Why Bill Gates is Wrong about Online Learning

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, January 25, 2010

The computer revolution has brought sweeping changes to our lives, and many of these changes have been beneficial beyond our wildest dreams.

As a graduate student both before and after the Web matured to the point it is now, I can attest to the huge difference between spending hours poring through moldy references in a library and being able to instantly search multiple volumes for very specific topics from my home computer. Nevertheless, if taken to extremes, education via the Internet can quickly turn into too much of a good thing.

In his 2010 annual letter, former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates notes that “a lot of people, including me, think [online learning] is the next place where the Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things—especially in combination with face-to-face learning. With the escalating costs of education, an advance here would be very timely.” Mr. Gates also points to the ability to be interactive via the Internet as a strength of this paradigm.

Obviously, costs could be cut in this way, yet the interactive factor is also the biggest weakness of such an approach, and that is because it is really only superficially interactive. Having been in school far longer than one person should, I have learned one thing about learning: The best educational experiences start with good human relationships. That is to say, the experiences we remember most, and that benefit us most, tend to be with teachers and professors who have taken a special interest in us, and with whom we have formed at least somewhat of a personal bond. Certainly, not every class can be like this, but I would suggest that the best and most valuable ones are those that stress relationship over repetition or teaching technique.

This is a particularly important point because the way we teach kids—from grammar school on up through graduate school—will have a lot to do with the careers they choose. Right now, we seem to have a shortage of computer science and engineering graduates in the United States, at least some of which has to do with the shameless exportation of American jobs to foreign lands. I would contend, however, that in-person technical education that starts in the lower grades and is built on a solid relational foundation will result in more students and more graduates in these disciplines.

So what am I suggesting? Rather than having kids fall asleep in front of their computer monitors in the classroom, we should invest in recruiting and hiring. The best college football and basketball teams in the country get that way because people with a vision and a mission (often the coaches) physically go to high schools to search out the best athletes and personally inspire them in a way that a Skype session could never do.

If athletic talent can be successfully recruited, nurtured and developed in this way—and we know it can—certainly tech talent could also be found and inspired to innovate. All it takes is people who believe in what they do, who are enthusiastic about it, and who are willing to do the hard work it takes to reach others with their message.

Rather than pouring more money into what amounts to having the class watch a video (perhaps with some response questions thrown in to ward off creeping boredom) the Gates Foundation and others would serve us better by funding the development of tech evangelists who would do the relational groundwork to build a top-flight technology recruiting program. Insurance and financial services enterprises would certainly benefit by having access to the graduates of such a program; in fact, there’s no reason why we couldn’t train our own evangelists.

Who knows, this type of program could produce the next Bill Gates.

Ara C. Trembly ( is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at

The opinions posted in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News or SourceMedia.

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