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Bill Gates Discusses MOOCs at Microsoft Research’s Faculty Summit

Bill Gates says that this is the “golden era” of learning, thanks to massive open online courses and easy access to information. The chairman of Microsoft gave the keynote address on Monday at Microsoft Research’s Faculty Summit, an annual event that brings together Microsoft researchers and academics from more than 200 institutions for a two-day conference in Redmond, Wash., on current issues facing computer science.

At the summit, Mr. Gates told the audience that he sees enormous potential for MOOCs but cautioned that online education still faces many challenges. He also talked briefly about online education during an question-and-answer session with the audience.

In the Q&A, Mr. Gates predicted that MOOCs would not be “place-based” classes but would be led by a small subset of instructors who taught to a broad audience. There’s a set of people, he said, who are really good at it and who have big budgets and great support.

Mr. Gates said online education is “certainly going to happen” but emphasized that there’s more to learning than simply lectures. He cautioned that it was important not to forget the value of in-class learning, especially in lab work and in collaborative study groups.

He added that the high dropout rate of students enrolled in MOOCs has yet to be dealt with. In some instances, he said, the for-profit sector of education is doing a better job of tackling the issue through its intense support of students. As an example, he cited how for-profit learning companies will contact students if they are not present for a class or Webcast. He called that kind of hand-holding a “best practice.”

Mr. Gates also addressed the current discussion over the value of a college degree, predicting a “decoupling” of the degree from knowledge acquisition. Traditionally, a college degree was a badge indicating skills in certain areas that could be translated to employment. Mr. Gates said that may no longer be the case, largely because of online education.

This will be “a global phenomenon,” he said. “We’re on the beginning of something very profound.”

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