Gates Foundation to Keep Betting on Software to ‘Revolutionize’ Learning

By Benjamin Herold — January 30, 2015 3 min read
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Because it believes that high-speed cellular networks, cheap mobile devices, and big advances in software are spurring an educational revolution, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation intends to make a “big bet” on digital and online learning in the coming years.

That’s according to the Seattle-based philanthropy’s annual letter, released January 21. The letter signals where the foundation, a major funder and influencer on a wide range of education initiatives, believes K-12 education—and its own substantial resources—will be going in the near future.

Here’s an excerpt of the foundation’s letter:

The technology has already come a long way, as you can see at sites like Khan Academy, and it will advance even more in the next 15 years. Before a child even starts primary school, she will be able to use her mom’s smartphone to learn her numbers and letters, giving her a big head start. Software will be able to see when she’s having trouble with the material and adjust for her pace. She will collaborate with teachers and other students in a much richer way. If she is learning a language, she’ll be able to speak out loud and the software will give her feedback on her pronunciation. (Some sites do this today, but the technology will improve a lot.)

Technology will also help better connect education to career preparation, according to the letter. And the global implications will be huge, the foundation believes—especially in developing nations, and especially if the “gender gap” can be closed in regions such as Africa and South Asia.

And, in the segment that the legions of Gates Foundation-skeptics/haters/opponents are likely to zero in on, the letter also talks about how the foundation believes technology will impact teachers:

There is one thing software will never do: replace teachers. Even the most self-motivated student needs guidance and support. But software can play a crucial role, for example by connecting teachers to each other. They will be able to upload videos of themselves and get advice from their peers, watch the best teachers in the world at work, and get real-time feedback from their students. These advances will be important in the United States, and they’ll have an even bigger impact on teachers in developing countries where enrollment is high but achievement is not.

Over the past six years, of course, the foundation has been a lightning rod for criticism in the world of U.S. public education due to its mammoth support for new teacher-evaluation methods, the Common Core State Standards, a controversial student-data-warehouse, and a host of other issues (check out my colleague Stephen Sawchuk’s 2013 piece detailing the $38 billion foundation’s $700 million investment in its teacher-quality agenda, for example.)

During that span, its support for educational technology products, initiatives, and efforts has grown dramatically. Compare this year’s letter to an excerpt from the foundation’s 2010 annual letter:

The foundation has made a few grants to drive online learning, but we are just at the start of this work. So far technology has hardly changed formal education at all. But a lot of people, including me, think this is the next place where the Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things--especially in combination with face-to-face learning. With the escalating costs of education, an advance here would be very timely.

A couple of big themes apparently informed the foundation’s thinking back then:

  • The appeal to learners of all ages and circumstances of MOOC-type offerings (“If you are going to take the time to listen to a lecture, you should hear it from the very best;")
  • The benefits of interactive and adaptive technologies (An “online system can quickly diagnose what the students know, provide positive feedback, and make sure their time is spent really improving the conceptual areas where they are weak;") and
  • The need to organize and curate digital content effectively (“One step that would help is having course standards that break down all of the various things to be learned into a clear framework and connecting the online material to this framework.”)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation did not respond to a request for an interview, nor did it respond to a request for a comprehensive breakdown of the related grants and investments it has made over the years.

A scan of the foundation’s searchable grants database offers a snapshot of how it has sought to support digital learning to date. A very brief, very non-scientific sampling:

  • LearnZillion, Inc. (2014): $172,800 to support online teacher collaboration among teachers;
  • BrightBytes, Inc. (2013): $330,781 to “support development of a web application that will allow teachers and vendors to run trials for online learning applications and ultimately make recommendations for school and district purchasing decisions;"
  • Common Sense Media (2013): $100,098 to “support the Graphite, a service designed to help K-12 educators discover, use, and share the best apps, games, websites, and digital curricula for their students by providing unbiased ratings and insights from an active community of teachers;"
  • North American Council for Online Learning (2013): $1 million for general operating support;
  • inBloom, Inc. (2012): $20,283,334 to “support the completion of the wind down of operations in furtherance of the charitable objectives of the project,” and
  • University of Washington (2011): $2,658,746 to “develop online pre-algebra games for middle school students and conduct research on the learning trajectories that lead to algebra readiness;"

The other, non-educational “big bets” laid out in the foundation’s 2015 annual letter are focused on childhood health and disease eradication, agriculture in Africa, and mobile banking.

Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

Photo: Bill Gates during a 2014 appearance in Washington.--Susan Walsh/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.