Re-engineering education

The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, for-profit philanthropy and experimental precision education

Ben Williamson


The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is developing experimental new approaches to measurement and intervention in education. Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Many new parents announce the birth of a child on Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg took it a step further, announcing in a December 2015 ‘letter to our daughter‘ that he and Priscilla Chan would give 99% of their Facebook shares during their lifetimes (estimated then at around US$45billion) to causes including education, science and social justice. The vehicle would be the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a ‘new kind of philanthropy’ focused on ‘personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities.’

Four years on, as Chan and Zuckerberg’s child approaches school age, what kind of influence has CZI had on education? ‘Our experience with personalized learning, internet access, and community education and health has shaped our philosophy,’ they wrote in their letter to their newborn daughter. ‘Your generation,’ they continued, will ‘have technology that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus. You’ll advance quickly in subjects that interest you most, and get as much help as you need in your most challenging areas. You’ll explore topics that aren’t even offered in schools today. Your teachers will also have better tools and data to help you achieve your goals. Even better, students around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the internet, even if they don’t live near good schools.’

Personalized learning supported by technology tools and data is clearly its priority, not just within the USA but around the globe. This is a long-term project, as Zuckerberg’s letter stated. But by looking closely at its existing portfolio of grants and investments, and at its peculiar organizational structure and status, it is possible to gain some insights into how it is trying to instantiate its vision–and to speculate on its effects.

Grants and investments
In its early days, CZI faced criticism for its lack of transparency. By 2018 it had already spent $300million on education-related projects but it took digging by journalists to reveal what the money was supporting. Since then it has maintained an open grants and investments database. Its grants database–retroactive to January 2018–lists over 400 awards across its three key mission areas, and a ventures list of 15 major investments.

The investments include Byju’s (the highly successful learning app based in India), AltSchool (a Silicon Valley startup school chain that folded in 2019 to become the edtech software company Altitude), Panorama (a platform for schools to gather social-emotional learning data), Brightwheel (an early years management platform), and Handshake (a platform to match college graduates to careers). CZI’s ambitions in education therefore stretch from the early years through higher education and on into graduate destinations, as well as beyond the US borders into new models of online learning at huge global scale. In just a few years, CZI has become a major player in an expanding ‘global education industry‘.

Besides its investments, some of CZI’s education grants are enormous. Most notable is $23million awarded to Summit Schools since 2018 alone–though this does not include any previous grants to the charter school chain, or its in-kind donation of a 50-person engineering team from Facebook to build its personalized learning platform. CZI also granted $2million to TLP, the partnership established to roll-out the Summit Learning Platform nationally. The deployment of engineers to Summit is typical of CZI’s technology-based approach as a self-proclaimed ‘new kind of philanthropy focused on engineering change at scale.’

Of its 88 listed education grants, CZI has also awarded a range of charter school chains, as well as a range of initiatives broadly focused on personalized education, social-emotional learning, and school innovation. Technological solutions, data and evidence feature significantly across these and other programs in its Education Initiative:

We build tools that help teachers tailor learning experiences to the needs of every student, with an emphasis on using evidence-based practices from the fields of learning science and human development … We believe in a data-driven approach … [and] that students need to learn more in school than what is measured on standardized tests. Our tools help students set and track progress towards short- and long-term goals, make plans, demonstrate mastery when ready, and reflect on their learning.

CZI is in some ways a very ‘hands-on’ organization, giving gifts with a view to adding engineering solutions to the problems that its grantees are seeking to address. Even prior to CZI, Zuckerberg had joined up with the Gates Foundation to fund the EducationSuperHighway program to connect all US schools to broadband internet. Zuckerberg and Gates have helped lay the infrastructural cable network to enable digital learning in US schools, and to create the conditions necessary for personalized learning across the system.

