Education Funding

Gates Foundation Turns Attention to Ed. Tech.

By Ian Quillen — October 19, 2010 4 min read
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Educational technology advocates may call it a bold step forward or an idea long overdue.

But no matter what their interpretation is of a new collaborative grant program that will funnel tens of millions of dollars to K-12 and higher education technology initiatives, most ed-tech experts agree on this much: With the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation unveiling an initiative in the ed-tech arena for the first time in nearly a decade, people will take notice.

“They’ve been around a while, but they’ve really begun to play a bigger role” and garner more attention from educators, said Helen Soule, an education consultant. Her state received grant money in 2002 from the foundation’s last major ed-tech foray when she was Mississippi’s education technology director. “And I think people do watch them, for better or worse,” she added.

It’s still unclear exactly what they’ll be watching over the next months and possibly years as the Next Generation Learning Challenges program—co-funded by the Gates foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to boost college readiness and completion—begins to take shape. (Both foundations also help support Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit publisher of Education Week.)

With the involvement of the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, built on wealth generated from the Microsoft fortune of Bill Gates, there is perhaps an added pressure to underwrite programs that both achieve the goals of the initiative and are scalable.

“They’re a technology mogul, and here is their specialty,” said Gary G. Bitter, a professor of education technology at Arizona State University in Tempe. “I think it has tremendous potential. I just hope that whatever we come up with, these innovative learning models, that once it comes out, that there’s some mechanism to reach the world.”

The first of several waves of grants—worth up to $20 million—include stipulations for applicants, whether government, nonprofit, or commercial, to show evidence of efficacy and scalability of the idea in their submissions. Those programs will all be focused on postsecondary education and must also demonstrate the ability to increase the use of blended learning models that mix face-to-face and online-only teaching and learning, open source software, and data analytics to increase student engagement.

A second wave will be geared toward K-12 projects, which Mr. Gates said will be released during the first six months of 2011. It will include similar stipulations, according to collaborators on the project, as will presumably additional waves of funding that Mr. Gates said could push total spending for the program between K-12 and higher education into the $60 to $80 million range. Experts said those waves of funding could help bring the spheres of K-12 and higher education together.

“There’s not a black and white dividing line between [K-12 and higher education], because a lot of the math- and reading-type skills that [students] aren’t getting in high school are huge challenges” for postsecondary institutions, Mr. Gates said.

There’s also the questions of how and why now for the foundation’s first direct education technology grant program since a $100 million, three-year leadership-development program that commenced in 2002. Even officials from nonprofit postsecondary education technology advocates EDUCAUSE, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), and the Council of Chief State School Officers said they’re curious to see what kind of focus the second wave of programs and beyond will bring.

“There’s certainly a great deal of deliberation, but I think when Wave 2 comes out, I think it will be very responsive to some of the most [difficult] problems of practice in K-12,” said Linda A. Pittenger, the interim chief operating officer of the CCSSO.

Student Engagement

Some experts, both within and outside the effort, said they see a shifting focus in education policy not only toward pushing students to enroll in postsecondary programs, but also to ensure completion of them. While that might sound like a higher education issue, EDUCAUSE President and Chief Executive Officer Diana G. Oblinger said it’s really about the connection between secondary schools and colleges.

“The issues for high school students are very similar if not identical to the issues you run into in higher education,” said Ms. Oblinger, whose organization will direct the venture. “It’s [about creating] student engagement, flexible learning environments, and the ability of teachers and faculty to have really good courseware to build that engagement.”

Anthony Picciano, the co-author of a recent survey on principals’ attitudes toward online education by the Wellesley, Mass.-based Babson Survey Research Group at Babson College, suggested such a thrust may be in the best interest of Mr. Gates and other technology moguls. “I think a lot of people in the corporate areas, particularly those who are into technology services, would buy into that their workers should be skilled beyond the high school level,” Mr. Picciano said.

Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of Vienna, Va.-based online education advocate iNACOL,said the program’s biggest potential may be to help erase old, ineffective structures within the education system, including those that segregate K-12 from higher education.

“Innovations cannot always be measured in their success by old metrics,” Ms. Patrick said. “The performance metrics that we should be asking is around the question, ‘Are students prepared for college and life?’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Gates Foundation Turns Attention to Education Technology

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