MacArthur Foundation Funds ‘Collective Shift’ With $25M to Broaden Learning

Editorial Intern

By Benjamin Herold and guest blogger Leo Doran

The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation announced this week that it will provide $25 million in seed funding for a new nonprofit charged with building on the foundation’s decade of major investments in digital-media-based learning and “connected cities.”

The new organization, dubbed Collective Shift, will be headed by two digital-learning heavyweights: Chief Executive Officer Connie Yowell, the former director of education at the MacArthur Foundation, and Chief Operating Officer Jessica Lindl, who most recently headed the games-and-analytics nonprofit GlassLab.

The pair’s first project, called LRNG, aims to connect schools, businesses, libraries, museums, and city leaders in efforts to build new “ecosystems of learning,” according to the group’s press materials. An initiative dubbed “Cities of LRNG” will seek to rapidly expand MacArthur-supported demonstration projects in Chicago, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Washington.

Read Education Week’s coverage of Pittsburgh’s Cities of Learning initiative.

Scaling up such work requires “a new, more diverse set of investors and partners; alternative funding models and mechanisms; and a more entrepreneurial and innovative way of operating than is possible as a foundation program,” said MacArthur President Julia Stasch in a statement.

The foundation is investing in the spin-off effort as “a new model of a nonprofit organization, combining the vision and structure of a nonprofit with the business rigor, product development mentality, agility, and growth potential of a technology company,” Stasch said.

The new learning ecosystems envisioned as part of the LRNG initiative center around the idea that young people’s interests should drive their learning both inside school and out, with a focus on real-world applications and connections to peers and mentors.

In an interview, Yowell also stressed the importance of a personalized competency-based learning system: “In the 19th century model of education we have prescribed lengths of time that we want kids seated in chairs, and we are moving away from that so it is now really about learners and young people gaining competency, however long it takes.”

According to Yowell, in today’s society, “learning happens through networks” and schools represent only a single “node” within that network. “The rub is, as a society, we do not have an infrastructure that supports that kind of networked learning that can enable young people to take advantage of learning that happens anywhere and at any time—LRNG is that infrastructure,” she said.

Citywide efforts based on that philosophy aim to provide structured opportunities and paths for young people to connect to such learning opportunities. 

If functioning properly, LRNG will match a student’s interests with “playlists” that suggest available experiences, resources, and events the student could take advantage of to further their expertise in the subject area.

For example, students interested in design might be alerted to a mix of online resources, such as instructional videos or courses; offline events, such as local workshops or museum exhibitions, as well as job or internship opportunities offered by businesses in the field.

In an interview, Lindl explained why corporations like EA Games or GAP are partnering with the initiative. Rather than simply being a “philanthropic offshoot,” the initiative is “core and critical to their businesses,” she said.

Lindl cited the “need to invest in youth at this level, rather than when they enter into the workforce. Right now, companies are finding they can’t fill 40% of their jobs” due in particular to a paucity of young STEM talent, she said.

Students’ progress is tracked through “Digital Badges” issued by anyone from educational institutions to corporate sponsors, effectively giving learners a measure of independent “credit” for learning that occurs outside of—or as a supplement to—traditional classroom learning.

The interoperable badges are shareable, meaning they can be put up on Facebook, LinkedIn or digital resumes, and Lindl said that Collective Shift is in discussions to eventually get the badges onto diplomas and transcripts.

The program places a particular emphasis on targeting low-income, under-supported students, in the hopes of bringing them access to previously untapped resources like professional mentorships.

In partnering with LRNG, Arizona State University President Michael Crow cited the need for establishing “alternate paths to success for the millions of young people who are locked out of the American higher educational system,” and the hope that the initiative will “reimagine how to advance and measure student success.”

The new effort’s goal is to engage 1 million young people in 70 communities by 2018, according to its press materials.

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