The Pandemic Offers Ed Tech Philanthropists a Chance to Revisit Previous Failures
In 1951, a children’s newspaper published “The Fun They Had,” an early short story penned by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Taking place in the year 2155, the story’s main characters are children named Margie and Tommy who are taught individually at their homes by a robot with a screen. One day, Tommy discovers a book in his attic and shares it with Margie, his neighbor. She is then shocked to read of a distant past when children were taught together by humans in large buildings outside of their houses.
Call it a prophecy or mere speculation, the world Asimov depicted has come crashing forth. Tens of millions of children across the country are now sitting at home individually learning before a computer screen due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Philanthropic efforts in education technology that were derided or seen as self-serving may now prove prescient during this period of great uncertainty for public education. The pandemic presents an opportunity for technophile philanthropists to dust off their shoulders and resurrect previously scorned ideas that could now enjoy more traction due to a drastically altered educational landscape. Schools have no choice but to experiment.
For the past two decades, tech companies and venture philanthropists made big bets on education technology, to the tune of billions, out of the belief that the scenario dreamed up by Asimov was not far-fetched, but the way of the future. Education, they reasoned, should mirror the increasing flexibility and technological demands of the workforce.
Unfortunately, the history of giving to ed tech is riddled with ambitious projects matched by outsize failures: a bidding scandal behind the decision to issue iPads to 650,000 students and educators in the Los Angeles Unified School District at a cost of $1.3 billion; the implosion of AltSchool, a startup that developed personalized learning software and received $174 million in funding; and the lawsuit filed against Google in 2014 accusing the company of using its Apps for Education suite to mine data from students’ emails.
Few funders have been more steadfast in their vision of ed tech than the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the philanthropy of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
In 2015, CZI announced it was giving $20 million to the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway to expand broadband access in schools. Since then, CZI has been the subject of much scrutiny and vitriol for the power it wields within American public education and its mixed track record of success.
CZI’s investments, dismissed as faddish big fixes, may yet have serious legs in a situation no tech visionary could have predicted.
An Early Trickle of Gifts for Education
The first gifts and grants focused on helping schools navigate the COVID-19 crisis have begun to trickle in, specifically geared to the challenges schools face as they transition from brick and mortar to online learning.
The family of Aileen and Brian Roberts has donated $5 million to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia toward the purchase of 50,000 Chromebooks for students with the goal of having them ready to learn from home beginning in mid-April. Brian Roberts is the chairman and CEO of Comcast, the cable, entertainment and communications company. Through the Internet Essentials program, Comcast offers low-income families two months of free internet access.
CZI recently announced over $1.3 million in education grants that include $500,000 to the International Society for Education Technology to offer online resources for educators, a webinar series on COVID-19, and a helpline to give real-time support to school leaders. It also gave $75,000 to the State Educational Technology Directors Association to develop an online portal of policies, resources and professional learning for educators.
Bill and Melinda Gates announced they will match donations, up to $1 million total, to the Coronavirus Relief: Keep Kids Learning fund established by the popular crowdfunding site DonorsChoose.org. The fund will provide books, food, basic supplies and arts and crafts materials for teachers serving low-income communities to give to their students.
Bank of America committed $100 million to support communities all over the world affected by the pandemic, including an unspecified amount to increase access to learning brought on by school closures.
From Backlash to Lifeline
As the coronavirus continues to reveal longstanding fissures in the economy, healthcare and social services within the United States, K-12 education is no different. Schools are scrambling to educate students virtually—building the plane as they fly it—and in doing so, the digital divide is once again thrown into stark relief. An estimated 12 million students live in homes lacking access to a high-speed broadband connection. A disproportionate number of these students are children of color (27% Native American, 19% black, 17% Hispanic), low-income (26% live below the poverty threshold), and live in rural areas.
Before COVID-19 confined tens of millions of students to their homes, online learning and education technology was facing a fierce backlash. Virtual schools, online classes and personalized learning platforms have been under heavy fire for delivering lackluster results, particularly among low-income students and children who struggle academically.
The brunt of this criticism has been borne by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and CZI, two of the biggest funders of education technology. CZI has given nearly $100 million since 2015 to Summit Learning, a free, cloud-based online learning platform that has drawn significant controversy. Critics have raised questions regarding its academic success and students have walked out in protest after using the platform, citing too much time spent before computer screens.
The Gates Foundation has spent hundreds of millions to galvanize online learning. One of its most notable failures was when, along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the foundation spent $100 million in 2013 to launch inBloom, a centralized platform for data sharing, learning apps and curricula. It shut down just a year later due to privacy and security issues over its data collection.
Funders See Vindication
Many philanthropies have pledged to help communities of color affected by the pandemic, but their commitments are vague. Few funders devote resources to expanding broadband access. Surprisingly, tech companies such as Apple and Dell have not ventured into this arena yet as they have announced their initial rounds of support; their giving to schools is scant thus far.
Funders could see this as a moment both of vindication and redemption. Stacey Childress, CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a significant player in education technology, says schools are farther along in adopting technology than people think, thanks partially to the foundation laid down by philanthropy.
“Even before the massive transition to home-based learning caused by COVID-19, most of America’s 50 million public school students and their teachers were already using digital learning tools in their classrooms more extensively than most people realized,” she says. “In fact, based on a survey we released with Gallup last year, 65% of teachers reported using digital learning tools in their classroom every day. Eighty-seven percent said they used them at least a few days a week. Only 7% said they did not use them at all.”
Childress adds, “It’s not perfect—there are plenty of challenges to tackle—but many of the sector’s investments in ed tech over the past decade are helping to ease the shift to learning at home during this crisis.”
Per the recommendations of a report from the Brookings Institution, funders playing a major role to modernize the nation’s infrastructure and its schools—whether through installing Wi-Fi hotspots in parked school buses within communities that lack broadband access, or lending internet-enabled devices to students who travel to school-operated nutrition centers—would benefit many low-income families and communities of color, as well.
In the wake of its missteps, philanthropy began to step away from education technology. However, the issues it was trying to skirt are now top of mind for educators across the country. The need for educators and families to access hardware, cloud-based online learning platforms, and high-speed internet for educators and families is no longer a question subject to debate. They are as essential as pencils and paper. The tens of millions of children who must learn from home serve as a laboratory of unprecedented scale to test philanthropy’s ability to learn from its previous mistakes and bridge the digital divide.