For-profit philanthropy
Although it has a major record of grant-giving, CZI is not a typical philanthropic foundation. Instead, it was established as a Limited Liability Company (LLC). LLCs are legally-defined entities which, in contrast with conventional non-profit, tax-exempt private foundations, are free to engage in grantmaking, investment, and political action with few restrictions. It also provides enhanced personal control for its founders.

The legal scholar Dana Brakman Reiser suggests that LLCs such as CZI represent a new form of ‘disruptive philanthropy’ that is distinct from traditional philanthropies (Rockefeller, Carnegie) or even recent ‘venture philanthropies (Gates, Broad). Instead LLC philanthropy models–‘philanthropy 3.0′–have become increasingly common among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Ebay co-founder Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network has LLC status, as does Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective and ex-Google chair Eric Schmidt’s Schmidt Futures. These ‘disruptive philanthropic vehicles,’ Reiser argues, ‘can both unleash tremendous capital for solving society’s most challenging problems and magnify the influence of its most powerful elites.’ CZI is not so much a philanthropic organization, but a ‘philanthrocapitalist‘ one with huge financial, political, and technical power.

In practice, being an LLC means CZI can act as a charitable grant giving organization, while also making investments in for-profit companies, engaging in ‘impact investing’–where financial returns can be made from programs with measurably beneficial social results–and carrying out significant political work too. CZI’s leadership gives it significant political clout. Zuckerberg himself is connected to a range of political, legal, financial and media networks. Rachel Moran compellingly describes him as a ‘network switcher.’ CZI also made senior hires from Uber, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Virgin America, Rockefeller University, the Gates Foundation, the US Department of Education, the White House, and various Silicon Valley law firms. This gives CZI the power, through its advocacy program, to ‘support policy change strategies,’ as well as to ‘shape policies’ and engage in ‘changing laws.’

To be fair, many of CZI’s advocacy efforts are targeted at causes such as addressing systemic inequality and injustice. The problem is that ‘philanthrocapitalism’ casts these as issues that can only be solved through programs that also legitimate and deliver personal profit. As Linsey McGoey has argued, philanthrocapitalism ‘resonates with long-held economic assumptions of the moral advantages of capitalism.’ However, ‘what is most novel about the new philanthrocapitalism is the openness of personally profiting from charitable initiatives, an openness that deliberately collapses the distinction between public and private interests in order to justify increasingly concentrated levels of private gain.’

Philanthrocapitalism, or ‘venture philanthropy’ has been strongly associated with foundations such as the Gates Foundation. But foundations such as Gates do continue to operate as non-profits. As an LLC, CZI is subtly different, and much more overtly engages in for-profit activities where social benefit and financial return are treated as reciprocal outcomes. Ken Saltman, for example, has raised a ‘serious question as to whether CZI functions philanthropically at all or whether its activities are only profit seeking and “philanthropy” is a label intended to project an image of “corporate social responsibility.”’

Experimental precision science
Although personalized learning is CZI’s most overt focus area in its Education Initiative, perhaps more significant is its dedication to ‘learning science.’ It is through its learning science program, grants and investments that CZI’s vision for the future of education becomes most clear.

The CZI’s learning science page states that ‘The best learning experiences are grounded in the science of how people learn and develop. We enable educators, researchers, education technology developers, and communities to use the latest learning science,’ and it emphasizes ‘learning measurement, the ‘ development, collection, evaluation, and use of high-quality evidence’ in order to ‘apply knowledge of how people learn’ and ‘develop solutions to challenges educators face in classrooms.’

To achieve this goal, it announced a $5million fund for ‘teams of schools, support organizations, and researchers who want to apply the science of learning and human development to improve existing school-based practices.’ A further partnership with the Gates Foundation began to explore the science of ‘executive function’ and the neural substrates of learning, leading to a ‘consensus’ report and a blueprint for further research and development. That in turn catalysed a joint Gates/CZI $50million fund for the 5-year EF+Math Program, designed to award basic and applied research in executive function, led by educational neuroscientists at the University of California San Francisco.

