Bill Gates NECC '97 Keynote

"The vision here is of a connected learning community. The connection between the school and the home is very valuable. Giving parents an opportunity to look in and see what the class is learning, to understand what the homework assignments might be, to work with their students to go out and explore whatever information that is out on the Internet that might be relevant, and then be able to mail that in, or print it out, so it can be shared broadly with other students."

"It's wonderful how universities have been at the vanguard of the Internet, building a body of material up on their Web sites that can be accessible to all levels of education. This is a perfect example of schools working with colleges. We have libraries getting into the act, contributing and building information, and lots and lots of content out there on the Internet. The vast majority of content on the Internet is absolutely free. And even the content where people are hoping to charge a subscription for it, as we're able to verify which users come from the commercial world, and which users are students, we'll be able to have a substantial part of that commercial material be available free or at extremely low cost to students."

"The idea is that each student feels in control of what they're doing, that they don't have to stand in line to wait to use the resource. Eventually, portable computers will be inexpensive enough that each student might have their own, and they can take it home with them, connect it up, and continue their exploration process whenever they want. In the experiments that have been done along these lines, the impact has been quite dramatic, and so we can hope that as the prices fall, and the options increase here, that this is something that a lot of students will have available."

"Trying different things out is of critical importance, and once there are experiments that work well, it's very important to spread the word about what's been learned so that everybody can benefit from that. We've done that by sponsoring a number of Web sites that have curriculum and have case studies of what schools have done."

"We also have very small hand-held devices that are starting to be used in lots of applications. Now, in some cases, these are simply a complement to a desktop machine, where you can walk around, have your messages, your schedule, and the latest data you care about. Today most of them are not connected up to a digital wireless network. But that is the vision for what we call the wallet PC. As these hand-held devices are getting more powerful, there will be some cases where they are used in the classroom. The typical price of these machines is five or six hundred dollars, which makes them about half the price of even a very state-of-the-art desktop PC."

"Finally, the lowest cost device is one that we call Web TV, where you use the TV screen, and that's the display. And then there's a box, it's about $250 that connects up to the television. It d'esn't let you run the full range of applications, but it d'es give you the Internet and electronic mail access. And so it opens up a part of the market that was not there before. I expect particularly in homes that are connected with cable, that over the next five years this will become a standard offering, and it can be used in the classroom as well because of the low cost."

The computers we're talking about still are fairly limited. If you use a computer, the first day you use it, it d'esn't know much about you. But, unlike a human that you work with, who learns what you're interested in and becomes adapted to working with you well over time, a year later the computer is the same. It has no idea what you're interested in and it requires extremely precise instruction to get things done. And this is certainly something we have to change.

We need computers that can see where a student is having problems. Computers that know what you care about. So you get notified if there is some new work in a particular subject area. When a teacher sits down at their machine in the morning they should see a home page that is tailored to notify them of some interesting links that they might want to go out there and pursue. You shouldn't have to go out and try and find things all the time. That information should come to you."

And I'm convinced that within the next 10 to 20 years we will be able to teach computers to see, to listen and to learn. The idea of using a low-cost camera on the computer to recognize who is sitting in front of the machine and see what they are doing, even to see how they're reacting -- is the student sort of grimacing as they answer the questions, are they enjoying themselves -- that should all be very, very possible. Understanding voice not only helps people with disabilities, but helps everyone get in and use the computer in a very, very simple way. And so you can have conversations where the computer is helping you out. Microsoft is investing over $2 billion a year in research and development in this area. Many of these problems people expected to solve a long time ago. But they turned out to be very, very difficult. The kind of ambiguity you get in recognizing speech was not well understood, because the amazing way that humans are able to do it is all done subconsciously. If you take a phrase like recognize speech, it sounds a lot like "wreck a nice beach." In fact, our speech group calls themselves the "wreck-a-nice-beach" group. "

"Another major effort is teacher training, making sure there is access to great courses here. And this is a case where partnerships are very important. We're working with community colleges and colleges of education to try and do this and building a Web site called Global Schoolhouse to share best practices."

"The most important thing, I think, is helping schools get connected up. And that's making the software that can run on these machines available and configuring it in a way that recognizes the unique elements of the education environment, the variety of machines that are there, the fact that many of those machines are older machines and the need to have a simple administrative interface for setting those things up."

"One of the most interesting things we've done recently is put together some templates that make it easy for a school to put up a Web site. And not just a Web site with some photos of the school, but also something that describes the class schedules and gives the curriculum, so people who are coming in can see when things are being done, making it very easy for an administrator who d'esn't know much about computing to be able to keep the web site up-to-date and engaging, so people will come back on a very regular basis."

"Government, primarily at the local level, needs to pitch in. It's been great to see there have been lobbies that have had a technology focus and many of those have been successful. I'd be the first to say that the products we have today are not the ultimate solution, but I can say that the pace and improvement in these technologies, and our effort to really listen and hear what you need, will be the very, very best it can be. I see all these pieces coming together and there is nothing more exciting than seeing a student sit down and enjoy learning something and getting the positive feedback that comes with that. So I look forward to working with all of you to make this a reality.

Thank you."

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.