Facebook’s Zuckerberg to bet big on personalized learning
Developing new software for K-12 schools. Investing in hot ed-tech startups. Donating tens of millions of dollars to schools experimenting with fresh approaches to customizing the classroom experience.
All are part of a new, multi-pronged effort by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, to use their massive fortune to reshape public education with technology.
“We think that personalized learning makes sense,” Zuckerberg told Education Week in an exclusive telephone interview last week. “We want to see as many good versions of this idea as possible get tested in the world.”
In December, the couple announced they will eventually give 99 percent of their Facebook shares—worth an estimated $45 billion—to a variety of causes, headlined by the development of software “that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus.”
The move set off seismic rumbles in both education and philanthropy.
First, it signals a major shift away from the long-dominant philosophy behind the national movement to improve education, which focuses on expanding charter schools, using standardized-test scores to hold educators accountable, and weakening the influence of teachers’ unions. In 2010, Zuckerberg closely aligned himself with such strategies, giving $100 million to a top-down effort to remake the struggling school district in Newark, N.J. Six years later, that work is widely regarded as a failure, and Zuckerberg is charting a new path.
The result is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC, a limited-liability corporation that also embodies a major shift underway in the philanthropic world. Like a handful of other Silicon Valley tech billionaires, Zuckerberg and Chan decided against establishing a traditional foundation, choosing instead a more flexible organizational structure that allows for a mix of philanthropic donations, for-profit investment, and political activity.
For rich donors, the upside is more levers to pull when trying to change the world. For everyone else, the downside is that these new structures further blur the lines between business and philanthropy and partly circumvent the regulations that have governed charitable giving for decades.
Zuckerberg said he and Chan are committed to openness and will eventually streamline what is now a messy network of overlapping organizations.
Observers from the fields of education, technology, venture capital, and philanthropy are paying close attention.
“It’s hard to tell exactly what these new donors emerging from the tech sector are doing, because so much is in flux and they’re not very transparent,” said David Callahan, the founder and editor of the digital news outlet Inside Philanthropy. “But any time super-empowered people with lots of money try to influence how the rest of us educate our children, we have a right to know what they’re up to.”