Our Relevant History With The Gates Foundation

I’ve been debating whether I should describe the MindWires history with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF, or just Gates Foundation) in more detail, given my recent coverage of two foundation-led initiatives. In a comment for the latter post, Jeff Alderson stated:

“ MindWires used to be a grantee of the Gates Foundation from 2013 – 2018.”

I think this fact, and why the relationship began, ended, and what purpose it served, would be a great candidate for the next article in your Gates Foundation series.

For the purposes of disclosure and of additional context, this suggestion makes sense. This post will describe in parallel the “historically consistent” focus of the BMGF on courseware as well as MindWires’ grants.

Focus on Courseware and Scale

I did not realize this at the time of our initial involvement with the Gates Foundation, but from my research and from what several foundation insiders have told me over the years, the focus on courseware as the answer dates back to at least 2008 and Bill Gates’ love for the Great Courses series on DVDs. This interest led to the Big History Project by 2011, where Gates personally funded an initiative to take an Australian college course, redesign it for the digital age, and apply that new courseware to K-12 curricula. A New York Times article in 2014 (that I was stupid enough to have not read at the time) described this important project.

Since starting his foundation in 2000, Gates has donated about $30 billion to organizations focusing largely on global health and development. The Gates Foundation has spent more than half a billion on educational causes, which provides some context for the comparatively modest $10 million that he has personally invested in the Big History Project. Nevertheless, Gates has insisted on tracking this venture as he would any Microsoft product or foundation project. The Big History Project produces reams of data — students and teachers are regularly surveyed, and teachers submit the results from classes, all of which allows his team to track what’s working and what isn’t as the course grows. “Our priority,” he told me from across the table, “was to get it into a form where ambitious teachers could latch onto it.”

Big History started from a course that Bill Gates would have loved to have taken in high school or college, and he now wanted to spread this to others.

When asked in a 2013 60 Minutes episode about philanthropy lessons learned over the years, Bill Gates’s answer helped describe his theory of change.

I’ve certainly learned when I make a mistake, you know, my thinking is sloppy, I like to be very hard on myself like “that is so stupid, how could you not see how those pieces fit together?” And that way that you’re, you know, very disciplined yourself and careful about you’re thinking, you don’t want it to extend out to what other people may not get something quite as quickly.” It’s like, you know, “how come you don’t don’t get this thing?”

This love of courseware potential and this theory of change became deeply embedded in BMGF.

Enter the ETV

Michael Feldstein and I founded MindWires in 2013, and one of our early projects was to create the e-Literate TV initiative in partnership with In The Telling. Michael described our initial work in this October 2013 post.

That is why Phil and I are delighted and excited to announce a new initiative we’re calling e-Literate TV, in collaboration with a company called In the Telling. Using some of the lessons that we’re learning from the MOOC community about differential engagement, our goal is create multiple entry points into a conversation about the issues. The first entry point is a series of 10-minute video episodes providing overviews of each new topic. One of the two great assets that In the Telling brings to the table is their experience at telling stories in film. With their help, we are crafting segments that we hope will be appealing and informative to those faculty, presidents, provosts, and other important college and university stakeholders who are not ed tech junkies. It will introduce the topics in what we hope will be an engaging and provocative manner. All episodes will be released under a Creative Commons license on YouTube.

For those who wish to dive deeper, we will be taking advantage of In the Telling’s second asset, which is their Telling Story platform. We can tie content directly to the timeline of each video, bringing up further references, like e-Literate blog posts or relevant scholarly articles, in context. And finally, we’ll be integrating that platform into WordPress, where we will be posing questions that are intended to be discussion starters across campus stakeholder groups. We are particularly interested in community- and conversation-building features and how to add to these capabilities over time. Access to that content will also be free, and in cases where it is e-Literate blog posts, it is already Creative Commons licensed.

We were then asked to participate in the MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) in the Ice Bowl of Arlington, Texas in December 2013.

MRI was funded by BMGF, and we interviewed participants for e-Literate TV as subcontractors to Athabasca University.

ALMAP Coverage

In summer 2014 I was invited as an unfunded participant to cover a meeting of the Adaptive Learning Market Accelerator Program (ALMAP), another BMGF initiative the was explicit in its goals to extend adaptive learning courseware adoption.

While the titular focus was on adaptive learning in general, the thrust was generally through courseware.

e-Literate TV Part Deux

Also in 2014, Michael and I accepted a BMGF grant for an ETV series on Personalized Learning, which Michael described in November 2014.

As we have discussed both here and elsewhere, we think the term “personalized learning” carries a lot of baggage with it that needs to be unpacked, as does the related concept of “adaptive learning.” The field in general is grappling with these broad concepts and approaches; an exploration of specific examples and implementations should sharpen our collective understandings about the promise and risks of these concepts and approaches. The Gates foundation has funded the development of an ETV series and given us a free editorial hand to explore the topics of personalization and adaptive learning.

The heart of the series will be a series of case studies at a wide range of different schools. Some of these schools will be Gates Foundation grantees, piloting and studying the use of “personalized learning” technology or product, while others will not. (For more info about some of the pilots that Gates is funding in adaptive learning, including which schools are participating and the evaluation process the foundation has set up to ensure an object review of the results, see Phil’s post about the ALMAP program.) Each ETV case study will start by looking at who the students are at a particular school, what they’re trying to accomplish for themselves, and what they need. In other words who are the “persons” for whom we are trying to “personalize” learning? Hearing from the students directly through video interviews will be a central part of this series. We then take a look at how each school is using technology to support the needs of those particular students. We’re not trying to take a pro- or anti- position on any of these approaches. Rather, we’re trying to understand what personalization means to the people in these different contexts and how they are using tools to help them grapple with it.

