What's Behind an EdTech Funder's Latest Push on Special Education?

Educational technology has been a keen interest of many philanthropists in recent years, especially those from Silicon Valley who have a nearly messianic faith in the ability of technology to change the world—in part by empowering individuals with more choices that suit their exact needs, an idea that has obvious applications to education, where customized and engaging approaches to learning can get students more engaged. 

But the fixation with ed tech by some philanthropists and foundations has also generated quite a bit of suspicion, with a slew of critics seeing a self-interested agenda, given the tech industry's big push into the education field. 

One key player in this funding space is the NewSchools Venture Fund, a funding intermediary that extends the venture capital model into the world of K-12 education, backing innovative ideas and projects that it believes have the potential to achieve transformative change in student achievement, graduation rates, and college readiness. NewSchools began in 1998, mainly as a charter school funder, but has since expanded its reach into education technology, and research and policy advocacy. Based in the Oakland, NewSchools is an important hub for donors from the tech world with an interest in backing new approaches to education. 

Among the latest moves by the NewSchools Venture Fund is to offer a total of $1.5 million in grants for educational technology ideas aimed at special education students.

Past challenges offered by this funder have focused on serving English language learners, and on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. NewSchools decided to focus this new challenge on special education after its market research revealed significant gaps in instructional technology for students with disabilities. (It also has invested in another venture that focuses on special ed and special populations, Goalbook.)

It's worth mentioning that newer education philanthropists have often been accused of ignoring special ed students in their push for charter schools, which are said to shortchange such students. So it's interesting to see a funder closely associated with the ed reform movement make special ed a priority—or perhaps ominous, if you subscribe to the view that the tech world sees education as a profitable new frontier. 

The other context, here, is that while the educational technology sector has been red hot in the wake of ideas such as blended learning and online courses, the segment of the technology market serving special education has lagged. Yet, special education has long embraced technological tools, and its students can benefit greatly.

Technological aids such as transmitters for the hearing impaired and audio books for the visually limited have long had a presence in special education classrooms. Many educators and administrators say computers, applications, and other devices engage special education students and make it easier for teachers to differentiate instruction among classrooms of students with differing needs and widely varying abilities, according to the Hechinger Report. However, limited research exists on the impact of educational technology on students with disabilities.

NewSchools will announce the winners of this challenge on April 28. In addition to the grant funding, recipients will also receive management assistance and the opportunity to collaborate with other organizations funded by this challenge.