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Chapter 7: The Philanthropist’s Guide to Smart Investments

Even with the barriers to growth and lingering issues described in the previous chapter, blended learning is expanding. “We’re going to start to see a lot more successes in the next year,” says Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute. In Disrupting Class, the authors predicted that 25 percent of American students would rely on some form of online learning by 2014, and 50 percent by 2019. Already, some ed-tech products like ClassDoJo and EdModo are being deployed in more than 100,000 classrooms. DreamBox experienced 300 percent growth last year—some of that from parents purchasing the product, the rest from schools. A handful of states (Florida, North Carolina, and New Hampshire) now have over a quarter of their students taking online classes either in school or at home. There’s nothing stopping the practice from spreading in other states. “Most districts around the country have implemented at least some online learning in the last two years,” reports education author Tom Vander Ark. While “in most cases, it’s fairly lame,” even remedial classes offered over the summer for credit recovery amount to something. “It matters that half of all districts are at least in the game,” he says.

Most districts around the country have implemented at least some online learning in the last two years.

States have committed to shifting their annual assessments from pencil-and-paper fill-in-the-circle tests to online examinations by 2014. This means that schools will need computer access for nearly all their students, as well as teachers and school leaders capable of supporting online work. That may create a tipping point that opens the path to wider integration of computers into regular instruction. “My hope is that people don’t just buy technology to implement assessments,” says former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise. “Digital learning to us is not just about online learning. It’s a total technology strategy. It’s about how you’re using data systems to inform teachers, how you use adaptive software, about how to use technology to assist teachers. It’s about a total comprehensive approach.”

Foundations, likewise, are seeing more interest in blended learning from the institutions they support. Jim Blew of the Walton Family Foundation says, “Everybody’s doing this now. If we did 150 school start-up grants last year, I bet that 120 of them were using blended learning of some kind.” He attributes that development to two things. First, the quest for cost savings in the face of flat revenues, and, second, “the market has begun to mature. Some products clearly help with instruction. Four to five years ago, this was very speculative stuff.”

As the blended-learning market matures, philanthropy can play a role in making sure that programs are done thoughtfully and to a high quality standard. Philanthropists can speed adoption via strategic grants. They can make sure that experiments are implemented broadly enough to benefit significant numbers of children.

So how should you invest?

The answer obviously depends on your objectives, your risk tolerance and—not a small matter—what the funder finds most meaningful. The Philanthropy Roundtable surveyed nonprofits, foundations, individual donors, and education-reform leaders about wise giving strategies. Here are some of their ideas for investing at different levels.

Giving In the Under-$100,000 Range

While blended learning is spreading as an educational strategy, many parties who could be champions don’t yet know what it is or what it looks like. Thus, many strategies for smaller grants could involve simply raising awareness.

  • Convene a summit of local educators and policy makers, and bring in a speaker from a blended-learning school or an organization that works with blended-learning schools. The Donnell-Kay Foundation in Colorado has followed this strategy, producing short conferences over the last three years on blended-learning topics.
  • Create a speaker series for the public, bringing experts on blended learning to your town. People who can’t attend a multi-day conference might devote an evening to the topic.
  • Arrange a trip for local stakeholders to visit blended-learning schools and see for themselves how blended-learning works in practice.
  • In an existing or new blended-learning school, offer “professional development” funds that will support the re-training of teachers in the fine points of digital instruction, to ensure the venture has every chance to succeed.
  • Create a blended-learning Teacher of the Year award to showcase and reward innovative educators. A Principal of the Year award could do the same thing.
  • Support a blended-learning blog or website, which could be either locally or nationally focused. In a national site, guidance on new developments and frank assessments of what is and isn’t working in blended learning would be useful. A local site might examine the relevance of blended learning for your particular community, and examine local obstacles and opportunities.
  • Pay for outreach and publicity for a successful blended-learning program in your region. The Jaquelin Hume Foundation supported videos for several blended-learning schools (such as Carpe Diem) in order to spread awareness of their models. Better understanding of the practices in actual working schools can elevate the quality of debate.
  • Produce a small educational summit for journalists or education bloggers with a focus on blended learning.
  • Introduce leaders in other educational organizations, such as PTAs and charter organizations, to blended learning through a conference or site visits.
  • Fund more case studies of successful blended-learning schools. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation has taken this approach with several schools, including the Summit schools, Rocketship, and ATAMS. These case studies can then be circulated nationally to other interested parties beyond those able to make site visits.
  • Fund papers, brochures, infographics, and videos on blended learning in general—not specific to particular schools.
  • Fund a social-media strategy that raises the profile of blended-learning school leaders and advocates, with the goal of getting these advocates invited to speak to large general audiences (e.g. TED talks) or to make media appearances. A good social-media strategy could generate a community of people who care about blended learning and follow its developments regularly.
  • Launch a website for disseminating blended-learning research results more quickly and less expensively than the laborious process followed by peer-reviewed journals.
  • Create a meta-analysis of blended-learning research (a review of all the individual studies that have been done). The only existing analysis of this sort was done in 2009 by a bureau of the U.S. Department of Education, and is quickly becoming out of date.
  • Fund a smaller research project by a professor or think tank looking at some important detail of digital learning.
  • Build a tracking system to provide funders with access to a list of blended-learning projects, how they were funded, and the results. Encourage fellow philanthropists to use these findings to inform future grants.
  • Fund a book on blended learning and work with the author to get the book commercially published and distributed.

