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Friday, January 12, 2018

Is Personalized Learning the Next Big Thing in K-12 Philanthropy? | Inside Philanthropy - Education

Photo: Caitlin Reilly
"Tech funders like CZI have led the way in backing personalized learning lately, but other foundations are also on board. We take a deep dive into what's happening in this fast evolving grantmaking space" says

Photo: Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

A former senior program officer at the Gates Foundation has noticed something changing when people talk about personalized learning.

“A lot of the conversation would be about why. Why do you need personalized learning? Why is it a good innovation and direction we should be going in?” Helayne Jones said. “And now, you’re not hearing the questions about why. You’re hearing the questions about how.”

“I think most national funders working on K-12 are looking to make personalized learning investments in a variety of ways,” Jones said.

Personalized learning grabbed headlines last year with several big gifts from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s philanthropic outfit. Jones now works as a consultant to New Profit, a nonprofit accelerator that received one of those big gifts, for $13 million, from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Gates Foundation. In turn, these funds are being dispersed to groups working at the forefront of personalized learning. 

CZI escalated its personalized learning work after bringing Jim Shelton on board. Shelton is a former deputy secretary of education and previously worked for the Gates Foundation.

CZI funded several personalized learning projects in 2017. It helped fund Rhode Island’s move to bring personalized learning to classrooms statewide. CZI made donations of undisclosed amounts to Chiefs for Change, which works with a network of districts across the country, and the College Board, as we reported. CZI is also promoting a free personalized learning tool, the Summit Learning Platform, a project that began at Facebook in partnership with Summit Learning, and is now a centerpiece of CZI's work in this space. 

While personalized learning’s rise is undeniable, defining it is trickier. Generally speaking, the term refers to tailoring instruction to students’ needs, but in practice, it can take a wide range of forms. 

“Personalized learning is not particularly well-defined. There’s no definition that’s coalesced yet within the space,” said Elisabeth Stock, CEO of PowerMyLearning. “And so everyone is doing different things that they are calling personalized learning. There's no definitive answer,” Stock said.

The national nonprofit partners with schools and districts in under-resourced communities to help them implement personalized learning. PowerMyLearning is among the groups that landed recent funding from New Profit. It's also received grants in recent years from a wide range of other funders, including the Carnegie Corporation, the Broad Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and a number of corporations. 

A classroom following PowerMyLearning’s model has multiple stations where students engage in different modalities of learning. For example, Stock said, for a lesson on probability, a teacher may lead a mini-lesson on the topic in part of the classroom, while at another station, students work together on an activity rolling dice. At a third station, students do independent work while logged onto PowerMyLearning’s collaborative platform.

In a PowerMyLearning classroom, there would also be periodic homework assignments designed to engage families in their children’s learning, but that is not necessarily a characteristic of personalized learning.

The third station, the collaborative platform, is the biggest reason we’ve been hearing so much about personalized learning lately.  

Personalized learning doesn’t necessarily have to include technology. Tailoring instruction to student needs is an idea that has been around for a while. The research to back it up dates back to 1980, with work led by Benjamin Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago. The practice, arguably, goes back further than that to Maria Montessori’s work in the early 1900s.

However, practitioners and funders say new technology has made it easier to put personalized learning into practice.  

Beth Rabbitt, the CEO of Learning Accelerator, an organization that supports implementation of blended learning in schools, has observed this in her work.

“Personalized learning for every student, every day is a really tough load for teachers,” Rabbitt said. 

“I think the places where technology has the most potential as it relates to personalized learning is helping teachers and students do what they’ve been trying to do, but haven’t been able to actually do without new resources and tools.”

Jones reported a similar sentiment: “Teachers would just say to me, ‘Personalized learning allows me to be the teacher I’ve always wanted to be.”

“When you have 30 students in a classroom, you desire to be able to know each student personally, and understand their learning style, and really meet their needs. The reality is that that has been very difficult to do at the individual level,” Jones said...

The field has especially caught the eye of Silicon Valley donors, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the discipline’s new emphasis on technology. As we've reported, the Khan Academy—which offers "personalized learning resources for all ages"—has attracted funding from a number of tech winners, including John Doerr, Reed Hastings, Scott Cook, and the Gates Foundation. We've also written about the CK-12 Foundation, co-founded by Neeru Kholsa, wife of billionaire Vinod Khosla, and bankrolled by the couple's Amar Foundation. Its educational tech tools are currently used by thousands of schools in the U.S. and a growing number of international schools. In addition, personalized learning has received attention from the Emerson Collective, the philanthropic organization of Laurene Powell Jobs.

Source: Inside Philanthropy