Which Funders Are Leading the Growing Push for Blended Learning in K-12?

Blended learning continues to be all the rage in K-12 education among traditional public and charter schools, and a bevy of funders stand ready to help with such projects. National and local foundations have laid out millions of dollars to design, implement, and evaluate blended learning initiatives.

Blended learning is an approach to K-12 instruction in which students learn at least in part through the online delivery of academic content and instruction. Most programs combine teacher-led instruction and online content, with the latter usually delivered via laptop computers or tablet devices. Most blended learning initiatives give students some element of control over the pace of their learning.

Proponents believe this approach to education boosts critical thinking, personalizes learning, and is more engaging for students. Students whose eyes may glaze over as the teacher lectures with the aid of a whiteboard or overhead projector may be more attentive if they are able to access lessons online.

Successful blended learning requires extensive planning and careful consideration of many factors. Schools have to consider types of academic content, the material’s alignment to applicable standards, and what types of devices to use for accessing the technology. But it doesn’t end there. Schools have to ensure they have adequate space for storing devices, the appropriate staff for maintaining technology, sufficient Internet bandwidth so as not to hamper student access to content (Think you’re frustrated when Netflix slows down, buffering your favorite movie or TV series? Imagine being in a classroom of 22 students who can’t access today’s U.S. history lesson!), and enough outlets to charge devices so they’re ready for use.

Blended learning is a costly endeavor, and too little attention to these and other details can turn a promising educational innovation into an expensive boondoggle that wastes millions and generates unfavorable headlines. Just ask the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose $1 billion iPad debacle has become a cautionary tale for school systems interested in using technology to personalize learning and increase student achievement.

The good news for schools and nonprofits interested in blended learning is that local and national funders have taken notice of the trend toward personalized learning and the integration of technology into K-12 classrooms, and are writing checks to support blended learning initiatives. Many of these grants have flowed into “venture philanthropy” funds that provide investment capital for innovations with the potential for transformative impact.

One such fund is the New Schools Venture Fund, a nonprofit venture philanthropy firm that provides funding for education entrepreneurs. Organizations funded by NSVF include Education Elements, which helps schools design and implement blended learning programs, and Goal Book, which helps schools develop online personalized learning goals for students. NSVF’s website boasts a long list of individual and institutional donors, including the Gates, Calder, Dell, Schusterman, Schwab, and Walton foundations.

Related - New Schools Venture Fund: Grants for K-12 Education

Another venture philanthropy fund, though one with more of a localized focus, is the Silicon Schools Fund, which supports blended learning projects in Bay Area public school systems and charter schools. The fund has provided planning grants and seed funding to enable schools to start blended learning programs. Recipients have included the San Jose Unified School District and charter organizations such as KIPP Bay Area Schools and Summit Public Schools.

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Supporters of the Silicon Schools Fund include the Fisher, Broad, Schusterman, Schwab, and Arnold foundations, as well as the Emerson Education Fund. Clearly, some heavy hitters in the philanthropic world are lining up to support blended learning, which is good news for schools and nonprofits seeking to leverage this innovation and its potential to impact student learning.

Using wireless internet and mobile devices to help students access academic content that complements teacher-led classroom instruction is an approach to education tailor-made for funders who made their fortunes in the computer and technology industries. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings are among the tech funders who have supported blended learning.

Related - Reed Hastings is Yet Another Funder Excited by Blended Learning

For Dell, blended learning is a sensible part of its urban education funding strategy, given its interest in data-driven education. In the 2011-2012 school year, Dell supported a cohort of schools with blended learning programs and funded a series of case studies to better understand what works in this field. For Hastings, blended learning provided a means to combine his interests in education technology and charter schools when he awarded $2 million to Rocketship Education, a nonprofit chain of elementary charter schools operating in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nashville, and Milwaukee.

Another player in this space, whom we've written about before, is Neeru Khosla, the wife of VC billionaire Vinod Khosla. She's a co-founder of the CK-12 Foundation, which has a seven-figure-per-year budget bankrolled by the couple's Amar Foundation. CK-12 offers a variety of online educational tools, from digital textbooks to videos. And it's all free. The mission of CK-12 is to "enable everyone to learn in their own unique way." Consistent with the couple's background and educational experiences, CK-12 focuses on STEM education. 

Related - A Tech Billionaire's Wife Leads a Push to Reinvent K-12 With Personalized Learning

Because blended learning is still in its formative years, successful implementation of this program requires quality K-12 content that students can access via their classroom laptops or tablets. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation have supported the development of such materials. Hewlett recently awarded a $2 million grant to the Learning Accelerator, a Bay Area nonprofit, to develop open educational resources that are aligned to state learning standards in reading and math, such as the Common Core standards that have been adopted by most states.

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The newness and high cost of blended learning have some educators and policymakers asking if this new approach to K-12 education really impacts student learning or if it’s just another flash-in-the-pan education fad. A number of funders are looking for the answer to this question, funding a range of research projects aimed at identifying effective blended learning practices and gauging whether students in such programs achieve at higher rates than students in traditional, teacher-led classrooms.

As mentioned previously, the Dell Foundation has funded a series of case studies on blended learning practices in the schools it has funded. It also has funded a full-scale impact evaluation of blended learning, conducted by research firm SRI. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is another big funder of research and evaluation on blended learning. Recently, Arnold gave the nonprofit Computers For Youth (CFY) $6 million to evaluate the impact of digital learning content. Through its research, CFY hopes to create a kind of “Consumer Reports” for digital learning tools that will guide schools to the best technology and content.

Related - This Funder Wants to Know What Works in Digital Learning

The Broad Foundation funded a similar type of program, awarding Common Sense Media $3 million to expand Graphite, a ratings and review platform that helps teachers determine the best digital learning tools and content for their classrooms.

Related - Here's How the Broad Foundation is Connecting Teachers with Technology

Teacher training and professional development comprise another funding opportunity in the area. One of the lessons of the iPad program failure in the Los Angeles schools is that teachers need sufficient training and development to successfully implement blended learning in their classrooms. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations awarded a grant of $200,000 to Common Sense Media to develop and test a national certification program in instructional technology for high school teachers. The program would train teachers to more effectively incorporate online learning into their classrooms.

Related - Bringing Technology To Classrooms Is Filled With Pitfalls. This Funder Wants to Help

Blended learning as an idea is only a few years old, but the growing popularity of this approach to education means numerous funding opportunities will continue to exist. In addition to the funders discussed here, local and regional foundations interested in education programs may also have initiatives to help schools integrate technology and online content into classroom instruction.