Bill Gates on Education, Philanthropy, and Track Balls

By Andrew Trotter — March 03, 1999 5 min read

In a one-on-one interview last week, Bill Gates, the chairman and CEO of the Microsoft Corp., talked with Staff Writer Andrew Trotter about the “Schools Interoperability Framework,” a plan by Microsoft and 18 other software companies to create technical standards that would help schools develop a “digital nervous system.” Mr. Gates, 43, also discussed his philanthropic efforts and what he’s learning about computers from his 2-year-old daughter. Excerpts from the interview follow:

Q. How do you think the “digital nervous system” will make an impact in the classroom? Will classroom teachers actually be better teachers, and learners better learners?

A. The digital-nervous-system vision is about access to information, that if you really empower people, get all the information out there and make it easy to find, it will enhance their curiosity and improve their ability to do analysis and make decisions.

Students are the ultimate example of that--where their job, if you call it that, is to learn. And the school wants to reinforce their general learning skills and their confidence so that they can solve tough problems. So if you’re bringing the Internet into it, where they can browse, find the latest things, and as a group share what they find on the Internet and talk about those things, I think the impact is pretty dramatic, because the amount of sharing that’s going to go on, and the amount of authoring that’s going to go on by teachers and students, will be incredible.

In the past, students and teachers couldn’t write textbooks. If they found a way of explaining something or making something fun to learn, they could contribute at their single classroom, but there was no leverage for any of the great ideas they had.

Well, in this Internet environment, they’re not just users, they’re contributors as well. So getting the authoring software, things like [Microsoft] Office and Front Page, into the mix has been part of our initiative.

Q. Will the Schools Interoperability Framework have Windows as an essential requirement?

A. No. The Schools Interoperability Framework is a way of describing data, and so it can work with software that runs on any computer system. It’s not at all Windows-specific, in the same way that we created the whole PC era by defining the standards of the PCs. PCs can run many different kinds of software, not just Microsoft software. It’s something we did to grow the industry--you know, achieve the potential.

In the case of the Schools Interoperability Framework, it’s not biased towards any Microsoft software.

We ourselves don’t write the application software. We’re a great neutral party to pull this together and define it in a way that doesn’t favor one school registration system over another. It works very, very well with all the different educational software packages.

Q. You’ve given a great deal of your own money to libraries and to universities. What are your philanthropic plans for schools?

A. I’ve given a lot to private schools; for the school I went to, Lakeside [School in Seattle], I’ve done quite a bit.

The libraries was a clear thing where there was an opportunity to just go from a small percentage of libraries having the Internet and PCs to making sure that they all had them. And the contribution--although the financial part was a big part of it, buying the hardware and everything--actually the biggest impact has been the support people, the training people, the standard configurations.

With [public] schools, I have made contributions, but it’s a more complex area in terms of where philanthropy comes in.

Q. Schools often have combinations of Macintosh and Windows computers that make it difficult to purchase software. Is it an impossible dream for software applications to work across both platforms seamlessly, and do educators need to abandon that idea?

A. Well, there’s no magic in the world. You’re never going to have software made for one machine automatically run on the other [platform] and take advantage of what it does. People who use Macintoshes don’t want Windows; they want the Macintosh user interface. They don’t even want the same software that runs on the other machine. The idea that they’d have something that wouldn’t exploit the Mac is a very negative thing, if that’s what you’ve bought.

So, the idea that software needs to be tailored to a particular machine, that’s just a fact, and nothing’s going to change that. We write as much software for the Macintosh as anyone except for Apple itself. We have some software we’ve chosen just to do on Windows because of the volume that’s there.

Q. What do you think policymakers should do to address the “digital divide,” especially when homes are so different in the resources they have, and schools are trying to mediate between high-tech homes and homes that don’t have anything but a phone?

A. The price of the PC is coming down, and the penetration has gone up pretty radically. I do think that if kids in their after-school hours, through community centers and libraries, can go in and have access to a PC, that’s another leveling factor. That’s why I gave a gift to make that possible in every library in the country.

Things like the [Microsoft] laptop program, where the parents get involved in paying a monthly fee [to lease a laptop computer], we’ve been impressed at how many parents have been interested in signing up to that. The program is in over 500 schools today, and we’re going to see if we can spread it further, faster.

Q. Could you tell me something you have learned about learning and computing in schools from watching your daughter in a technologically rich environment?

A. My daughter’s not quite 3 yet, so I wouldn’t say there’s some grand learning. She loves using the computer software. She’s learned her numbers and her letters, and she probably uses it about 50 minutes a day. She’s playing around with it, and we’re always sitting there with her, doing it together. She has that big track ball. You know kids at that age, maybe some use the mouse, but the track ball works because their hands are so small, and it just stays wherever they put it.

And you know, she’s very lucky to have access at that age with those tools. When you see her fascination and how much she gets out of it, you think, “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if everybody’s kids could have the same thing?” Certainly, when I grew up, there was nothing like it.

A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as Bill Gates on Education, Philanthropy, and Track Balls