Classrooms too full, or just too stifling? Gates Foundation Gives $9 Million to New Learning Models

Classrooms too full, or just too stifling? Would classes with cheaper prices and flexible schedules make college more accessible? Well, a major player in the world of educational philanthropy is allowing a variety of schools to test it out. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation turned its funding attention to alternatives to traditional classroom learning models in its latest set of secondary and post-secondary education grants. (See Gates Foundation: Grants fo K-12 Education). In June 2012, the foundation announced $9 million in funding for "breakthrough learning models", including those of the online or blended online and traditional varieties. Some courses will be for specific institutions, others open to the general public — allowing professors to open their classrooms to tens of thousands of viewers. 

One of the blended models includes Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MITx; a free, prototype computer science course which received $1 million. The course will be developed by MIT and given to colleges serving low-income students. Professors will teach an official course based around MITx materials, using an approach called the "flipped classroom." Students at the partner colleges will watch the MITx video during what would have been traditional lecture time. Actual classroom time at these institutions will be used to work through group exercises and to provide additional tutoring to students on particular sections. For this and other MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), the foundation wants to test exactly what percentage of the student's core course knowledge will come from these online courses and determine whether the model should be replicated beyond the initial test group of schools. (Read deputy director of education, Irvin Scott's IP profile). 

Taking the MOOC concept even further, the University of the People was awarded $500,000 to expand its course offerings as the world’s first tuition-free, non-profit, online academic institution. Volunteer professors teach courses on a wide variety of subjects for free. The grant is mainly to help the institution gain accreditation, making the free, on-line learning model less of a risk for students who want to receive a college education without the high price tag.  

Among the winners in the secondary school category, the Next Generation Learning Challengers received $1.2 milliion to support its Wave III program, for secondary schools that provide blended curriculums for students at an affordable price that is scalable across the country. Separately, the NGLC received the largest of all of the grants, $3.3 million, to fund four of their college-level, similarly blended models.  

All of these programs, from the well-respected MIT to the upstart University of the People, remain largely untested. The proof will lie in the Gates Foundation's rigorous reporting requirements, which will evaluate whether or not these online models are viable alternatives to traditional classrooms.