In any world where money talks, the voice of Bill Gates, software billionaire and alpha philanthropist, is bound to carry. Gates belongs to the tiny fraternity of individuals with the clout and the finances to turn virtually any conversation on a dime--or rather, a mile-high stack of them, and while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation probably gets the most ink for its global public health work, the Foundation is also a central participant in the current discussion of educational standards and practices in the US.
Recently in this space, I noted that the Gates- (and Hewlett-) backed Next Generation Learning Challenges group pledged nearly $750,000 in grant funding to help the UC system get its large-scale e-learning intiative up and running in the next year, and the NGLC grant is only the tip of a much larger philanthropic iceberg that Gates is floating in the field of education. Last week, the Gates Foundation announced $20 million in grants for a batch of e-learning initiatives that emphasize a game-based approach to education.
As Fast Company's Gregory Fierenstein has pointed out, the Gates "mega-investment" seems well-timed to pivot the national conversation on primary education and the goal of preparing students for college and beyond. To counteract the general fecklessness that followed the No Child Left Behind law, most states have adopted a new set of curriculum standards collectively known as the common core. An article in the New York Times recently described the standards as "specific goals that, by the end of the 12th grade, should prepare students for college work. Book reports will ask students to analyze, not summarize. Presentations will be graded partly on how persuasively students express their ideas. History papers will require reading from multiple sources."
Put simply, the common core idea is to encourage students to think critically, which is great, and the standards themselves--neither dictated nor enforced by any sort of responsible national body--encourage local educators and districts to develop and adopt innovative and challenging curricula. This is also a fine thing, in theory. In practice, however, making good on the opportunity implicit in the common core moment will require both decisive action and flexible thinking, neither of which have historically been strengths of the educational bureuacracy at any level.
And this is where Mr. Gates sees his opportunity. While the general enthusiasm for doing something (something big) is coupled with a certain confusion about just what that thing ought to be, the door is standing wide open for a decisive actor to make a move. Gates is certainly that actor, and his Foundation just might be swinging the entire education conversation with his $20 million argument for instructive video games as a primary tool for fostering curiosity and a capacity for critical thinking.
While any move to shake up the education system is bound to elicit some controversy, an unmistakable desire for reform is coursing through the country, from Barack Obama on down. News of the Gates grants has been received with considerable enthusiasm in the education blogosphere, and even e-learning and gaming skeptics are likely to be inclined to listen to what the man who bears a great responsibility for revolutionizing the way that we do, well, everything has to say about fixing our broken education system.
And while many details remain unannounced, Gates has said one thing quite clearly: "Game on."