Many foundations like to invest in the operation of actual schools. While the price tag on starting a new school from scratch can run into seven figures (see the lists of larger investments below), there are also more economical ways to fund blended learning in classrooms near you:

  • Support a pilot program in a few classrooms at a school that’s amenable to innovation. Supplement existing technology, and pay for someone to help the teachers select software. This grant might also underwrite the training of teachers, and some uncomplicated data collection on teacher satisfaction, student and parent satisfaction, and student test scores.
  • Find a school that already has a plan for transitioning to a blended-
  • learning model, and fund practical requirements like teacher training, beefed-up internet wiring, or other needs.
  • Fund the creation of a learning lab on a whole-school level, if a school agrees to try a comprehensive blended model. An investment on the order of $100,000 could pay for supplemental technology to augment what the school already has, plus software, plus tech support or instructional assistants.
  • Fund a summer-school blended-learning program for at-risk students who’ve failed a math class during the year, or a summer enrichment program for students who need stiffer challenges in math. Because blended learning naturally differentiates, this could be the same program.
  • Fund a supplemental after-school blended-learning program, and track the results.
  • Support the creation of an alternative flex-model program at a high school, in which students mostly take classes online but receive some tutoring from teachers and instructional aides. This program could primarily serve students who want an alternative to traditional school structures because of work or family commitments, disability, disciplinary infractions, or other reasons.
  • Pay for a consultant to work with a school or two on exploring blended-learning options. Even if no one’s ready to create a pilot right now, this investment in knowledge and familiarity may pay off over time.
  • Pay for teachers to take classes (as soon as they exist—see those proposed on pages 111–112) in the best forms of digital-learning instruction.

If you are interested in policy initiatives in particular, there are important advances that could be funded for an investment in the $50,000–$100,000 range:

  • Undertake a study of your state’s laws to see if any are hindering the introduction of blended learning. Share the results with legislators. iNACOL has worked with most of the states to look at their policies, but yours might not be among them.
  • Fund the writing of model legislation that would support the shift to mastery-based learning instead of seat-time, and that would be supportive of blended learning more broadly.
  • Support a state digital-learning plan. Remind your state’s leaders that states have committed to transitioning very soon to online assessments, which will require investments in computers and software—making this an opportune moment to consider blended learning as part of a broader digital-access plan.

If you’re open to higher-risk strategies, there are small investments that could potentially create major returns down the road:

