Gates Foundation’s New Program

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has become a major force in pushing for improvements in college completion rates, is now linking that goal to technological innovation.

The foundation will today announce a new grant program that will disburse about $20 million over two years, says Josh Jarrett, the senior program officer for postsecondary success at the Gates Foundation. It will focus on projects aiming to scale new technologies to many students — particularly low-income students who are at the highest risk of failing or dropping out.

"We come at this first and foremost around improving completion for low-income young adults," Jarrett told Inside Higher Ed on Friday. "And so we’re looking for technology to surface and scale those solutions that are particularly focused on improving completion."

The new program, which is part of a series of educational technology grant opportunities the Gates Foundation will be rolling out over the next few years, will not be the first time the Microsoft co-founder’s philanthropic organization has supported technology-related projects in higher ed; it has helped fund multiple online learning projects, as well as conferences on how data from online learning might be used to improve retention and learning. Online learning expansions have been the target of many grants in recent years, and not just by Gates, Jarrett says.

This new grant program will zero in on technologies that not only expose students to online courses, but make it more probable that they will complete them, better understand the material, and become better students in general, he says. Eligibility for the new grants will depend in part on how easily the technologies involved can be measured to show an impact on students’ completion, persistence, learning outcomes, and meta-cognitive skills (communication, collaboration, etc.).

These grants will aim to “refine and scale” technology tools that have already been built and deployed on individual campuses and show early signs of promise, Jarrett says. “All too often there’s things that happen in one department or in one classroom, the faculty member next door or the department down the street doesn’t adopt those innovations because they weren’t invented there,” he says.

He cited the Signals program at Purdue University — which uses data from the learning-management system to identify, early on, students who are at risk of failure — as an example of the sort of technology these grants will be trying to boost.

The foundation will probably fund 25 to 30 projects initially, reserving funds to “double down” on the more successful ones. Beginning today, it will begin accepting proposals, which it will whittle down to a set of finalists over the next few months. The foundation plans to announce the award recipients in March.


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