The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has opened up its checkbook once again, and this time the focus is on innovative learning models in higher education. According to a report, the foundation has committed $9 million in grants to institutions that are implementing digital technology to enhance and broaden their educational reach.
It should come as no surprise that a philanthropic organization founded and funded by the brains behind Microsoft is invested in underwriting education models that utilize the newest technologies. However, historically the foundation’s primary focus has been in early childhood and K-12 issues. Now it appears the foundation is moving into post-secondary education, underwriting initiatives that Josh Jarrett, Deputy Director of Postsecondary Success, calls “breakthrough delivery models.”
The big winner in this latest round of the Gates Foundation’s largess is the MyCollege Foundation, which will receive a $3 million grant to establish a non-profit online college specifically structured to meet the needs of low-income adults. The college will be regionally accredited, and it will offer transfer-level, quality Associates degrees at an affordable tuition price point.
In the foundation’s first foray into underwriting massive open online courses (a/k/a MOOCs), it was also announced that Massachusetts Institute of Technology will receive a $1 million grant. These funds will be used to extend the university’s MITx project to colleges that serve low-income students by using what is called the ‘flipped classroom” approach. Tapping in online, students will be able to watch MITx lectures, and then use their actual classroom time on their own campuses for enrichment and tutorials should they need additional help.
“It’s a test to see how much can students get from what’s in the MITx course, and what do they need to get supplemented,” says Jarrett. “Do they get 50 percent of what they need from the MITx course, or do they get 75 percent, and what’s the best way to support faculty in the blended environment?”
Another $1 million was awarded to the City University of New York (CUNY). These funds are earmarked specifically to help underwrite the New Community College, CUNY’s first new campus in four decades. NCC’s focus is on recruiting first-generation college students, and developing a ‘new and imaginative model’ to retain these students that includes innovative tutorial and mentoring programs. NCC will welcome its first class of incoming students for the Fall 2012 semester.
While the Gates Foundation has demonstrated strong support for online education, it has also underscored its commitment to ensuring that online alternatives are accepted by the mainstream. The University of the People, which bills itself as “the world’s first tuition-free university dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education” received a $500,000 grant targeted to help it gain official accreditation.
Given the ever-broadening scope of the Gates Foundation’s field of interests, it is almost impossible to predict its next move. Certainly, the foundation has the resources to make an impact on any number of issues, and to quote Mr. Gates himself, “...until we are educating every kid in a fantastic way, until every inner city is cleaned up, there is no shortage of things to do.”