Can Technology Turbo-Charge K-12 Learning? Chan Zuckerberg Is Betting On It

In its work on education, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is betting big on personalized learning. This focus sets CZI apart from many foundations piloted by living donors, which have tended to seek changes in school systems, especially by promoting choice and charters. But for the philanthropic organization started by pediatrician Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, the most exciting possible goal is to revolutionize how kids learn.

A year ago, the couple hired Jim Shelton—a former deputy secretary of education and Gates Foundation executive—to pilot this work. In that announcement, Zuckerberg conjured a future in which today's children could "learn 100 times more than we learn today" by embracing approaches that allowed every student to "learn in their own way at their own speed in a way that maximizes their potential."

Since Shelton came on board, CZI's work on personalized learning has evolved rapidly, and now has a number of parts. 

Developing and promoting the technology for personalized learning is a central focus. In March, Shelton wrote on Facebook that CZI is "building a world-class engineering team with a commitment to developing breakthrough products and practices that support personalized learning." More specifically, it's creating a free online tool, the Summit Learning platform, which "empowers teachers to customize instruction to meet their students’ individual needs and interests." This platform was developed by a partnership between Facebook and Summit Public Schools, a leading charter school provider. It's now used by 130 schools, 1,100 teachers and 20,000 students, according to Shelton. But CZI is dreaming even bigger. 

Shelton said in March that CZI "could not be more excited by the platform’s potential... Students say this platform makes learning both more challenging and fun; and teachers report it makes engaging each student more feasible than ever." In a TEDx talk in April, Shelton described the philosophy here more broadly: "It turns out when you let people choose, their level of engagement and motivation goes up." He added, "The fact that the first word that comes to mind when students think of high school is 'boring' is our fault, not theirs." Personalized learning, Shelton said, could change this—creating real-world projects that make learning more "relevant" and make kids "care."

This month, CZI announced a pair of grants aimed at boosting personalized learning. The first focuses on the school district and state levels, while the second partners CZI with a national organization to boost college readiness. The amount of funding awarded was not disclosed in either case, but considering the resources at CZI's disposal, it's safe to say the amounts are considerable. One recipient would say only that it was a multimillion-dollar award.

To support personalized learning at the state and local levels, CZI awarded funds to Chiefs For Change, the education network composed of district superintendents and state education agency heads. The group's agenda includes expanded school choice, diversifying school leaders, greater integration of technology into learning, and—more recently—successful implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which vests greater control over education policy in states. Chiefs For Change grew out of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Chiefs For Change will use the funds to support the new Transforming Schools and Systems Workgroup. The group's CEO told Education Week that the workgroup will craft a vision and plan to redesign schools to better align with goals for all students.

Clearly, CZI is serious about operationalizing personalized learning more widely. In February, Education Week reported that CZI had thrown its support behind a statewide personalized learning push in Rhode Island. This $2 million public-private partnership is also funded by the Jaquelin Hume Foundation, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, and the Overdeck Family Foundation. Zuckerberg and Chan recently visited Rhode Island to see personalized learning in action at a middle school and also met with Governor Gina M. Raimondo to discuss this work. 

The second recent gift by CZI was to the nonprofit organization The College Board, which administers the SAT, PSAT and the Advanced Placement (AP) program, with the goal of expanding access to personalized learning designed to better prepare students for these exams and improve their readiness for college. The two-year partnership focuses on low-income and rural students, and supports research on student motivation. A growing body of research on such qualities as "grit" and "academic tenacity," led by researchers Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck, respectively, emphasizes their importance in student readiness for postsecondary education.

With all the funds from Chan and Zuckerberg, and other high-profile funders like Gates, flowing into personalized learning, it is appropriate to ask, "Will it work?" Much has been written about the promise and potential of personalized learning, but what about the evidence that this idea is effective?

The research on personalized learning is in early stages, and an encouraging 2015 RAND study on the topic remains the most comprehensive study to date on the topic. Other research is now underway and should offer additional insights insights into whether CZI and other funders are making the right big bet, here. Education historian Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education, wishes that champions of technology like Zuckerberg would admit its limitations.  

What can be said is that personalized learning, facilitated by new technology, obviously tracks with Mark Zuckerberg's own background and world view. And it reflect a techno-optimism at the core of CZI's work. "We believe engineers can help turbocharge and scale solutions to facilitate social change," the organization says.