Reality Check: Gates Looks for Impact of Digital Learning

As the growing popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs) makes clear, digital learning is a hot trend in higher education that shows no sign of slowing down. Funders such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that have supported this new approach to learning are also asking the next question: Is it effective?

Before saying more, we should note the obvious point that MOOCS are just one of a number of places where technology and education are converging, a nexus that has lately excited many funders seeking ways to disrupt traditional education with an eye on lowering costs and radically expanding access.

It's a tantalizing vision to be sure, and we regularly cover what funders are doing in this space. But we also worry that the dream is getting ahead of the evidence, and so we're always reassured when we see a funder spending money to evaluate programs for digital learning. 

Recently, the Gates Foundation awarded $1.6 million to the University of Texas at Arlington, an institution where online learning is red hot. UTA is physically situated between Dallas and Fort Worth, but its enrollment of 40,000 students spans the globe. In the fall of 2014, more than 17,000 of its students took at least one course online. Nearly a third of UTA students do all of their coursework online. The school offers fully online undergraduate and graduate degrees in nursing, education, and public administration.

The Gates grant will support UTA’s Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge (LINK) lab in its efforts to connect researchers interested in digital learning’s impact on modern education. The grant will coordinate work between UTA and nine other institutions, including Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, and Stanford, to close the gap between digital learning research and its impact on instructional practices in higher education. In addition, UTA leaders hope the funding will address digital learning barriers and examine the conditions needed for all learners to succeed. Research topics will include learning analytics, competency-based learning, MOOCs, the growth of higher education globally, and credentialing of digital programs. 

This grant is consistent with past Gates Foundation giving under its higher education program. The foundation has awarded nearly $9 million in grants for programs that incorporate online learning to some extent. It also has solicited proposals from colleges designing and testing MOOCs. Gates has recognized UTA as a digital learning leader in the past, awarding the school nearly $100,000 in 2013 to host a conference on MOOCs.

Funders such as Gates and Lumina have made increasing the number of college-educated Americans a central part of their giving. MOOCs and other digital learning tools have powerful potential to be a part of the solution, which means big opportunities for educational institutions and nonprofits working to grow the digital classroom.

As of now, though, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the quality of learning when students are sitting in front of computer, as opposed to sitting in a classroom with live human beings.