Venture capital for digital learning and technology

In a conference call with reporters today, Bill Gates announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will put up an initial $20 million to help colleges, non-profits, entrepreneurs and others to come up with new ways of using digital media in postsecondary education. (The Gates Foundation is one of the supporters of The Hechinger Report.) The Foundation is looking to speed the development of applications that serve one of four broad functions: combine face-to-face and online learning; engage students in learning through games, video, simulations and social media; make widely available new ways of teaching courses that many students fail; and keep track of students’ progress as they’re studying so that they can get real-time help tailored to their needs.

The “Next Generation Learning Challenges” will issue new RFPs every six to 12 months that target other needs and put up millions more in seed money. The range of online learning opportunities already in use is enormous, Gates noted. But, he said, many “are not fantastic,” are not engaging, and “are not better than learning in-person.” The RFP process, he said, is designed to find “some real gems beyond what we can become of aware of by going out and looking ourselves.”

A White Paper issued by the foundation mentioned as an example of personalized learning the Khan Academy where more than 300,000 users per month view short videos on topics in math, science and the humanities. (I just watched a nearly 10-minute video on the quadratic equation and was reminded of why math seemed so abstract to me in high school.) Gates said he’d like to support ways to make great lectures available “any time you want to watch” as well as ways digital media can improve remedial education by identifying students’ weaknesses so they know what to concentrate on in their studying.

Technology, he said, has the potential to speed up student learning and cut colleges’ costs in half. The larger goal of the effort, however, is more radical. New learning models will only take hold, the Next Generation White Paper says, “if policies that limit innovation—such as seat time requirements, student-teacher ratio requirements, and charter caps—are addressed.” Highly selective, high-priced colleges also should take note. Gates said he wants to find ways to take the lectures and high-end learning opportunities now available only by paying $50,000 per year in tuition and room and board “more broadly available at a substantial reduction in cost so it becomes affordable to lots and lots of kids—that is the dream.”

POSTED BY ON October 11, 2010