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Patti Freudenberg works for the Clear Creek Independent School District in the Houston-Galveston area, where she is the “Teaching American History Grant Specialist,” currently leading groups of history teachers to historical sites around the US on a Department of Education grant. Clad in leopard print, she arrived bright and early Thursday morning to sit in the very front row of Bill Gates’ closing keynote at the South by Southwest Edu conference. “It’s a hero worship thing,” she said. “I don’t know what he’s going to say. Hopefully he’ll talk about new ways we can use technology. Because education is changing so much–we’re finally moving from the traditional classroom to something that’s more technology rich and media rich. We’re reaching these kids where they actually are instead of what we had in the 1960s.” She’s seen this in her own schools, where pilot programs are bringing iPads into the classroom, making it easier to incorporate more primary source documents and multimedia into social studies classes.

Gates’ wide-ranging keynote, greeted by a standing ovation, didn’t disappoint Patti. He argued that the market for educational innovation is reaching a tipping point–although he acknowledged that from an investment point of view, this is simply a return to the heights of the late ’90s, when annual investment in ed-tech once topped $1 billion just as it did again in 2012. The first time turned out to be a bit of a bubble, leading to few major changes.

But this time, he said, is different, because of new technologies like more-ubiquitous wireless internet, tablet computing, cheap video storage, and data in the cloud, and because of a tipping point in student demand. He envisions a future “five to ten years out” where school budgets for IT, textbooks and assessments will no longer be separated, creating a single K-12 funding pool of $9 billion a year for all kinds of new technology, both content and systems. “We’re just on that cusp, where the tablet and PC are rich enough and cheap enough that that’ll be the way it’s done.”

Equal with the flashy gadgets in the classroom, Gates highlighted the increasing use of back-end technologies to coordinate and manage data that can help drive districts, teachers and even students’ decisionmaking.

Amid all the enthusiasm, what’s still missing in the education space, Gates acknowledged, are “the gold standards of proving that something works.” In the areas of global health where the Gates Foundation has done so much work, you can measure outcomes by countless widely agreed-upon metrics: infant-mother life expectancy, number of malaria infections, number of vaccines distributed. In education, we have standardized test scores; graduation rates; maybe some surveys on job placement or unemployment rates. And we have some initial findings on what teaching techniques may be correlated with success for students. All these attempts at measurement are hotly contested, methodologically weak, several steps removed from the problem, or all three.

But as hundreds of spectators held up mobile phones to photograph Gates on stage, the sheer ubiquity of wireless technology in our daily lives seemed to provide its own internal rationale for its increasing use in the classroom–if for no other reason than that the classroom needs to resemble the wired, independent, collaborative, location-agnostic workplace that our kids will one day be joining.

Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.

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