students. My children are educated pretty much the way my dad was – almost untouched by innovation.

No one has been paying a bigger price for this ‘innovation-deficit’ than community colleges. But fortunately, the story is starting to change. We’re now seeing breakthroughs that can create a new future for your students – and that’s what I want to talk about today.

The Disappointed Student

Today, every young American hears that the best path to a bright future requires a college education. And millions of students are seeking higher education the only way they can – often in the only place that will have them – in our community colleges.

Community colleges serve more than 10 million students, more than 40 percent of all undergraduates in the US. A large number of those 10 million are facing long odds. They can succeed – but only if we do a better job supporting them than we’re doing right now.

As a group, these students are diverse in age, ethnicity and economic background. They often have no history of higher education in their families. They didn’t go to a great high school. They didn’t go straight to college. They took a job. They had kids. They have little financial support.

When they enrolled in community college, they may have ended up in remedial classes that made them feel stuck. Or they got into college-level courses that made them feel overwhelmed. Food and rent and kids may have pushed them to the edge of their budget … then the car broke down, and they dipped into tuition money. A $500 car repair may have turned into $500,000 in lost wages over a lifetime – because a student never went back and never moved up.  

These students are trying to change their lives by going to your college. You are the one foothold they have on the way up.

But right now, we are not giving them what they need. Too many get stuck in remedial ed and never get out. Some get out, but never complete. They come for a degree, but don’t get one, and they leave disappointed – in the system and in themselves.  

We’re wasting their talent. So how can we turn this around?

I believe the answer starts with trustees who ask hard questions:

  • What percent of our students are taking remedial classes?
  • What percent of our remedial ed students are making it to college-level courses?
  • What percent are completing a degree or certificate?
  • What percent continue their education at a 4-year institution or find a relevant job after they graduate?

These can be discouraging questions to ask, because they highlight the big challenge. How are you going to educate more students to a higher standard with fewer dollars per student?

Technology and Innovation

If this were a simple math problem with fixed values, there would be no solution. But progress comes when you find a solution by seeing the problem in a new way.  

That’s innovation. When you re-invent the way you educate, the old assumptions about time and cost and method vanish – and you break through.  

The breakthroughs that change the world come when you apply innovation to the biggest points of leverage. Education is a huge leverage point – because good schools can lift society in ways nothing else can. In education, community colleges are a huge leverage point – because they educate millions of people on the verge of success. In community colleges, remedial education is a big leverage point – because so many students get stuck there and never get out.

Remedial Math

More than half of all community college students require some developmental math. Of those, only about 10 percent end up completing a two-year degree within three years.

This is an area where education technology can create stunning breakthroughs.

One of our grantees, the National Center for Academic Transformation, has redesigned developmental math instruction. The new model has now reached more than 100,000 students in dozens of community colleges.  

In the old model of remedial ed, students listen as the instructor lectures on a topic that is too easy for some students and too hard for others.

In the new model, instructors circulate in the room as students get computer-based math training that teaches them exactly the thing they need to learn in the exact order they need to learn it. They’re drilled on each idea until they master it, and then they move on to the next one. The teacher is there for one-on-one explanations and for encouragement.

This avoids the pitfalls of the old remedial math: it doesn’t overwhelm students with material they aren’t ready to understand. It doesn’t bore students with material they already know. And it doesn’t require students to wait for the test to learn how they’re doing; it gives them immediate feedback. Also, the instructors don’t spend their time delivering rote content; instead they’re able to respond to individual questions and concerns. Technology helps to re-allocate the most precious and limited resource – the instructor’s time.

Students in these new-style remedial ed courses outperformed students in conventional courses – and colleges saw a 28 percent reduction in the cost per student. This is great news, but we need to keep experimenting. Some redesigns worked better than others, and some classes had lower completion rates. But we’re moving in the right direction with higher quality and lower cost.

This approach gets results because it tailors the instruction to each student. But there is a deeper reason why it works. Learning is fun. It’s exciting to figure out something new. So to ensure that instruction is fun and students keep learning, we have to make sure the material is challenging, but not overwhelming. That’s the sweet spot where learning thrives. And technology can help an instructor find that sweet spot for dozens of students in the same class at the same time. This is a huge breakthrough – and it can help millions of students cut through a roadblock to a college degree.


New technology can also make a huge difference in advising students on choosing the right major, selecting courses, and keeping on track for a credential.

Good advising is especially crucial for students who are low-income, first-generation students. Many of them have no advice from home. They don’t have clear plans; they don’t know the job market, and they can’t tell what courses offer the best opportunities.

Their success depends on the counsel of their community college advisors. But most advisors are responsible for more than 400 students. With so many students, each meeting starts with: “Sorry, what’s your goal again? What’s your time frame? What’s your course plan?” By the time the advisor recalls the data, the meeting is done – because there is a long line of students standing outside the door.

There are two magical things the digital system can do to fix this. It can keep the history of the conversations the advisor and student have so they don’t have to start over every time.

