Personalized Learning

Gates, Zuckerberg Philanthropies Team Up on Personalized Learning

By Benjamin Herold — June 07, 2017 5 min read
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Two of the biggest names in technology and education philanthropy are jointly funding a $12 million initiative to support new ways of tailoring classroom instruction to individual students.

The grant marks the first substantive collaboration of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, chaired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropic and investment arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.

Their joint award was given in April to New Profit, a Boston-based “venture philanthropy” organization. New Profit will in turn provide $1 million, plus extensive management advising, to each of seven other organizations working to promote personalized learning.

“We are pleased to work with CZI to strengthen the impact and sustainability of each of these organizations,” Adam Porsch, a senior portfolio officer at the Gates Foundation, said in an interview.

“It’s 100 percent collaborative,” Porsch said of his foundation’s burgeoning relationship with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “We’re looking for ways to work together and to coordinate when it’s appropriate.”

In a statement, a CZI spokeswoman expressed similar sentiments.

“The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is excited to partner with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support New Profit’s work,” the statement reads. “We share an interest in seeing significant improvement in education and are committed to learning from each other. We also share an interest in the promise of personalized learning to better engage students and improve learning outcomes.”

Since 2009, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given more than $300 million to support research and development around personalized learning, including past grants to New Profit totaling about $23 million. (Education Week has received support from the Gates Foundation in the past for the newspaper’s coverage of personalized learning.)

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, meanwhile, was launched in 2015. Zuckerberg and Chan said then they intended to give 99 percent of their Facebook shares—worth an estimated $45 billion at the time—to a variety of causes, headlined by the development of software “that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus.”

Read more: Mark Zuckerberg’s big bet on personalized learning.

The group’s early grants have gone to the state of Rhode Island, to a network of state and district leaders known as Chiefs for Change, and to the College Board, among others. CZI is also hiring its own engineers to help develop personalized-learning software tools.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not a traditional nonprofit foundation. Instead, it’s an LLC. That organizational structure allows for direct investment in for-profit companies and political lobbying and donations, as well as philanthropic giving. It also limits the extent to which CZI is legally required to publicly report on its activities.

The new collaboration between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative reflects deep ties between the staffs of the two organizations, Porsch said.

The head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education division, former U.S. deputy education secretary Jim Shelton, previously worked as a program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for more than seven years. Shelton’s deputy at CZI, Jon Deane, also previously worked as a program officer at the Gates Foundation.

While both entities are going all-in on personalized learning, research supporting the concept remains thin.

Read more: Personalized Learning: What Does the Research Say?

In an interview, Trevor Brown, a partner at New Profit who will lead the organization’s new Personalized Learning Initiative, said one of the goals of the new grant is to change that.

“We’re partnering to ensure that we are building that evidence base,” Brown said. “Personalized learning is a nascent field, and we’re thrilled to be on this journey with this new cohort [of grantees], as well as our funders.”

The new round of New Profit grantees are:

  • The Highlander Institute
  • imBlaze (Big Picture Learning)
  • iNACOL
  • PowerMyLearning
  • The Learning Accelerator
  • Transcend
  • Valor Collegiate Academies

In addition to unrestricted capital—a huge boon for any nonprofit—those organizations will receive hands-on organizational support around everything from strategy development to staff recruitment. The focus will be on scaling up.

Such support may be even more valuable than money, said Dana Borrelli-Murray, the executive director of the Providence, R.I.-based Highlander Institute, which helps schools implement personalized models and supports research and development around a range of related efforts.

“We’re still sort of figuring out who we want to be when we grow up,” Borrelli-Murray said. “Are we doubling down on our region? Or focusing on a specific area of expertise? Should we get more involved in policy? What does going to scale even mean when everything we create is open-source?”

She applauded the notion of two major funders joining forces to support such work.

“We all have to think more about networked giving, so we’re all in this together, rather than being asked to compete against each other for the same pot of funds,” she said.

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic, though.

The notion of large philanthropies teaming up to support a common education-reform strategy is nothing new, said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University who tracks philanthropic giving in education.

The Gates Foundation, for example, has previously coordinated with other foundations to support such issues as small high schools, charter school replication, and the Common Core State Standards.

“For me, the concern is that it’s a powerful way of setting an agenda, and it can sideline other ways of doing things,” Reckhow said.

That can cause problems, especially when the foundations move from one “big bet” to the next, she added.

“This is a pattern we’ve seen before, and there can be unintended consequences,” Reckhow said.

CZI and Gates also gave New Profit a separate $750,000 grant to support the creation of the “Proximity Accelerator,” an effort to help build a pipeline of “social entrepreneurs” from underrepresented communities.


Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and director at Berkshire Hathaway, is interviewed by Liz Claman of the Fox Business Network in Omaha, Neb., May 8. Photo by Nati Harnik/AP

Facebook CEO and Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg delivers the commencement address at Harvard University commencement exercises on May 25, in Cambridge, Mass. Photo by Steven Senne/AP

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