If you’re open to higher-risk strategies, some small investments could potentially create major returns down the road.
  • A $25,000 grant might support an educational entrepreneur for six months as he or she produced a business plan for a new school, an operational efficiency in an existing school, or a new ed-tech product. “You have a lot of people who do scaling type of work, but not many who will help entrepreneurs get started,” says Luis de la Fuente of the Broad Foundation. Sometimes truly innovative educational ideas “need a little bit more runway than a traditional incubator gives them,” says Alan Louie of Imagine K–12. Funding the creative work of an independent visionary at an early stage is not for neophytes, but it can sometimes produce a very big bang for the buck. Consider making several of these investments, knowing that only one or two are likely to pan out.
  • A handful of $25,000 grants could produce an educational fellows program that would support multiple entrepreneurs, who could also provide feedback on each other’s models and products. There would be lots of ways to structure such a program. You could run it yourself and have candidates apply to you. You could fund positions at an educational think tank. You could give grants to an educational incubator.
  • Organize a start-up weekend, where school leaders gather to discuss new models and then vote on the best. Award a prize to the winner, and potentially partner with someone else to arrange implementation funds.
  • Fund a prize competition for local school districts or for charter-school networks willing to set up blended-learning pilots within their systems.
  • If, in the competition above, you get a great plan from an organization willing to translate it into reality, have a second stage of the competition where you partner with the winner to help implement the plan.
  • Fund “come-and-see” events for skeptical teachers to observe up close, without pressure, how blended learning works. If teachers are resistant, a school’s experiment in blended learning is unlikely to succeed, so dealing with concerns before there are actual proposals on the table can lay essential groundwork.

Giving in the Range Up to $500,000

Investments of this size make more ideas possible. You can multiply any of the previous opportunities—funding multiple pilot programs, for instance—or expand their scope. Some additional possibilities:

  • Fund a short course to train teachers and administrators from multiple schools in digital-learning strategies. This course could itself be blended: partially online, with a face-to-face component. The Connelly Foundation funds a Summer Tech Academy for teachers at Philadelphia-area Catholic schools. It started with five figures of annual funding and have now expanded the program to train 180 teachers at a six-figure annual cost.
  • Inform teachers. There is relatively little information on what effective technology-enhanced teaching looks like. A funder might pay for the creation of an authoritative handbook or online archive compiling the best techniques and strategies.
  • Translate that handbook and archive of effective blended-teaching techniques into a training program for teachers, either live or online.
  • Launch a teacher-focused platform to help educators create experiments (or replicate ones others have done) and share the results. This virtual faculty room would provide lesson plans, videos, and other resources.
  • Fund blended-learning research and development. Work with blended schools to document which software works best with different students, which class configurations work best, what homework best supports in-class gains, what formats teachers should see data in, what interventions should be pursued first when the data show problems, and so forth. Build support for evidence-based teaching.
  • There are currently a handful of good support organizations (like Education Elements and New Classrooms) that are in business to help schools make the jump to blended learning, and help teachers implement new forms of instruction. This field of implementation consultants will need to expand rapidly if hundreds of schools are to transition to blended learning. A funder might help expand these organizations, create new ones, or simply give groups of schools the money to contract with them.
  • Fund an organization that can produce objective, detailed reviews of the strengths and weaknesses of software programs and other educational technology offerings. Publish and share these findings with educators who need to make informed decisions when equipping classrooms.
  • Work with existing institutions such as the Council of Chief State School Officers or the National Association of School Boards of Education to train their members to understand and work with blended schools.
  • Go to one of the various business incubator or seed-funding programs mentioned earlier and help one of their promising young education-technology companies launch themselves as a full-fledged commercial operation. Funding in the range of $250,000 might achieve this.
  • Support academics who will do traditional, longer research projects on blended learning (the kind published in peer-reviewed journals).
  • Fund the operations of advocacy groups operating on a national level to promote blended learning: iNACOL, Innosight Institute, Alliance for Excellent Education, Foundation for Excellence in Education, Digital Learning Now, or others.
  • Support the work of technology incubators that have a track record of spinning out thoughtful ed-tech start-ups.
  • Bring together ed-tech entrepreneurs and educators and researchers (particularly those focused on the Common Core or high standards in general) in order to encourage the inclusion of high-quality blended learning in new curricula as they are developed.
  • Help your state roll out its plan for computerized annual testing, with an eye toward using this timeline to advance blended learning more broadly.
  • Support a series of regional conferences on blended learning aimed at teachers and school leaders. Help educators network and share best practices.
  • Fund testing experts with the aim of improving the examinations used to find out how much a student has learned in a course or during a year. Current assessments can sometimes miss the valuable back-filling of knowledge gaps that mastery-based digital instruction is effective at exposing and filling in.
  • Fund a statewide conference tied to a grant competition, administered through the state department of education and ideally championed by the governor, to support a blended-learning program and raise awareness.
  • Partner with other foundations or public funding sources to start a blended-
  • learning school in your community, or transform an existing school. While $500,000 won’t pay for a building, it could pay for the technology, curricula, and the planning and launch of such an institution.

