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Gates Envisions Higher Ed, K-12 Connections

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a new grant program on Monday that will provide tens of millions of dollars to help organizations expand the reach of their education technology initiatives.

The Next Generation Learning Challenges program—the foundation's first focused investment in education technology—will include separate waves of funding for postsecondary and K-12 applicants, but many of the projects funded by the program could reach across both spheres.

At least that's what Bill Gates expects. He spoke in a media briefing following the announcement of the program, which begins with an initial wave of funding directed toward postsecondary ed-tech programs that could be worth up to $20 million. Subsequent waves of funding for K-12 and higher ed could push the total grants awarded up to around $80 million, Gates suggested.

"Sometime next year, we'll have a set [of grants] that focuses on K-12 education," said Gates, co-founder of the foundation, which has donated billions over the years toward education. "But there's not a black and white dividing line between those" K-12 and postsecondary categories.

For example, Gates said, the development of effective online high school reading and math programs would take some of the burden of remediation off community and four-year colleges.

The program, which will be managed by education IT nonprofit EDUCAUSE, and also includes partnerships with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, released the first in a series of requests for proposal for technology applications to improve postsecondary education.

Competitors for the first round of funding can apply until Nov. 19, with winners announced on March 31, 2011 to receive grants ranging between $250,000 and $750,000.

Gates said his foundation, which like the Hewlett Foundation, contributes money to Editorial Projects in Education, the non-profit publishers of Education Week, had been exploring getting involved in education technology for about two years.

Beginning with postsecondary grants, he said, was not an indication that he thought more could be achieved with technology at the college level, but that innovators at that level were more plentiful and more prepared to submit ideas.

"There just turned out to be a little more pioneering work in the postsecondary space," Gates said. "And we got our plan together and felt we moved enough to put the proposal out."

Gates said he hoped the influx of funding could add more quality and accountability to ideas already being created throughout both realms.

"I think there are catalytic things that the foundation can do to help get this bootstrapped, and really make sure that the outcomes are high quality and are well understood," he said.

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