Doing It Right

Experts weigh in on what the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative needs to do to put the Facebook founder's billions of dollars toward expanding the use of personalized learning.

December 15, 2015

So you’ve decided you want to change the world and put your tremendous fortune toward the lofty goals of “advancing human potential and promoting equality.” Now comes the hard part.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this month celebrated the birth of his daughter by announcing the creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic limited liability company. The initiative will over the next several decades invest 99 percent of the Facebook shares owned by Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan -- today worth about $45 billion -- in organizations with similar goals.

The announcement, which came in the form of “A letter to our daughter,” touched briefly on the many areas the initiative hopes to cover. In addition to arguably more monumental efforts such as curing disease and protecting the environment, Chan and Zuckerberg also found space to outline their vision for a future in which students use “technology that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus.”

Chan and Zuckerberg are talking about personalized learning -- using technology to structure courses or learning materials based on students’ abilities and interests. They may also mean adaptive learning, which responds to a student’s progress through a course and changes readings and assignments accordingly. If a student fails to grasp an important concept, for example, the technology will circle back and repeat it, perhaps using different course materials.

More details about the initiative, including the scope of its interest in personalized learning, are expected in the coming months. It may take longer than that to fully understand what the initiative hopes to accomplish. Its Facebook page mentions “long-term investments over 25, 50 or even 100 years” and challenges that “require very long time horizons and cannot be solved by short-term thinking.” Chan and Zuckerberg’s letter also urges patience:

“It will take working with the strongest leaders in education to help schools around the world adopt personalized learning,” they wrote. “It will take engaging with communities, which is why we're starting in our San Francisco Bay Area community. It will take building new technology and trying new ideas. And it will take making mistakes and learning many lessons before achieving these goals.”

For now, Chan and Zuckerberg have a vision, supported by billions of dollars, and an end goal in mind. How do you connect the two?

Roles and Goals

In interviews with Inside Higher Ed, ed-tech entrepreneurs, researchers and officers at other foundations said the initiative’s interest in personalized learning comes at a time when the market remains unsettled. That can be both a benefit and a hindrance; on the one hand, they said, there is an opportunity for the initiative to exert its influence, but on the other, it will likely take trial and error -- and a lot of money.

“Personalized learning is not cooked yet,” said Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. “It is an idea whose time is now, but it entails a high order of difficulty. The technology isn’t perfect yet, the professional development is expensive, and it works in some places and doesn’t in others.”

Levy previously helped launch Kaplan University’s School of Education and focused on ed-tech investments at the venture capital firm Palm Ventures. The foundation, which mainly awards scholarships, last year said it would use technology to connect high-performing low-income students with prestigious colleges and universities.

Despite his concerns about how to expand the use of personalized learning, Levy said the initiative is in a good position to address them. “The reason why I am optimistic about what is in the offing here is because there is so much money they might actually be able to address these issues,” Levy said.

One of the first tasks the initiative needs to complete, however, is to settle on how exactly it will spend that money to take steps toward Chan and Zuckerberg’s goal of finding “one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity.”

“There are choices that philanthropies have to make as they move forward,” said Daniel Greenstein, director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “What are the goals, roles and strategic objectives? What is the practice? What are we trying to accomplish, and how do we actually build philanthropic, execution and budgeting models that help us achieve our goals?”

Greenstein outlined several paths. He said the initiative could resemble a charity, cutting checks to causes it deems worthy; act like a venture capital firm and try to stimulate the personalized learning market broadly; or take on a more strategic role, making investments toward a set of clearly defined objectives.

Both Greenstein and Dror Ben-Naim, CEO and founder of the adaptive learning company Smart Sparrow, suggested the initiative could take a learn-as-you-go approach, adjusting its objectives as it goes along.

“I would actually try to first make a bunch of investments, learn from that, and evolve a personalized learning vision in a few years’ time,” Ben-Naim said.

Should the initiative choose such an approach, it would still need to find a way to track its progress. Ben-Naim suggested a simple metric that would at least work initially: count the number of students who experience personalized learning and chart it over time. If one of the initiative’s goals is to expand the use of personalized learning, that number needs to be increasing.

Performance metrics will be more difficult to establish, Greenstein said. Ben-Naim said it will in some cases take years to track what impact, if any, personalized learning has on student outcomes.

“The one thing that is the most difficult to measure is improvement on college completion,” said Ben-Naim, whose company is part of the foundation’s Next Generation Courseware Challenge. “The distance between your intervention and output is so great.”

The initiative also needs to decide how it will position itself in relation to existing foundations and, most importantly, education systems.

“Are you investing in a model that will effectively undermine existing players or enable [them] to evolve and improve to reach the desired state?” Ben-Naim said. “The strategy that I would recommend is a little bit of both.”

The initiative is for now pitching itself as more of an ally than an antagonist. In addition to Chan and Zuckerberg’s comments about “engaging with communities,” Facebook’s early work in education -- through the nonprofit Startup:Education -- has taken the form of partnerships with charter schools, public school districts and other nonprofit organizations.

Finally, there are definitions that need to be fleshed out. It is not yet known if Chan and Zuckerberg’s idea of personalized learning includes adaptive technology, for example.

A spokesperson for the initiative, speaking on background, said there is "inevitably" going to be some interest in higher education, but that at the moment Chan and Zuckerberg are most interested in K-12 education.

The Early Criticism

The decision to establish a limited liability company instead of a foundation quickly drew scrutiny. Some have accused Chan and Zuckerberg of using the initiative to mask a tax avoidance scheme.

Zuckerberg dismissed those comments on Facebook, saying in a post that the structure gives the initiative “flexibility to execute our mission more effectively.”

Experts generally agreed with Zuckerberg’s comments that the move grants the initiative more flexibility.

Ben-Naim said Facebook’s involvement in personalized learning could lead to a debate about privacy. Facebook knows a lot about its users, and uses that information to sell targeted advertising opportunities. Tailoring a curriculum to suit an individual student will also take a lot of data.

“At the end of the day, the revenue model of Facebook is advertising and marketing,” said Ben-Naim, suggesting that Zuckerberg can attempt to defuse that debate early on by publishing a document outlining the initiative’s ethical standards. “People will be worried that the intervention into the educational space will also be driven by that same model.”

The entry of a new education reformer backed by billions of dollars is also likely to reignite the debate about the influence such organizations wield.

“One concern I have is that if the education system becomes more and more dependent on nonpublic funding -- charities, foundations and so forth -- it actually gives politicians a reason to divest,” Ben-Naim said. “We know state funding is going down. Concurrently to that, billionaires are pouring more and more money into the system. I’m not sure it’s an overall positive. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that education is a social good.”


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