How a Gift to an Education Media Outlet Fits into Bigger Strategies for CZI and Gates



The technology and education media outlet EdSurge recently received gifts totaling $1.45 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to pursue research and reporting, supported through the funders’ K-12 and higher education work. The main focus of the two grants is to ensure the study and spread of promising ideas about educational technology and personalized fields in which the two funders are investing deeply. 

Part of each grant will support convening educators and thought leaders to talk about a series of topics chosen by the two funders. The rest will support covering the conversations that emerge from the gatherings.  

This type of grant is not unusual within the education media landscape. Both CZI and Gates have supported publications in their fields of interest, as have several other funders. The 74, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet, receives support from several foundations that fund education initiatives, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. The Gates Foundation has also supported the nonprofit that publishes Education Week and specific projects at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Typically, a disclaimer about the funder’s involvement accompanies the stories or research that result from this type of grant. That will be the case with the stories EdSurge publishes as part of the Gates and CZI grants.

“We retain complete editorial control over the work (both research and stories),” said Betsy Corcoran, the publication’s CEO. “Funders read the stories on our site at the same time as everyone else. They do not review, approve or have any visibility into our publishing process, and do not have any interactions with our editorial staff.”

That said, funders do wield influence over nonprofit media outlets by shaping what issues and ideas they cover. Such choices are among the most important that editors make regarding a publication's content. In effect, with grants like these, foundations are able to swing a media spotlight toward areas that they're interested in—even if they can't dictate what reporters actually write. 

Given all that, this new funding for EdSurge offers insight into which educational interventions CZI and Gates think are important right now. 

The focus of the Gates grant is digital learning in higher education. The foundation put up $750,000 to examine the opportunities and challenges in the space. To do this, EdSurge will bring together faculty members and digital learning leaders online. The coverage of these conversations is intended to amplify the voices and stories of the people leading innovation, especially on campuses that serve low-income and historically disadvantaged students.

The subject of the gift shouldn’t come as surprise to anyone familiar with the Gates Foundation’s higher education giving. The funder has shown interest in the potential of online courses for years. Digital innovations, like massive open online courses (MOOCs), fit well with the aims of the foundation’s Postsecondary Success program, which include making higher education more personalized and affordable.

The foundation has given millions in grants to support emerging learning models that include online instruction. The foundation also hands out grants to institutions willing to evaluate the outcomes of their online courses.

Building awareness is a part of that work, especially in a field that is growing and changing as quickly as digital learning, a spokesman from the Gates Foundation said.

Similarly, CZI provided $700,000 to EdSurge to cover ideas that the funder has championed in the past. CZI-sponsored convenings will bring together school leaders from different regions to talk about changes made by districts, networks and schools to meet the needs of all students.

EdSurge coverage will focus on how schools interpret and implement personalized learning strategies, shift practices to focus more on the whole child, and incorporate evidence-based research and learning science.

Personalized learning is a big focus of CZI’s K-12 work. Earlier this year, CZI gave $14 million to Chicago Public Schools and a local nonprofit to provide training in personalized learning to the city’s teachers. That built on a $12 million grant CZI and the Gates Foundation made to NewProfit, a venture philanthropy fund, to support nonprofits working on personalized learning innovations. CZI also put up $2 million to help Rhode Island incorporate the approach in classrooms across the state, where it's been working closely with education leaders. 

Focusing on the “whole child” is a big piece of CZI’s vision for personalized learning. It makes sense to include the concept in research and stories CZI is funding. The focus on the whole child also fits in with recent grants from the funder in support of social and emotional learning. Earlier this year, the funder put up $1.1 million to develop strategies to help veteran teachers incorporate social and emotional learning into their classrooms.

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

When it comes to personalized learning, CZI is more than just a grantmaker, though. It is actively working to promote its Summit Learning Platform, a free online learning tool it developed that makes executing personalized learning easier.

The idea of personalized learning—tailoring lessons to the needs and abilities of each individual student—has been around for a while, but new innovations in technology have the potential to make the approach easier to adopt in the real world. With its focus on the intersection between education and technology, EdSurge makes sense as the publication to tell this story.