Education Funding

MacArthur Foundation Launches Nonprofit to Scale Up Digital Learning

By Benjamin Herold — October 20, 2015 6 min read
Erie Onna Seaster, 3, right, and other children at the Crescent Early Learning Center in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood use an app-based activity earlier this year to support “high-quality talk” among children, parents, and teachers. Pittsburgh is one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “connected cities.”

A major proponent of “connected” education is shifting its strategy from providing philanthropic support for a handful of cities to create digital learning opportunities to building a new nonprofit organization charged with bringing such work to scale.

The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, which over the past decade has poured more than $200 million into digital media and learning, will give $25 million to help a new entity dubbed Collective Shift get off the ground.

Observers described the announcement of MacArthur’s new tack as a sign of the challenges digital-learning advocates face in trying to move from fostering pockets of innovation to supporting systemwide change.

“It used to be that a philanthropy could invest in new models, then say to government, ‘Here’s what worked, take this and scale it,’” said Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, the executive director of the National Writing Project, one of numerous partners in MacArthur-supported digital-learning work over the past decade. “This is a grand experiment to see whether a new direction can work in this different ecosystem.”

Collective Shift will be headed by two digital-learning heavyweights: Chief Executive Officer Connie Yowell, the former director of education at the MacArthur Foundation, and Chief Operating Officer Jessica Lindl, who most recently headed the games-and-analytics nonprofit GlassLab.

The Connected Cities

The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has donated roughly $9 million in recent years to support “cities of learning” around the country. A summary of the work done at each site is listed for five cities.

Launched in summer 2013 and anchored by DePaul University’s Digital Youth Network, Chicago’s city of learning effort has been a national model for other sites. Through institutions such as the Chicago Children’s Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as via online challenges related to topics such as music production and Hour of Code computer-science tutorials, Chicago’s network served 69,000 young people this past summer.

Anchored by the mayor’s office and a local nonprofit called Big Thought, the Dallas city of learning initiative now operates year-round. Last summer, the network provided more than 34,000 young people with opportunities to earn digital badges via activities such as visiting the International Museum of Cultures, attending a storytelling workshop at a local writer’s center, and playing online educational games, including the Mission US series about American history. The network was launched in summer 2014.

Los Angeles
The city piloted a summer of learning initiative two years ago, and will relaunch a related effort in 2016. The focus is on workforce preparedness: During summer 2014, the city and the Los Angeles school district partnered to offer free classes on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, in conjunction with pre-existing programs intended to connect young people to summer jobs.

Launched in summer 2014, Pittsburgh’s city of learning network last summer featured opportunities for students to earn 300 different digital microcredentials offered by 40 different organizations. Among them: the “junior naturalist” badge from the acclaimed Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Led by the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, the District of Learning initiative has wrapped up planning and will launch programming in 2016.

— Benjamin Herold

The pair’s first project, called LRNG, centers around the idea that young people’s interests should drive their learning inside school and out, as well as online, with a focus on real-world applications and connections to peers and mentors. LRNG will also feature heavy use of digital badges, which proponents tout as a modern way to document students’ learning across a variety of settings, to track children’s learning wherever it happens. Online networks will be used to connect the adults who work with children across a variety of settings.

In a statement accompanying the announcement of the foundation’s shift in strategy, MacArthur President Julia Stasch said that scaling up such work requires “a new, more diverse set of investors and partners; alternative funding models and mechanisms; and a more entrepreneurial and innovative way of operating than is possible as a foundation program.”

Collective Shift will initially focus on expanding the work done in recent years in five MacArthur-supported “connected cities": Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Washington.

Demonstration Sites

Those demonstration sites have found success in engaging a cross-section of leaders from schools, businesses, libraries, museums, universities, and community organizations in efforts to build new “ecosystems of learning.” In Pittsburgh, for example, local science and children’s museums now feature hands-on “maker spaces” where students design and build things, and university robotics experts and early-childhood education advocates have teamed up to create new apps for use in city preschools.

In an interview, Yowell, the former MacArthur program head who now helms Collective Shift, stressed the importance of “networks” to the “anywhere, anytime learning” that is prevalent in the digital age. “The rub is, as a society, we do not have an infrastructure that supports that kind of networked learning,” she said. “LRNG is that infrastructure.”

The new effort’s goal is to engage 1 million young people in 70 communities by 2018, according to its press materials.

Also part of LRNG will be a new digital platform that aims to connect youth to customized learning “playlists.” As envisioned, the platform will determine a student’s interests and use that information to suggest relevant learning experiences, resources, and events accordingly.

For example, students interested in design might be alerted to a mix of online resources, such as instructional videos or courses; offline events, such as local workshops or museum exhibitions; and job or internship opportunities offered by businesses in the field.

Digital badges would be used to track their progress through the variety of experiences. Such badges could be issued by a number of organizations, from educational institutions to corporate sponsors, effectively giving learners a measure of independent “credit” for learning that occurs outside of—or as a supplement to—traditional classroom work.

The third prong of LRNG’s initial efforts will involve creating and supporting digital networking opportunities for teachers, librarians, and other educators seeking to develop new pedagogical approaches based on the “connected learning” philosophy.

Challenges Ahead

The MacArthur Foundation, and now Collective Shift, places a particular emphasis on bringing informal and outside-of-school learning opportunities—such as museum trips and professional mentorships—to low-income, under-supported students.

But there are many challenges associated with bringing such efforts to scale. The work is time-consuming and heavily dependent on getting key leaders in a given city around the same table and on the same page. While hundreds of millions of dollars in investment capital are flowing to entrepreneurs seeking to invent the next killer ed-tech app to be sold to schools, there’s no clear potential for huge returns on the cross-sector collaborations that MacArthur supports. And for many outside the ed-tech world, the whole notion of “connected learning,” digital badges, and competency-based progressions are unfamiliar and often confusing.

It’s yet to be determined if a nonprofit organization is the right type of entity to overcome such hurdles, said Gabriel Brodbar, the executive director of the Reynolds program in social entrepreneurship at New York University.

Nimbleness and the ability to help attract capital and steer it to the best, most scalable solutions is key, he said. But too often, Brodbar said, philanthropic foundations and mission-driven nonprofits limit their attention and dollars to specific approaches they already know. “If the innovation in the field is not unfettered and feels it has to respond to the nonprofit’s or foundation’s focus, you wind up ultimately pigeonholing people and narrowing potential approaches,” he said.

For MacArthur, though, part of the motivation for spinning off its digital-learning work came from the realization that its heavy support for the field was actually serving to prevent other donors and sources of capital from getting involved, too.

Among the partners supporting the new nonprofit out of the gate are Arizona State University, Electronic Arts, Gap Foundation, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

In an interview, Collective Shift Chief Operating Officer Lindl explained that companies such as EA Games and GAP are partnering with the initiative not as a “philanthropic offshoot,” but because they see the group’s work as “core and critical to their businesses,” especially considering the hiring challenges they face given the paucity of young STEM talent.

They see the “need to invest in youth at this level, rather than when they enter into the workforce,” Lindl said. “Right now, companies are finding they can’t fill 40 percent of their jobs.”

For Eidman-Aadahl of the National Writing Project, the foundation’s shift in strategy is the source of some anxiety, but also excitement.

“MacArthur has given this 10 years. That’s an extraordinary run,” she said. “This is a way for them to say we’re still here, we’re still investing in this, but this work has to belong to a wider set of people.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Philanthropy Moves to Scale Up Digital Ed.


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