Giving $1 Million or More

  • Start a new school. This is generally the price point for full-blown creation of a new institution—or partnering with other groups to create a handful of schools in a portfolio approach. The Rogers Family Foundation has given about this amount to create four pilot programs at schools in Oakland, which the foundation will then study for student results and teacher satisfaction.
  • Contribute to an investment pool (like the Silicon Schools Fund, Charter School Growth Fund, or NewSchools Venture Fund) dedicated to the launch of new blended-learning schools, expansion of existing school networks, or support of other educational organizations or companies that undergird blended learning. Since more such funds will eventually be needed, one might also create a new pooled fund.
  • Fund runners-up from other grant competitions, so these programs can be launched in the real world. Someone else has already vetted these models, and just because one wasn’t the top scorer doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
  • Support 8–10 different states or school districts as they develop blended-
  • learning strategies.
  • Make your own direct grant to a successful blended-learning operator to help that organization expand its operation to additional students in new parts of the country. Seven-figure investments in expansion are usually staggered over several years, with built-in growth and performance targets.

One particularly innovative way to use $1 million? Rethink the way schools assess knowledge.

  • Tom Vander Ark suggests creating a merit badge system, probably aligned to the Common Core curriculum, that shows proven competence in specific areas. The development of a trusted merit-badge system would give pupils proof of what they could do for potential employers, and move schools toward a system of mastery-based assessment. High school completion could eventually be transformed into the completion of 250 badges, with no immutable time expectation on earning them.
  • Collaborate with a school or small school district to implement such a merit-badge system as an alternative graduation path. This would require working with state education officials and local employers and colleges as well. One option would be to build a trial system for use by home schoolers, which could eventually be adopted system wide.
  • Support the independent design of a mastery-based curriculum and assessment program, potentially looking to successful existing commercial providers like Kumon and Sylvan Learning for examples and inspiration.

Other eclectic ideas:

  • Fund a documentary film supporting blended learning, to raise public awareness and build political pressure. Foundations funded Waiting for Superman. “If you want to get to the public, movies are a pretty good way to do it,” says de la Fuente.
  • Influence television producers, journalists, even companies that sell school supplies to weave blended-learning references into their storytelling and advertising narratives.
  • Fund a statewide ballot initiative in support of blended learning and correlated education reform (see the caveats, below, on funding political action).
  • Work with an amenable school of education at a major university to create a certificate program in blended learning, or to have blended-learning techniques woven into broader training in pedagogy. “Just because a 23-year-old came into teacher preparation wired doesn’t mean they can teach with these tools,” says Bob Wise. “For a funder who wants to take it on, it’s hard work, but there are some teacher colleges that are willing to try.”
  • Support a new-format education school, such as the Relay Graduate School of Education, which will train teachers in blended-learning techniques.
  • Contribute to a national image-raising campaign that publicizes blended learning through advertising, much as dairy farmers or air traffic controllers have burnished public understanding and appreciation of their industries through public-relations campaigns.

Incorporating Blended Learning into Your Broader K–12 Strategy

Whether you pursue a blended-learning strategy explicitly or not, blended learning can inform other giving priorities. Says Luis de la Fuente of Broad Foundation funder Eli Broad, “Every time he talks to anybody about anything, blended learning comes up.” And so “we’re really weaving it into more and more of everything that we do.”

The Broad Foundation runs a superintendents academy, and these education leaders now all do a session on blended learning. Even though the Walton Family Foundation doesn’t fund much digital education directly, it has become a part of their strategy for funding lots of charter-school startups. Likewise, as part of its focus on turning around failed schools, the CityBridge Foundation uses blended learning as one important tool.

If you support education research, you can support research into blended learning as part of that. If you support a charter school in your region, you can encourage the school leader to investigate the technology that’s out there. In the future, it will be difficult for active school-reform philanthropists to proceed without at least some role in their strategy for computerized instruction.

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