Why Bill Gates Says School Textbooks Will Soon Be Obsolete

How do you get your news? Check your bank balance? Find recipes? Odds are, you go online for this type of information. According to Bill Gates, teachers and students increasingly are going online to teach and to learn, respectively. That, he proclaims, forebodes the end of the textbook.

Evolution of the Classroom Learning Model

Gates made this controversial prediction in his and wife Melinda’s 2019 Annual Letter, in which they share nine “surprises” they realized in 2018. Surprise number eight reveals that “textbooks are becoming obsolete,” in part because “software is changing how students learn.”

Gates’ Rationale for Eliminating Textbooks

Gates says that reading textbooks is a “limited way to learn something,” and he suggests it is less effective than learning online. As the founder of Microsoft, one could argue that Gates is biased when it comes to the importance and relevance of computers over textbooks, however he no longer runs the company and donates the majority of his stock shares in it, so promoting the company was likely not his motivation.

Software learning, he says, allows a student to read text online—and view how-to videos, play games to reinforce concepts, and take quizzes. The software automatically “figures out” which concepts he or she is having trouble with based on what the student gets right and wrong on the quizzes. Then, the software tailors content to help the student grasp the concepts he or she is struggling with.

And, he says, there’s more. The software also sends the students’ teachers detailed reports about what each student did, how much time they spent, what they got right and wrong, and what they need more help and feedback on. “Even the best text can’t figure out which concepts you understand and which ones you need more help with,” Gates writes in his letter. “It certainly can’t tell your teacher how well you grasped last night’s assigned reading.”

Clearly, digital learning is a valuable educational tool. But, should it entirely replace the time-honored textbook?

The Issues with Eliminating Textbooks?

The textbook, however, is status quo in schools worldwide (and is still a part of online learning curriculum). One reason schools still use them is that they can be cost-effective. An article in Forbes notes that schools can use many textbooks (for subjects such as math and English) year after year because the concepts and information rarely changes.

Software learning programs sometimes include subscription services that require schools to purchase annual licenses. And, in most school districts, budgets are tight. Additionally, textbooks are easily portable and can be used at home by every student; not all students have home access to computers in brick-and-mortar schools. Last but not least, eliminating textbooks would completely change how teachers teach, manage their classrooms, and create their lesson plans. Textbooks are easy to access and many students and teachers appreciate having some info in paper form. All of which must be taken into consideration.

Learning Online

As a parent, do you consider textbooks to be important to your kids’ education? What do you think about the prospect of your kids attending schools that don’t have textbooks? If you are intrigued at the prospect of your kids learning with updated software and interactive activities, you may want to look into online learning at home. K12-powered virtual schools offer online lessons and interactive activities mixed with non-computer activities using K12-provided materials. Visit K12.com to learn more and find a school in your area.

Perhaps if textbooks were to be eliminated in schools, students would not complain about having less heavy backpacks.

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