We released the Personalized Learning series in May, 2015. In The Telling rebranded as Narrasys, and unfortunately the original platform episodes are no longer available. The videos are, however, all available on the e-Literate TV YouTube channel. To get a sense of the full experience, see this analysis post with images from the platform.

Two Faces Meant for Blogging

As Michael described, the BMGF was very supportive of our editorial independence. There was, however, a clear preference for us to cover their grantees, which we felt at the time to be manageable. For our next phase, moving into 2016, the foundation wisely pushed us to pursue a lighter weight video production approach – three-camera HD video was not designed for our faces – as well as some explainer videos.

During this time, the tension between BMGF and our approach for e-Literate TV was growing. The foundation wanted to scale, and they wanted eyeballs on their funded solutions. In my recollection, the individuals at the foundation remained classy and understanding of our editorial independence, and we pushed back internally against the efforts to essentially redefine Personalized Learning as a product (which mirrored a broader market move). We published an article in Educause Review in 2016 on this topic, where we advocated a view of undepersonalized teaching – removing barriers that separate teacher and student.

If we choose to think of personalized learning as a practice rather than a product, we can start by taking a hard look at course designs and identifying those areas that fail to make meaningful individual contact with students. These gaps will be different from course to course, subject to subject, student population to student population, and teacher to teacher. Although there is no generic answer to the question of where students are most likely to fall through the cracks in a course, there are some patterns to look for (as we will discuss later in this article).

Technology then becomes an enabler for increasing meaningful personal contact.

But let’s be honest, we mostly lost that terminology battle.

The 2018 Transition

By 2018 the handwriting was on the wall. The Gates Foundation was going all in on scale, with courseware as the core, and they were creating the Digital Learning Solutions Network (DLSN). It didn’t help matters with my critical coverage of a foundation-funded report titled “Making Digital Learning Work: Success Strategies From Six Leading Universities and Community Colleges,” where I challenged the description of Rio Salado College as an exemplar based on an internal view of their courses as well as an external view of their student outcomes. The foundation and college ended up responding through an Inside Higher Ed article as well as an accompanying blog post, which I then reviewed by looking at the data claims. I won’t review the specifics, but relevant to the messaging machine criticism is that Gates Foundation personnel complained that I had not given them a courtesy heads up. In my email response I replied:

As for the topic of courtesy heads up, this is a tricky area for us. We are not in the habit of giving advance notice on posts unless we need to get a reaction or comment from a subject of analysis. In this case, however, the report has been released in quite a public manner, and I did not feel the need to get commentary or quotes from any of the parties involved. This being the case, we at e-Literate have to be careful not to give preferential treatment to clients or funding partners as that could potentially harm the integrity of our independent analysis. In other words, we feel the need to go out of our way to not give courtesy notice or different treatment of organizations because of our relationship. We do need to disclose relationships to help readers choose how to interpret our starting positions.

This Is The End . . . of Our Elaborate Plans

Soon after that event (in April 2018), Michael and I decided that we had to move on by not participating in the DLSN and not seeking a follow-on grant. There was a growing misalignment between BMGF’s and MindWires’ missions, and there was no longer an opportunity for our journalistic role exploring what was happening in the field – positive, negative, and neutral. While our announcement came just after the Rio Salado series and we did expect to have similar situations in the future, that was not the cause of our departure. All in all, it was a good run, and we appreciated BMGF’s support of e-Literate TV, but it no longer made sense to work together.

Bringing Us to Today

What we chose to not participate in is the DLSN under the Every Learner Everywhere initiative.

The BMGF put out a communication brief in Spring 2022 that captures what has changed in the past few years.

The Foundation has a long track record of investing in educational technology – particularly courseware. What differentiates this new phase of activity?

Five key factors distinguish our new work on courseware from previous initiatives:

1. Active engagement of focus populations in courseware design and development. Partners will develop courseware in design sprints that incorporate the voice of the students and faculty to ensure that the final courseware products center their needs and lived experiences. Our current initiative aims to be more intentional in prioritizing meeting the needs of diverse students and instructors (including adjuncts). We are also investing in user research that not only focuses on real-time student and faculty experiences, specifically the experiences and needs of Black, Latino, Indigenous students, and students from low-income backgrounds

2. Robust efficacy research to understand courseware impact on student outcomes. Specifically, our research partners will focus on measuring the specific and disaggregated impact and efficacy of the use of this courseware by our focus populations.

3. Focus on complementing evidence-based teaching and instructional practices. Having “best in class” courseware alone will not improve student outcomes unless it is combined with evidence-based teaching and instructional practices. Thus, we also focus on implementation and professional development support for faculty to best implement the courseware and support their teaching practices.

4. Exemplars to influence the market. Strong partnerships with educators, equity experts, researchers, educational technology providers, publishers, and students from historically underserved communities will produce novel approaches, practices, tools, and blended learning methods for institutions shifting to learner-centered educational models. Corresponding research and implementation partnerships to pilot/test and refine the courseware will help continuous improvement efforts.

5. Catalyzing strategic institutional change and sustainability. Bringing together mission-aligned providers with institutional partners prioritizing equity to ensure learning success and eliminate disparities in outcomes for Black, Latino, Indigenous students, and students from low-income backgrounds.

With that, I’ll end what might be the longest disclosure post in EdTech history. I hope this context better describes the BMGF initiatives that I have covered and fully discloses MindWires’ historical role.