The program lead of EF+Math is also the Director of Education at Neuroscape at UCSF, a brain imaging centre which together with BrainLENS (Laboratory for Educational Neuroscience, also at UCSF) was awarded a further $2.9million by CZI in 2018 to develop ‘a free mobile tool to measure child and adult progress in executive functioning skills such as working memory, attention, problem solving, and goal setting’. Together, Neuroscape and BrainLENS are developing new computational approaches to brain and genetic analysis applied to education. Neuroscape and BrainLENS are also partners of the University of California’s multi-institutional Precision Learning Center, which focuses on the use of neuroscience, psychology and biomedical data to improve learning experiences and outcomes.

Given CZI’s Science Initiative emphasis on ‘precision medicine‘–the use of big data and predictive algorithms for healthcare–its learning science efforts appear to suggest it is positioning itself as a centre of expertise and authority in ‘precision education.’ CZI’s director of learning science, Bror Saxburg, has made the link between precision medicine and precision education explicit in his advocacy for ‘learning engineering.’ Saxberg, a high-profile learning scientist within the education technology industry, describes learning engineering as a multidisciplinary blend of the learning sciences, instructional design and learning analytics:

getting the most from learning analytics has to be an interdisciplinary effort: computer science, linguistics, education, measurement science, cognitive science, motivational and social psychology, machine learning, cognitive neuroscience among others. These different domains will need to be combined to build out an effective evidence-grounded ‘learning engineering’ version of learning analytics.

These learning engineering approaches, including data gathering and modelling, says Saxburg, ‘ultimately can allow for personalization to interests, capabilities, identity, social-emotional state, and motivation states for individual learners’, by using evidence ‘at multiple levels, from clickstreams, motion position data, speech streams, gaze data, biometric and brain sensing, to more abstracted feature sets from all this evidence.’ The use of this evidence across ‘multiple dimensions’, he adds, will allow examination of ‘longitudinal and multidimensional trajectories’ and clusters and patterns of ‘learner change.’ Such analyses, finally, will  help to identify ‘new opportunities for targeted intervention’ and ‘precise action’ that are analogous to data-scientific ‘precision medicine.’

As such, through Saxberg and its learning science grants, CZI is promoting learning engineering as an educational parallel to precision medicine–the experimental use of multiple sources of biomedical, neuroscientific, cognitive and psychological data for personalized diagnosis and intervention.

Re-engineering education
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative may not yet have the reach and influence of the Gates Foundation, but it is fast becoming one of the most significant funders of educational technology development and scientific research into learning and child development. This positions it to become a powerful source of authority in the shaping of education in multiple ways.

Through support for Summit and other charter school operations it is continuing the longstanding project of philanthropic advocacy for alternatives to public education, albeit now in the for-profit mode of disruptive philanthropy. Its personalized learning projects are extending adaptive, data-driven software beyond the charter chains where they have been developed and tested and out into schools and colleges at very large scale. And by funding computationally-powered research and development in learning science and learning engineering, CZI is advancing experimental new ‘precision’ understandings of the human brain and cognition into applied teaching practices. It is in other words championing a new model of personalized, precision education that brings together the Silicon Valley culture of disruption, commercial technology, personalized learning advocacy, and new scientific practices modeled on those of precision medicine.

By creating CZI as an LLC, Chan and Zuckerberg also maintain powerful control over their spending and the direction of the organization. This gives them unprecedented power to shape the direction of research and development in education, by selecting and investing in programs that fit their personal vision. These efforts amount to an attempt to experiment on and re-engineer education into the form that Mark Zuckerberg and his networks find desirable, and that they believe can and ought to be pursued and attained. CZI is re-engineering education at scale.

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1 Response to Re-engineering education

  1. paulmartin42 says:

    Not sure that the Gates foundation, despite its best intentions, or indeed any of the Valley edu startups have much to chirp about. I imagine that Zuck would be too much involved to enable true development. I would like to be optimistic.

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