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Gates Announces $20-Million for New Education-Technology Program

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced plans to spend up to $20-million on the first phase of a new program aimed at harnessing technology to prepare students for college and get them to graduation.

In a conference call with reporters, the Microsoft founder suggested his foundation’s investment could swell to as much as $80-million over the next four years. The money positions the philanthropy to play a potentially major role in speeding up and shaping the already booming online education business.

As reported on this blog last week, the first wave of grants will focus on four areas: blended learning, open courseware, learning analytics, and increasing engagement through interactive technology like games and social media.

The ultimate “dream,” Mr. Gates said, is to take a quality education that might cost $200,000 today and make it more broadly available at a much cheaper price. “There’s some huge potential here to make education easily twice as effective per dollar as it is today,” Mr. Gates told reporters.

The new program, called Next Generation Learning Challenges, will award grants ranging from $250,000 to $750,000. The focus will be on helping applicants expand their projects and demonstrate their ability to serve many students.

Mr. Gates noted that the volume of material labeled online learning is huge. Much of it, he argued, lacks ambition when it comes to the numbers of students served or the will to measure program effectiveness.

“But out there in that large, large set of activities, we feel sure there’s some real gems,” he said.

Educause, the college IT association, will lead the new program. Today’s announcement coincides with Educause’s annual conference in Anaheim, Calif. Ira H. Fuchs, who previously founded a technology grant program at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will be Educause’s executive director for the new initiative.

Both the Mellon and Sloan foundations have recently shuttered programs that had poured millions into education-technology projects.

The new Gates program comes as demand for high-skilled workers has grown. By 2018, 63 percent of all job openings will require postsecondary education, according to the foundation. But fewer than half of Americans have earned a college degree by the age of 30.

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