According to an article in Business Week the Gates Foundation has essentially announced its support for online education strategies:

In his 2010 annual letter, recently posted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website, Bill Gates makes a pretty strong case for incorporating different elements of the Internet — specifically, online video and interactive lessons — into both K-12 and higher education. “A lot of people, including me, think this is the next place where the Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things,” he writes.

It is a fact that “online learning,” “educational technology,” and “distance education” are buzzwords that are practically ubiquitous among today’s teachers, education gurus, and even high-profile business executives.

There’s a difference between “buzzword” and “valuable strategy,” however. Gates, as the co-founder of one of the world’s largest computer software companies, isn’t exactly an unbiased observer when considering whether or not computers can improve education.

In his letter about online education Gates explains how his new interest in online technology came about:

A number of universities are already putting lectures online for free. I particularly like the physics courses by Walter Lewin and the solid-state chemistry course by Donald Sadoway, both from MIT. When I want to learn a new concept like the Carnot limit on getting usable energy out of heat, I often will watch lectures from different courses to see how it is explained and test my understanding.

In effect Bill Gates has found that online information often makes collegiate material more exciting, for Bill Gates. If it works for Bill Gates why shouldn’t it work for others?

But then he also discovered that going to Harvard was a waste of time and he could make six bajillion dollars in computes without a college degree. Dropping out of college has not proven nearly as effective for the rest of the population.

Gates explains that perhaps the greatest potential for online education has to do with the way computers can make education interactive without greater additional costs. This has been the promise of technology for years. The secret is how to actually apply technology effectively. What’s the next step?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer