Technology Learning is Red Hot, and a Tricky Space for Funders

One area of K-12 philanthropy that keeps heating up is technology learning. Apps are all the rage and everyone seems to agree that every child should be learning with a tablet or laptop at their fingertips.

Private education technology investments, or "ed tech," hit $1.25 billion in 2013 -- the second-straight year of $1 billion plus invested. The Obama Administration also proposed $200 million to support improved use of technology in the classroom as part of its ConnectEDucators Program. Of course, also, many foundations and corporate funders are pouring big money into this area, as we report often. It’s all the rage.

New York City continues to be the epicenter of education technology investments, and it's interesting to see how one of the city's biggest ed funders, the New York City Community Trust, is dealing with this trend.

NYCT just gave $75,000 to Computers for Youth to help middle school teachers integrate technology into classroom instruction. That's small change compared to the $6 million grant that CFY recently pulled in from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. CFY also receives major funding from the likes of the Broad Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, Gates, Kellogg, and the U.S. Department of Commerce.

A signature education initiative of New York Community Trust is the Hive Media Learning Fund, which is also supported by several other funders. The fund's biggest investments in 2014 have ranged from an initiative to investigate and “playtest” game design activities for students to a program meant to boost students’ college acceptance rates by teaching them how to develop digital learning portfolios.

Rarely has their been such consensus on the relative value of a particular approach to improving education. Even as we have seen leading education thinkers like Michael Fullan warn about too simplistically prioritizing technology over instruction, we are also seeing funders get a bit more sophisticated about what and how they fund technology in education.

The New York City Community Trust isn't wedded to any one way of approaching this space. So, for example, it's funded tech integration at the middle school level while also funding workforce development and technology skills training for college graduates and job seekers at the other end of the pipeline.

Like other new frontiers, technology learning is both exciting and scary, and funders find themselves in a tricky spot. They want to charge ahead and be on the cutting edge, but it takes time to understand what really works and digest the lessons from past grantmaking. 

For some funders, like the go-for-broke Arnold Foundation, it's full steam ahead when it comes to using gadgets to help kids learn. How the New York City Community Trust is approaching this terrain is an example of a more cautious approach, one that moves forward while examining just which levers, exactly, it makes most sense to pull.