"Unique Needs." Chan Zuckerberg's Latest Move to Advance Personalized Learning

photo: Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

photo: Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

It's no secret that Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have made personalized learning the centerpiece of their education philanthropy. But what's been less clear is how, exactly, this commitment would play out over time in grantmaking by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Slowly, though, more answers are emerging that point to a funding strategy involving a range of partners and approaches. National nonprofits and academic researchers are winning support, but so are local groups and public school systems.

Most recently, CZI further cemented its position as a leading backer of personalized learning with a $14 million donation to Chicago Public Schools and LEAP Innovations in support of the practice. The funds will back training for teachers and schools to incorporate personalized learning in Chicago classrooms, where demand for the programming outweighs available resources.

Through the grant, 35 public schools can opt to participate in the district’s Elevate initiative, a two-and-a-half-year professional development program in partnership with LEAP to implement personalized learning. LEAP will use its funding to support pilot programs in 100 schools in Chicago and the metro area. Schools will have a hand in designing and implementing strategies to tailor learning to individual students.

CZI has forged a major role in the personalized learning space over the past several years under the leadership of Jim Shelton, a former deputy secretary of education who heads the funder’s education work. Shelton wrote an op-ed in support of personalized learning last year.

“We believe that a fundamental shift in focus, from a one-size-fits-all system to one tailored to meet the unique needs of individual children, and recognizing needs far beyond merely the 'academic,' has the potential to benefit all — and especially those who have had the least advantage,” Shelton wrote.

You can find evidence of that belief in CZI’s grantmaking. In the past, CZI joined the Gates Foundation to provide $12 million to New Profit, a venture philanthropy fund, to support organizations working on personalized learning innovations. The initiative also supported Rhode Island in its efforts to make personalized learning part of classrooms statewide with a $2 million grant.

In addition to normal grant work, CZI also helped develop the Summit Learning Platform, a free online tool to make implementing personalized learning more manageable.

A lot of the innovation around personalized learning has come in the form of these platforms or other technological innovations. This puts CZI in an odd position as both platform developer and funder of several others that could be seen as competitors down the line.

Personalized learning does not necessarily require technology, though. As a concept, personalization has been around for a while, and long predates the flashy new innovations. The idea is that children learn better when teaching is tailored to their interests, needs and skill levels.

The theory may seem simple enough, but in practice, personalized learning for every student is difficult to implement. Now, though, advances in technology have the potential to make personalized learning easier to incorporate into the classroom. The promise of tech that makes the practice more accessible partly explains the growing buzz around the idea from funders.

It’s also why technology is so often included in conversations about personalized learning. Personalized learning at its core doesn’t necessarily have a tech component, but the potential tech has to make the method more attainable. 

However, Shelton cautioned against assigning too much to the power of technology when it comes to personalized learning. Technology is best seen as a way to strengthen the in-person relationship between student and teacher, not a silver bullet.

“Our notion of personalized learning, by contrast, is focused on enabling powerful relationships and shared experiences between people — between teachers and students as well as students with their peers, each empowered by learning opportunities with fewer boundaries and much more intensive support,” Shelton wrote.  

LEAP works with an interesting blend of high- and low-tech strategies. On the one hand, the company finds and pilots promising tech-based innovations in classrooms. On the other, it also provides a personalized learning framework and training to interested schools and teachers.

This isn’t LEAP’s first big grant. The Chicago Public School Fund is a longtime supporter of the organization. The Educause, the Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and Northern Trust also donated to LEAP on a $4 million project to distribute grants to Chicago schools that wanted to adopt personalized learning. 

Gates is a notable name on that list of past funders. The foundation was previously a big supporter of personalized learning, but shifted away from specifically allocated funding for the practice when it reorganized its giving around school networks. The foundation left the door open to funding personalized learning in the future, but under the current framework proposals would have to originate with grantees.

That said, Gates’ step away from personalized learning left a big gap to fill. CZI seems intent on filling it.