Edtech Business

Hacking education--and philanthropy

By Betsy Corcoran     Sep 28, 2012

Hacking education--and philanthropy

"Hacking" still has a deliciously subversive undertone, a suggestionthat someone is breaking the rules. 

Andbreaking a few rules was just what managers at the Bill & Melinda GatesFoundation had in mind when they orchestrated an all-day hacking session heldat Facebook's spiffy Menlo Park headquarters on Thursday (Sept. 27). The statedobjective was to try to break the rules of poverty by coming up with freshapproaches to help low-income and first-generation students get into andsucceed in college. But there was an even more subversive idea bubbling throughthe day: namely, maybe philanthropists aren't the ones who should pick the"solutions." 

"Theshift we've started to make is away from finding the one product or oneimplementation that we [the Foundation]think is best," said Stacey Childress, Deputy Director of Education, Bill& Melinda Gates Foundation, in an interview with EdSurge. Instead "we'retrying to create more momentum in the marketplace so as to bring out lots ofinnovators, even ones that we don't know today. They, in turn, will bring theirown talents."

Yesterday's hackathon marked onlythe opening bell for the "College Knowledge Challenge,"an open call for ideas for creating social applications that can help students(especially low-income or first-generation students)--get into college, succeedand graduate.  The foundation plansto award a total of $2.5 million--or approximately 30 grants between $50K to$100K apiece--to organized teams that have ideas. (Readhere for more details on the grants applications, which are due November 16.)

"Technology is not a solution but a part of a set ofsolutions to help teachers, parents and families," Childress told theassembly.

The event at Facebook was a high profile way to draw attentionto the Challenge. It seemed to work: ABCnews here; NBC newsthere. Though there were promising, even "winning" ideas, all the conversations were deeply in brainstorming land. (Even Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel got a full day to dig their cellar.)

Childress says that the strategy ofseeding the marketplace--rather than top down selection--is a new but importantpath for the Gates Foundation. "Rather than create a few products thatmight not have sustainable business models, we're hoping to get a lot into themarket," she says.

Expect to see more"challenge" grants in the future--likely including a challenge aroundcreating literacy tools for remediating and accelerating reading.

Another organization, the SharedLearning Collaborative, which also receives Gates Foundation funding, has an opencall out for its "bounty program." Two open source development teamswill receive $75K "bounties" for proposals to build classroomapplications that use SLC technologies. (Details here.)

"There are all kinds ofreasons that philanthropist like to fund a 'thing': it's tangible,concrete, you can point to it," Childress says. "It's a lot harder tocreate a 'context' for innovation--a more dynamic ecosystem of players,"where the successful ones emerge as users choose them rather than becausethey're funded by a foundation.

Of course, any good"challenge" attracts more contestants than winners. Gates Foundationleaders will be part of the judging panel. But at least in the case of this"College Knowledge" challenge, judges will also includerepresentative users (such as educators from College Summit) as well asindustry leaders (Facebook executives and perhaps a venture capitalist or two).

Will $2.5 million be enough--eitherenough to draw great developers or to genuinely catalyze good products? Duringthe early days of the iPod (around 2008), VC Kleiner Perkins created an "iFund" to catalyze interest in building devices that would workon the new operating system. That fund started at $100 million--and two yearslater, Kleiner added another $100 million.

Childress says she realizes that$100K isn't enough to fund the full development of a great product--but that itshould be enough to give wings to promising ideas, which will then have to winover support from other funders. (Even Kleiner's iFund page notesthat: "The iFund invests anywhere from US$100K of seed capital to US$15Mof expansion capital.") 

"We're proud of the 'pointsolutions' we've funded but now we're looking to create more momentum in themarketplace so others can come in," Childress declares."That's whatchallenges are all about. And this is the beginning."

Editor's note: EdSurge's funding includes support from the Gates Foundation.

Edtech Business

Hacking education--and philanthropy

By Betsy Corcoran     Sep 28, 2012

Hacking education--and philanthropy

"Hacking" still has a deliciously subversive undertone, a suggestionthat someone is breaking the rules. 

Andbreaking a few rules was just what managers at the Bill & Melinda GatesFoundation had in mind when they orchestrated an all-day hacking session heldat Facebook's spiffy Menlo Park headquarters on Thursday (Sept. 27). The statedobjective was to try to break the rules of poverty by coming up with freshapproaches to help low-income and first-generation students get into andsucceed in college. But there was an even more subversive idea bubbling throughthe day: namely, maybe philanthropists aren't the ones who should pick the"solutions." 

"Theshift we've started to make is away from finding the one product or oneimplementation that we [the Foundation]think is best," said Stacey Childress, Deputy Director of Education, Bill& Melinda Gates Foundation, in an interview with EdSurge. Instead "we'retrying to create more momentum in the marketplace so as to bring out lots ofinnovators, even ones that we don't know today. They, in turn, will bring theirown talents."

Yesterday's hackathon marked onlythe opening bell for the "College Knowledge Challenge,"an open call for ideas for creating social applications that can help students(especially low-income or first-generation students)--get into college, succeedand graduate.  The foundation plansto award a total of $2.5 million--or approximately 30 grants between $50K to$100K apiece--to organized teams that have ideas. (Readhere for more details on the grants applications, which are due November 16.)

"Technology is not a solution but a part of a set ofsolutions to help teachers, parents and families," Childress told theassembly.

The event at Facebook was a high profile way to draw attentionto the Challenge. It seemed to work: ABCnews here; NBC newsthere. Though there were promising, even "winning" ideas, all the conversations were deeply in brainstorming land. (Even Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel got a full day to dig their cellar.)

Childress says that the strategy ofseeding the marketplace--rather than top down selection--is a new but importantpath for the Gates Foundation. "Rather than create a few products thatmight not have sustainable business models, we're hoping to get a lot into themarket," she says.

Expect to see more"challenge" grants in the future--likely including a challenge aroundcreating literacy tools for remediating and accelerating reading.

Another organization, the SharedLearning Collaborative, which also receives Gates Foundation funding, has an opencall out for its "bounty program." Two open source development teamswill receive $75K "bounties" for proposals to build classroomapplications that use SLC technologies. (Details here.)

"There are all kinds ofreasons that philanthropist like to fund a 'thing': it's tangible,concrete, you can point to it," Childress says. "It's a lot harder tocreate a 'context' for innovation--a more dynamic ecosystem of players,"where the successful ones emerge as users choose them rather than becausethey're funded by a foundation.

Of course, any good"challenge" attracts more contestants than winners. Gates Foundationleaders will be part of the judging panel. But at least in the case of this"College Knowledge" challenge, judges will also includerepresentative users (such as educators from College Summit) as well asindustry leaders (Facebook executives and perhaps a venture capitalist or two).

Will $2.5 million be enough--eitherenough to draw great developers or to genuinely catalyze good products? Duringthe early days of the iPod (around 2008), VC Kleiner Perkins created an "iFund" to catalyze interest in building devices that would workon the new operating system. That fund started at $100 million--and two yearslater, Kleiner added another $100 million.

Childress says she realizes that$100K isn't enough to fund the full development of a great product--but that itshould be enough to give wings to promising ideas, which will then have to winover support from other funders. (Even Kleiner's iFund page notesthat: "The iFund invests anywhere from US$100K of seed capital to US$15Mof expansion capital.") 

"We're proud of the 'pointsolutions' we've funded but now we're looking to create more momentum in themarketplace so others can come in," Childress declares."That's whatchallenges are all about. And this is the beginning."

Editor's note: EdSurge's funding includes support from the Gates Foundation.

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