As Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates prepares to leave the company he has been associated with for the last three decades, school leaders are reflecting on the enormous impact he has had on both education and technology.

Gates’ legacy in educational technology no doubt will be influenced by people’s opinions of Microsoft itself. While there is no arguing that Gates helped bring computing to the masses and set the standard for office productivity software, his critics would say that Microsoft overcharged millions of customers and engaged in monopolistic business practices in order to crush competitors–helping Gates amass one of the largest fortunes in the world, worth an estimated $58 billion.

Now, Gates is leaving Microsoft at the end of the month to devote his full attention to the foundation he and his wife, Melinda, created to make a difference with this enormous fortune. And with Gates taking a more active role in the foundation, many observers say schools are likely to benefit.

"As Bill [Gates] turns full attention to his work with the foundation, there is great potential to see even more significant work supporting technology in education arising there," said Don Knezek, chief executive officer for the International Society for Technology in Education.

Gates has been a leading proponent of high school reform. Three years ago, he addressed the nation’s governors and urged them to redesign America’s high schools to meet the challenges of the new century.

"America’s high schools are obsolete," Gates told the governors that day (see "What’s wrong with U.S. high schools–and how we can make them better"). "By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded–though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean that our high schools–even when they’re working exactly as designed–cannot teach our kids what they need to know today. Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It’s the wrong tool for the times."

Through his charitable foundation, Gates has committed tens of millions of dollars to projects that aim to redesign high schools and make them more relevant for the 21st century.

"Bill Gates is a rare and unique individual who has used his wealth and gain to promote and reinvigorate public education," said James Harmon, an English teacher and Apple Distinguished Educator at Euclid High School in Ohio.

"Gates understands that large, comprehensive high schools have become far too impersonal for the unique needs of current students. He recognizes the importance of students making personal connections to their education and their teachers through collaboration and technology," Harmon said. "The proof will be in these students’ ability to participate in the new global economy. I wish him well in his future philanthropic endeavors and look forward to his next initiative."

Gates’ commitment to high school reform, and his belief that technology can be a driving force for change in schools, came together in 2006 with the opening of Philadelphia’s School of the Future, which was designed in consultation with Microsoft executives. (See "‘School of the Future’ opens doors.")

"Bill Gates certainly emphasizes the importance [of] facilitating innovation and 21st-century skills in our students," said Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. "His products, his company, and his work have advanced our thinking around what is possible with technology … through projects [such as] the School of the Future in Philadelphia–and I hope that his work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help to build upon what [educators] have learned there."

For all the criticism Microsoft has taken for its predatory business practices, it was Gates who was the driving force behind the idea that school software programs should be able to work together and share data in real time, regardless of their manufacturer–from back-office applications to student information systems to library and food-service systems.

Gates first outlined this vision of school software interoperability at the American Association of School Administrators conference in 1999, and his company took the lead in creating what is now the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), although Microsoft later stepped back into a supporting role in this initiative.

(Ironically, Gates was supposed to deliver the keynote address at the 1998 AASA conference, but he couldn’t make it that year–he was busy testifying before the Senate during the Microsoft antitrust hearings.)

Nearly a decade after Gates’ AASA address, research suggests that schools’ investment in SIF-compliant software is paying off: According to an independent study of three school systems willing to share their experiences, SIF has led to measurable cost savings as a result of the easier integration of software applications, more effective use of staff time, and increases in government funding that come from better tracking and reporting of student data. (See "Study: SIF pays off for schools.")

Susan Patrick, executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning and a former director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, called Gates a "pioneer" who has revolutionized productivity software, spearheaded multiplayer gaming and collaboration, run a company rich in data-driven decision making, and used eLearning and on-demand training to bolster skills and creativity in his own company workforce. 

"In looking at the pressing issues in our nation’s schools, Gates is singularly qualified to bring the best of all of these innovations to help fix education in America–combining the best of eLearning, gaming, and productivity into new models for our children’s schools," Patrick said.

"Gates has a fundamental understanding of what’s broken in our schools and how technology can be leveraged to fix problems, bridge gaps, and even go around the barriers–to innovate and create new educational opportunities," she added. "The [Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] will provide the perfect platform for Gates to focus intently on schools, build on the creativity and innovation that is the hallmark of his corporate work, and pinpoint solutions to help our children."

Concluded Patrick: "Gates recognizes that you can’t fix schools without more effective use of technology to support innovation."

Links:

Microsoft Corp.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

School of the Future

International Society for Technology in Education

State Educational Technology Directors Association

North American Council for Online Learning