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Will Someone Please Invent the Virtual Locker Room

Bill Gates, always a man with big ideas, suspects that the internet is going to shake up our educational system:

“Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world,” Gates said at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, CA today. “It will be better than any single university,” he continued.

In fact, this is already true today. When I used to bus-commute across the bridge, every bus ride that I didn't spend reading pirated young-adult Star Wars novellas or playing "Angry Birds" I spent watching "iTunes U" lectures from Stanford and MIT and iPorn about "Machine Learning" and "Computer Science" and "The Naked Female Body." If only I could somehow put these on my resume, I'd be able to talk my way into all sorts of jobs I'm not really qualified to do. BillG has got a plan for that too:

He believes that no matter how you came about your knowledge, you should get credit for it. Whether it’s an MIT degree or if you got everything you know from lectures on the web, there needs to be a way to highlight that.

Now, there is a cynical school of thought that says that the value of a MIT degree is not that it signals that you learned dozens of MIT-lecture-worths of things; rather, it's that it signals that you were admitted to and jumped through all the hoops necessary to survive four years at MIT, in which case the hypothetical third-party credentials "watched a bunch of MIT lectures on the bus" probably aren't that useful to employers.

Furthermore, being lectured at is frequently not the best way to learn something. Nonetheless, I join BillG in applauding this trend. If it puts competitive pressure on colleges, it will be a good thing.

It seems to me that it's even more promising for K-12 education. Rather than having centrally-assigned, underqualified teachers trying to lecture 30 students who learn at varying paces (and several of whom are disruptive), each student could find the lecturer and lecture style that works best for him. In many cases these might be no lectures at all. Think of the innovations that would ensue! I bet BillG is most excited about this:

He made sure to say that educational institutions are still vital for children, K-12. He spoke glowingly about charter schools, where kids can spend up to 80% of their time deeply engaged with learning.

But college needs to be less “place-based,” according to Gates. Well, except for the parties, he joked.

Wait, what? K-12 education needs to be "place-based"? I mean, I understand that the internet can't yet teach kids valuable life skills like "staying in your seat" and "raising your hand before you speak" and "not going to the bathroom without getting permission first" and "getting duct-taped to a bench in the locker room for being too slow at running laps." But surely virtual locker rooms and virtual duct tape are only a few years away!

(Also, for those of you who don't know, I am delighted to report that the post-college years contain a huge number of parties, including Oktoberfests, Nights of Decadence, 80's Parties, Bacchinaliae, Shut-up-and-Drinks, and Lovett Casino Parties.)

It's tough to assert with a straight face that competition (from the internet or otherwise) will provide vast benefits for students in grades 13-16, but has no role to play in grades K-12. If Bill ever decides to spend his vast fortunes improving education, hopefully he'll revisit his opinion on this first, before he wastes billions of dollars.

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