Wealthy engineers traditionally have supported education by donating money to construct computer science buildings, engineering centers, and endowed professorships. But Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are going in a different direction: They are using their money to reform education, even though neither has training as an educator.
The two entrepreneurs support the personalized learning model, which involves students progressing at their own pace, generally with the aid of technology.
The Gates and Zuckerberg foundations in April teamed up and donated US $12 million to fund the New Profit Personalized Learning Initiative, designed to support new ways of tailoring classroom instruction to individual students. New Profit, a venture philanthropy organization in Boston, plans to invest in what it calls “promising new approaches” to give students more control of their education and provide teachers with tools to tailor classroom instruction to the needs of each student.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says it believes personalized education can be delivered to more students and at less cost than current government-funded systems. The foundation has given more than $300 million to support personalized learning research and development since 2009.
In the Microsoft-run Showcase Schools program, for example, digital education is integrated into the curriculum, and science, technology, engineering, and math are emphasized. Thousands of schools from around the world have signed up.
In a 2015 open letter to their newborn daughter, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, pledged to leverage their foundation to develop technology that supports personalized learning models. “Personalized learning will not only help students in good schools; it will help provide more equal opportunity to anyone with an Internet connection,” they wrote in the letter.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced in March that it would begin working on a free online tool, the Summit Learning platform, which empowers teachers to customize instruction to meet their students’ needs. Last fall Facebook and Summit Public Schools, a nonprofit network with 120 charter schools in the Bay Area of California, introduced a free student-directed learning system. The Facebook-Summit system puts students in charge of selecting their projects and setting their pace.
Gates and Zuckerberg are not the only ones getting behind personalized learning. The U.S. Department of Education has given more than $350 million to school districts that embrace the model—with limited verifiable results, according to an analysis in Education Week. Proponents have struggled to define the model, let alone demonstrate its effectiveness, the article points out. Critics argue that it would be better to invest in proven strategies such as reducing class sizes.
Critics also wonder if there are ulterior motives to the billionaires’ generosity. After all, the market for selling computers and software to U.S. schools is projected to reach $21 billion by 2020, according to The New York Times.
Microsoft’s Showcase Schools program works with each school to help it choose which of Microsoft’s products to purchase, including Office 365 for Education. And if the learning platform and the management system Facebook is developing for Summit Public Schools prove to be successful, it’s only a matter of time before they are sold elsewhere.
Should government remain responsible for public school education, or do you think Gates, Zuckerberg, and other wealthy individuals should step in?