And a digital system can record the patterns of student performance over the years. The system knows the profiles of students that have succeeded or failed with different course plans and timelines. It can predict success or failure. So the advisor can instantly see when a student has gone off track and how she can get back on.

A digital system can also tell students what majors are best for their skills, what jobs follow from those majors, what those jobs pay, and which 4-year colleges accept transfer credits.

When advisors are responsible for more than 400 students, they have to have this digital system – or their students will make life-changing decisions without knowing what they’re doing.

The Changing Role of the Instructor

When technology helps us do something more efficiently, it frees up time and resources for other tasks. We see it in the computer-based math training I described. Software can generate problem sets for you to work on, understand your mistakes, and point you to 5-minute on-line lectures. That is far more efficient than the old method of doing worksheets. So the teacher who used to spend time writing worksheets is set free to do what computers can’t do – talk one-on-one with students, address personal issues, organize study groups, and motivate the students.

Instructors are now seeing the same opportunities come available through the use of on-line lectures. We’re all reading a lot now about MOOCs – or massive open on-line courses. MOOCs are promising and exciting, but connecting to a MOOC is like reading a textbook. It’s not a substitute for going to college.

The value of MOOCs comes when you use them to create hybrids that are the best of both worlds. Rather than having the instructor lecture during class and then send the students home with assignments, many instructors are now using MOOCs to “flip the classroom.”

In a course at Bunker Hill Community College, students watch lectures by MIT professors at home. Then they do assignments in class with the guidance of Bunker Hill faculty. Used this way, MOOCs increase the one-on-one time available between faculty and students.

This may be the biggest untold story of education technology: When used properly, technology can amplify the human element in education.  

Every year, millions of people take an introductory course in Algebra. Until now, that has meant that thousands of teachers had to present introductory lectures in Algebra. But technology is changing that.

I like to compare it to the change that took place in the world of music. Before recorded music, everybody listened to the best singers in their neighborhood or in their city. Over time, the record industry found great singers, put a budget behind them to help them get even better, and recorded their performances so we can now listen to the world’s best singers in our homes.

The same thing is happening in the world of academic lectures. We don’t have to have 20 different people in a large urban area all giving a lecture in the same introductory course. We can get the greatest lecturers in the English-speaking world, every student can listen to them – and the instructors who used to spend their time preparing and delivering lectures can become 21st century community college instructors.

These instructors are gifted at relating to students, running small group learning sessions, and matching up students with the best resources available – the best lectures, the best problem sets, the best assessments. They have more time to get to know the students, explain difficult concepts, and trouble-shoot when students aren’t thriving. They are the architects and motivators of learning.

The smart use of technology doesn’t replace faculty – it redeploys them, to the benefit of the students.

Technology and People

Let me make one final point about technology. Technology is not going to do any good unless instructors and staff and students know how to use it – and that takes people.

I remember when I was in high school back in the early 70s learning about computers. Computer time was so expensive back then that it really added to the tension in the computer room when we were programming. Everybody would crowd around shouting: “Hey, you messed this up!” “You’re taking too much time!” Once in a while, when we got stuck on a problem, one of the students would turn to me and say: “If you’re so smart, you figure this out.” And I would take those manuals home and read them over and over, page by page.

That is not normal.

Most people don’t want to read technology manuals – and they won’t use the technology if that’s how they have to learn it. But most everyone will try new technology if someone walks them through it and helps them learn.

What does this mean for trustees? Sometime in the coming year, you’re going to be asked to approve a budget. The president may recommend a technology solution, and some of you will ask: “What will it cost?” and “How will it help?” 

But there is another question I hope you ask: “How are we going to make sure that everyone can use it?”

There needs to be a separate line item for implementing this technology. Technology can’t succeed on its own. It needs people to teach others how to use it. If you leave the people out, then new technology won’t help.

Technology is a tool, not a goal. The goal is a student with a degree who can fulfill her potential. I believe in the coming years we can make huge advances toward this goal – shrinking the number of students who leave disappointed, and multiplying the numbers who get what they came for.

You can do this – if you harness the technology that changes how you teach and advise your students.

By now you know -- I think it would be a phenomenal thing if you urge your colleges to take up these new technologies. But institutions usually change only when they’re under pressure, and not many colleges are doing this yet. So where’s the pressure?

Why should you push your school to be in the first wave of change?

I’ll give you two reasons why you shouldn’t wait.

This is a fast-paced world. You might decide: I’ll be in the first half of schools that change, not the first ten percent. But that’s a risky game, because change happens fast. If you wait, you might not make it into the first half. You’ll be in the last half. And being among the last to change is not a safe place to be.

There is another reason to change now. It’s the point I made as I started this talk: The public wants you to educate more students to a higher standard with fewer dollars per student. And you can’t do that without new technology.

There’s a stern logic to this. Nothing will stay the same. Larger enrollments, higher expectations and flat budgets will force change.

Community colleges that master the new technology will change for the better.

Thank you.

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