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Editor's Note: Who Gets to Upgrade Schools?

Aug 04, 2006, 22:30 (16 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

My wife was scheduled to travel on business this week, and after she arrived at her destination on Sunday evening, she asked me if I would set the Tivo to record Monday's episode of Oprah.

Now, my wife and I have an understanding. She doesn't poke fun at Star Trek, I lay off any cracks about Oprah Winfrey (like "piercing your ears... on the next Oprah"). It's all good that way. Still, she doesn't usually go out of her way to Tivo an episode, so I asked her what the topic was.

"You might be interested in it," she said over the phone, "it'll have Bill and Melinda Gates on."

Bill Gates meets the Oprahnator? This I did have to see. Monday night I settled in with the remote and a strong drink and fired up the episode, chillingly titled "What Bill and Melinda Gates Want You to Know." Turns out the Gates were on the show to talk about something they feel strongly about: the declining quality of US schools, which was the focus of the entire show that day.

Here's how Oprah introduced the interview with the Gates: "With a net worth of about $51 billion, Microsoft founder and world's richest man, Bill Gates, and his wife, Melinda (two of Time magazine's 'Persons of the Year' in 2005), are determined to use their fortune to change the crisis in American schools. Through their influential Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they are trying to revolutionize an education system that, if it were a business, Bill says, 'would be bankrupt.'"

Clearly, this was going to be a hard-hitting episode.

I won't bore you with the minutia (the content of the episode is online), nor get into a debate about what the best solution to this education problem might be. (Privately, I think it's going to take a lot more effort on the part of the parents to keep their kids involved in learning, not just more money.)

No, what made me sit up and take notice was this gem from Oprah's narration: "Bill and Melinda point to an obsolete education--built for the industrial age, not the digital age--as a keystone to the problem. The Gates Foundation pointedly asks, 'What good is it for kids to graduate in 2006 from a school system that was designed for 1956?'"

At first glance, this is exactly the kind of thing you would think a billionaire who made his money with software would say. And the cynics among us would say this is just another way of opening up another market for his company's products. That may very well be. But the first thing I thought when I'd heard this particular statement was "where have I heard something like that before?"

Then I remembered: India's Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee said something very similar when he formally rejected the notion that India would be ordering machines from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. Banerjee believes the $100 laptops would not benefit Indian students as much as more teachers and classrooms. In other words, India needs more infrastructure. A statement he made well before this interview with the Gates was aired.

India has other objections to the OLPC plan, make no mistake. For one, they're not convinced that this laptop would be a worthy teaching tool. And while I find it interesting that Bill Gates is pushing for exactly the same things in American schools at India's government is in Indian schools, I don't really believe that it's the only agenda of the Gates Foundation to make sure Windows is on every PC troubled schools in any nation eventually receive.

At least, it's not an agenda at the top of the list.

But on a smaller level it has to be a win-win for Bill. If his Foundation is successful at funding and/or raising awareness to help US schools, then clearly if there's any kind of PC deployment involved, individual schools are going to feel squeamish about saying "no, thanks" to Vista-loaded machines when so much else has been donated to them. (That's even if they're aware of the alternatives like Linux--many school may receive new PCs like it's Christmas morning.)

Getting Windows, especially Vista, in front of as many new eyeballs as possible is critical to success of Microsoft. Locking out potential open source deployments in the US (or, indeed, any) school system is an added plus, as well.

There are flaws to my arguments, not the least of which is that it trivializes a real threat to education, both in the US and abroad, and I do not want to do that. Problems exist and any potential solution must be looked at with an objective eye.

I cannot help but wonder, though, if the Gates Foundation is--deliberately or otherwise--about to raise a whole new generation of students and workers dependent on Microsoft products.

Ideally, projects like Indiana high schools' deployment of Novell and SUSE software will help schools realize that they do have a choice in what tools to use.

Maybe we'll see programs like that some day... on the next Oprah.