Bill Gates: Textbooks are 'becoming obsolete'— here's the best way to learn today

Bill Gates speaks during a panel discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Self-made billionaire Bill Gates is an avid reader. He's known to go through about 50 books a year and reads everything from memoirs and meditation guides to deep dives on autonomous weapons.

There's one kind of book that he thinks is going out of style, though: Textbooks, he writes in his and his wife Melinda's 2019 Annual Letter, "are becoming obsolete."

"I read more than my share of textbooks," Gates says. "But it's a pretty limited way to learn something. Even the best text can't figure out which concepts you understand and which ones you need more help with."

Software can be used to create a much more dynamic learning experience, he says.

Gates gives the example of learning algebra. "Instead of just reading a chapter on solving equations, you can look at the text online, watch a super-engaging video that shows you how it's done, and play a game that reinforces the concepts," he writes. "Then you solve a few problems online, and the software creates new quiz questions to zero in on the ideas you're not quite getting."

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Exchanging textbooks for software can also lower the cost of education, Melinda notes in the same letter: "One study found that using open-courseware saved students an average of $66 to $121 per course. Over an academic year, that can add up to $1,000, which can be the difference between staying in school or having to drop out."

Digital learning tools can make education more convenient and efficient. "Not having to show up to a physical classroom at a specific time makes a big difference to students who are balancing school with working and raising a family," writes Melinda.

That type of student is getting closer to becoming the norm, she adds: "Almost half of today's college students are 25 or older; well over half have a job; more than a quarter have kids of their own."

There's never been a better time to be alive if you're curious.
Bill Gates
Microsoft co-founder

Free online tools and resources can also make education more available to a broader array of people. You don't have to be enrolled in a university to learn a new skill: You can simply take an online course or even watch videos on YouTube to educate yourself about any topic.

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That said, there can be an overwhelming number of online classes and educational videos to choose from, and they're not all going to be worth your time. Gates' favorites, he wrote for Time in 2018, include Khan Academy, Code.org, The Great Courses from The Teaching Company and Big History.

"There's never been a better time to be alive if you're curious," he wrote. "When I wanted to learn something outside of school as a kid, cracking open my World Book encyclopedia was the best I could do. Today, all you have to do is go online."

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