How the Gates Foundation Will Spend Its Education-Technology Dollars

If you work in education technology, get ready. The Gates money is coming. Waves of it.

This fall the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and several partners will announce a new project aimed at harnessing technology to help prepare students for college and get them to graduation. The senior program officer leading that effort is Josh Jarrett, a former software entrepreneur with a Harvard M.B.A. who joined Gates after five years with the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. In an interview, he previewed that program and offered his take on the online-learning scene.

Q: You’ve teamed with Educause, the college IT group, to start a program called Next Gen Learning Challenges. Describe the project.

A: What we envision is a multiyear, multiwave program, where every six to 12 months we issue a new set of challenges. And we’ll issue a set of challenges this fall around shared open-core courseware, around learning analytics, around blended learning, and around new, deeper forms of learning and engagement using interactive technologies. There’s a big gap between R&D and high-impact solutions at scale. We’re trying to participate in some of the effort to help those most promising solutions get across that chasm.

Q: How much money do you intend to spend?

A: We’ll probably be in a better position to answer that in a month or so, when we do the formal launch.

Q: There are lots of approaches to learning online. What are some you find promising?

A: Much of the impetus of going online in the first place was around access. I think that we’ve reached critical mass there. Folks are starting to turn their attention toward quality. For instance, the Open Learning Initiative, at Carnegie Mellon, represents what strategies afford themselves in an online context. The first thing they do is team-based development of courses, and then sharing those many times. We’re not stuck having to recreate the wheel in every classroom. A second thing that they do is rigorous data capture that informs the moment of learning for the student, that informs the instructor to know what to focus on in the face-to-face time, and that informs the course designer to know what parts people are really struggling with.

The third thing that we’re starting to see—and I don’t know that OLI necessarily embodies this—is new types of relationships forming. If in a traditional world my faculty is my primary relationship, and maybe some of the 29 other students in the classroom, technology is starting to afford different types of relationships between the people who were two years ahead of me, who I want to emulate, or people who are professionals out in the community.

Q: What are some examples of these new relationships?

A: So you look at, and you see students sharing their understanding of different subjects, sharing their notes. Some of these things are somewhat controversial or even threatening to how a faculty member might see their controlled environment of their classroom, but you’re seeing those students help each other out. You also see companies like Inigral. They run Schools on Facebook. They’re using the underlying Facebook platform and technology, but to build real social context for education. It’s not that you access somebody’s profile and you can find out what their favorite color is. You find out what their transcript was and what classes they’re taking, what programs they’re interested in. You start to create these social connections that aren’t related to what I did on Friday night. It’s what I did on Friday at 9 o’clock in the classroom, and folks who are interested in some of the same content, struggling with some of the same material, looking to get into a study group, looking to share resources.

Q: What are the big challenges you see in online education?

A: Breaking down this division between online education and education. Increasingly, we’re bringing digital assets and digital experiences into the traditional classroom or at home. One of the big challenges is the reunification, if you will, of online learning with offline learning. And creating these blended contexts, which, based on the U.S. Department of Education meta-study and other work, seem to be the place where it’s not an either or, it’s trying to figure out how to do the best of both.

Secondly, given some of he conversations in Washington and other places around for-profit education, there’s a real danger that we overlap the actions of the bad actors in the for-profit sector with all of the for-profit sector, and overlap all the for-profit sector with all of online learning in general and all strategies that might be different and innovative. There’s a real risk that in looking at some bad actions within the for-profit sector, that we take a step backwards from some of the innovative strategies that institutions are using.

Q: You’ve spoken about the idea of an “H&M brand” emerging in higher education. What do you mean by that?

A: I’m referring to the retailer. Shopping there versus at Brooks Brothers, your Brooks Brothers suit might be a little bit nicer than mine, but I paid one-tenth the price. People look admiringly on my choice of shopping at H&M, as opposed to “Oh, poor guy, he could only go to H&M.” And so I think that’s the question: Is there an opportunity for brands to emerge that are very cost-effective for students but do not symbolize degradation in quality?

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