The Heavy Hitters Behind a Fund Focused on K-12 Blended Learning

Silicon Valley is a center of technology innovation and venture capital. So it’s the perfect home for a “venture philanthropy” that funds instructional technology to create new blended learning schools.

Meet the Silicon Schools Fund, a foundation that funds blended learning projects in traditional public school systems and charter schools. It envisions combining sound instructional practices with the power of technology, so that schools can give students a personalized education.

Blended learning, in which students access at least some of the instructional content online using laptop computers or tablets, is a hot trend in elementary and secondary education. Proponents believe blending learning initiatives increase student engagement, boost critical thinking, and personalize learning. Students who may drift off while a teacher lectures at a whiteboard or overhead projector may take greater notice if they can access lessons and other content online.

Infusing modern technology into the classroom is not cheap, and numerous pitfalls exist. School systems need staff with sufficient technology skill, facilities that can store and charge a large number of computers and mobile devices, and sufficient bandwidth.

Inadequate attention to these and other considerations can quickly turn a promising educational innovation into an expensive disaster. Just ask the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose $1 billion iPad initiative has become a cautionary tale for many schools considering greater use of classroom technology.

Related - Bringing Technology To Classrooms Is Filled With Pitfalls. This Funder Wants to Help

Silicon Schools Fund hopes to help traditional K-12 and charter schools avoid these pitfalls by providing seed money for blended learning. The fund has supported more than a dozen schools in the Bay Area. Some received funding for a full launch of blended learning. These grants involve substantial financial support over multiple years. Other schools received smaller planning or conversion grants, covering a one-year period.

Recipients of funding from Silicon Schools include Summit Public Schools, Caliber Schools, KIPP Bay Area Schools, and Education for Change Public Schools, all charter school organizations. But this is not solely a charter school funder. San Jose Unified School District received a grant to begin a blended learning project in one of its middle schools.

Silicon Schools Fund’s leadership and supporters include some well-known supporters of charter school programs and instructional technology. The fund’s CEO, Brian Greenberg, is a co-creator of the Khan Academy tutorials, as well as the Coursera MOOC on blended learning. Sal Khan, executive director of Khan Academy, advises the fund.

Supporters include the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund. John Fisher, the son of the Fishers and an active charter school supporter, serves on the Silicon Schools Fund board. Tech leaders David Goldberg and Sheryl Sandberg support the fund. Other supporters include some prominent charter school and education reform funders: the Broad Foundation, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Oh, and Laurene Powell Jobs supports this group through the Emerson Education Fund. 

That's quite a list of heavy hitters, if we do say. 

Blended learning isn’t going away; the challenge is doing it right. Fortunately, for school districts and charter schools that are interested in leveraging the potential for technology to boost student engagement and educational outcomes, an array of funders appear ready to lend support. What’s more, as Silicon Schools Fund illustrates, new organizations are springing up, using specialized knowledge and financial resources to help schools navigate the potential pitfalls of these costly endeavors.