SXSWORLD February 2013


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SXSWedu Keynote: Bill Gates Seeks Paths to Better Education by Emily Farris Bill Gates © B I L L & M E L I N D A G AT E S F O U N D AT I O N / A D A M C R O W L E Y f you want to know the state of the American education system at any given moment, look no further than the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's website: While the Gates Foundation is well-known for its health initiatives in developing countries, its primary focus in the U.S. is education. Bill Gates—whose name is practically synonymous with Microsoft, the now-multinational software corporation he co-founded in 1975—began his large-scale philanthropic efforts with the William H. Gates Foundation in 1994, focusing on global health. Three years later, he and his wife, Melinda Gates, created the Gates Library Foundation (later the Gates Learning Foundation), which worked to place Internet-connected computers in public libraries. In 2000, the two organizations merged into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where Education is one of three major focus areas, along with Global Health and Poverty and Development. The goal of the foundation's education work is to dramatically increase the number of young people who graduate from high school ready to succeed in college, careers, and life. The foundation spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on investments that seek to prepare all students to be academically prepared for success in college and careers. But as Vicki Phillips, Director of College Ready Education for the Gates Foundation describes it, "our K–12 education investments fall into two big areas: helping teachers do their best work and catalyzing a more personalized approach to learning for students." In higher education, the Gates Foundation works toward ensuring that students finish a college program that will help them support themselves and achieve their dreams. Years of research have led the foundation to the conclusion (or starting point, depending on how you look at it) that quality K–12 teachers are the key to student success. "Effective teaching is the most important in-school factor in student achievement," wrote Gates in his 2012 annual letter. "There are 22 SXSWORLD / FEBRUARY 2013 a lot of great teachers in public schools, and a lot of teachers who want to be great but don't have the tools they need. If we could make the average teacher as good as the best teachers, the benefit to students would be phenomenal." The quality of teachers may be the biggest factor in student success, but it is certainly not the only factor. In fact, access to technology outside the classroom played a huge role in Gates' educational development, so it is no surprise that the foundation invests in programs that "leverage new technology to better engage, motivate and educate students" and the development of "next generation school models that can take advantage of these technologies." Stacey Childress, Deputy Director of Innovation at Gates explains, "We are excited about the growth of school models that blend the best of face-to-face and digital instruction to personalize learning for students. We invest in school teams with innovative ideas and the ability to implement them, as well as supporting innovation in the content and tools they need to accelerate learning for students." One such program is the non-profit Khan Academy, a free online video library covering a wide range of K–12-level math, science and humanities subjects. The idea is that individuals can pick from the nearly 4,000 videos to brush up on a single subject, and teachers use the software to support classroom learning and assess students' comprehension. "A number of learning technologies are producing promising results," added Phillips. "Programs like Dreambox Learning, Reasoning Mind, ST Math and Scholastic's Read180. Students find them incredibly engaging, and they give teachers very detailed information about how each student is doing and what they need to work on to get better." But technological innovations like the Khan Academy cannot be effective if teachers do not know about them. So, in his annual letter, Gates mentioned the need for an online service that helps educators easily discover and learn how to use new tools and resources. Attendees of this year's SXSWedu can hope to get a sneak peek of this and other insights into the Gates Foundation's U.S. education work when Bill Gates gives a SXSWedu 2013 keynote address at 10:30am on Thursday, March 7 in Ballroom D of the Austin Convention Center. ■ In addition to Gates, SXSWedu 2013 will feature two other compelling keynote sessions: The first, on Tuesday, March 5, will present G. Asenath Andrews, founder and principal of the Catherine Ferguson Academy, located in Detroit, Michigan, an alternative public high school for teen mothers that also provides early education services for their children. The second, on Wednesday, March 6, will feature a keynote conversation about MOOCs (massive open online courses). The New York Times' Laura Pappano will moderate a discussion with Anant Agarwal, president of edX, and Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera. To learn more about SXSWedu 2013, visit

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