Part I: Bill Gates
A decade or more ago when I began work in higher education administration, many a nose looked down on Microsoft. For sometime now that perspective has been changing. Microsoft bought up a number of technical security companies to patch its reputation for vulnerability. Research and development embraced broad thinkers, such as danah boyd, and more open models in software computing, albeit grounded in copyright protected, widely used software programs. Far outpacing competitors such as Apple, Google or Amazon, Microsoft pioneered accessibility. Once Mr. Gates moved from the Microsoft Corporation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft has proven itself to be the gold standard in charitable giving among Internet companies. None of the other Internet companies (or their respective foundations) even begin to come close to what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has accomplished in the last five years.
Perhaps because as recently as five years ago American higher education did not consider it self to be in need of charity, it might have look kindly upon the efforts of the Gates foundation in faraway places such as Africa, but in the main it did not think of itself to be, hat in hand, in need of a donation. A gift for a new building or unrestricted monies, sure, but not "charity" per se. When the New Learning Initiatives emerged a few years ago, elite institutions considered the grants something for struggling community colleges, especially those in urban or rural areas addressing the needs of students at risk for access and completion.
As the challenges to traditional, not for profit higher education, including small liberal arts colleges and elite research universities, mount daily, perspectives not only on what constitutes "need" but the means by which even the best colleges and universities achieve their missions have begun to change radically. Recent events at the University of Virginia illustrate this point.
Mainstream colleges and universities recognize that they need an influx of visionary thinking, smart strategic plans and probably a chunk of money to radically change the means by which they deliver instruction. Methods such as MOOCs and blended instruction, once considered necessary only for at risk student populations, are rapidly emerging as the new teaching and learning standard. The speech that Bill Gates gave on Tuesday in commemoration of the anniversary of the Morrill Act, and companionate video interviews with Jeff Young of the Chronicle of Higher Education, leave no doubt that higher education has crossed the Rubicon. It might seem ironic that the man who has only a high school degree should become the leader for higher education in the 21st-century, but perhaps there is nobody better than one for whom traditional, elite, not for profit higher education paled. I, for one, do not doubt his sincerity for a second, and am in fact moved by his authenticity in the space.
Today's blog is an introduction. In a future blog I will explain how Microsoft is blowing Google out of the water in higher education applications.