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 today announced  a new grant program that will disburse about $20 million over two years, says Josh Jarrett, its senior program officer for postsecondary success. 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 grants will comprise the first wave of the Next Generation Learning Challenges , a series of educational technology grant opportunities the foundation will be rolling out over the next few years in conjunction the the education-technology nonprofit Educause, among others.
It will not be the first time the Microsoft co-founder’s philanthropic organization has supported technology-related projects in higher ed; the foundation 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, says Jarrett.
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This new grants 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.).
The Next Generation Learning Challenges program will particularly 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.
Jarrett 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. But scaling and improving data analytics is just one priority; doing the same for blended learning programs, novel forms of interactive learning (such as gaming), and promoting high-quality open courses online.
Gates will probably fund 25 to 30 projects initially, reserving funds to “double down” on the more successful ones. It will accept proposals under mid-November, then whittle the applicants down to a set of finalists over the over the following months before announcing the award recipients in March.
(This article has been updated since first publication.)