Ctrl: Bill Gates is Wrong about Textbooks

Bill Gates thinks textbooks should be replaced by educational software. I don’t.

In 2019’s Bill & Melinda Gates “Annual Letter,” the philanthropist couple discussed their biggest surprises of the year, as well as the implications of each of these. Gates’ number eight surprise of the year was that “textbooks are becoming obsolete,” citing the increased adaptability of software as the key advantage over physical textbooks. In other words, an online learning platform can figure out what you’re struggling with and adapt your learning to it, while a book is the same book regardless of the reader’s understanding.

Gates sees a shiny world where perfectly built education software makes education more personalizable and accessible, retiring “heavy, expensive textbooks” for good. I’m a bit less optimistic. I see the online-textbook world as a frustrating, expensive and ineffective environment for learning.

As a college student, I feel like I’m fairly qualified to comment on why Gates’ vision for a textbook-free university experience might not work. I’ve had plenty of good and bad experiences with textbooks, be it digital or physical. While Gates is certainly a highly intelligent visionary thinker, he’s far too distanced from the experience of the average college student to capture a few key details.

Firstly, the idea of online textbooks completely undermines the used textbook market. I don’t have actual numbers on this, but I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that the vast majority of textbooks used by students are either rentals, borrowed from a library or used. The only time I ever buy a class book brand new is if it’s niche enough to not have any used or rentals available anywhere. 

Online textbooks, however, are impossible to resell or pass down. The biggest enemy of the college student on a budget is the “access code.” Anyone who’s taken a language course at Colgate will—regrettably—be intimately familiar with the dreaded access codes. You might be able to find your French textbook used for cheap, but any version with the access code needed to take the class will cost you hundreds of dollars. The most expensive book I bought for a Colgate class came unbound and with pages so thin they regularly tore when turned. Justifying that cost, however, was the coveted six-digit-code that gave me access to the required online component of the course.

The other key reason why educational software shouldn’t replace physical textbooks is because, frankly speaking, they suck. There’s nothing more infuriating than having a computer grade your responses with zero leeway or understanding of what you’re trying to do. Did you give your answer in full notation instead of scientific? Wrong! You added “to” before your verb conjugation? Try again! You capitalized a letter you weren’t supposed to? Guess you got one-fifth of this Moodle quiz wrong!

In its current state, online education is boring, unengaging, clunky, expensive and hopelessly frustrating. The reliance on online problem sets was the central reason I stopped taking language classes at Colgate and the same issue haunted my early days as a Computer Science major. The number of students I’ve seen completely lose interest in learning to code after having to deal with one too many “CodingBat”—an online programming exercise website—assignments is disheartening. These students might have had the beginnings of a passion for computer science, had they not been turned away by the mechanics of online education.

Online software doesn’t improve education, it actively disincentives learning by placing an inherently unempathetic barrier between curious students and the concepts they’re curious about. Navigating online education isn’t an exercise in learning, it’s an exercise in extreme patience.