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Gates Foundation Picks Seven To Vie for $20 million Digital Courseware Investments

Seven finalists have been named by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in a multi-year, multi-million dollar competition to develop digital courseware for personalized learning in higher education. The "Next Generation Courseware Challenge" seeks to improve outcomes for more than a million students nationwide over the next 36 months.

The initiative kicked off earlier this year when the foundation invited more than a hundred organizations and individuals to propose their biggest ideas for adaptive digital courseware targeted at addressing college success. The ultimate users would be low-income undergraduate students in 100- and 200-level college courses with high student enrollment. Participants were encouraged to team up with others and work with colleges and universities to increase adoption, monitor performance and measure the impact of their courseware. The foundation received 51 applications, most put together by multiple organizations.

In July, the pool was winnowed down to 17 organizations, all of which participated in a request-for-proposal process. By reviewing the proposals and interviewing the applicants, the foundation selected seven finalists for consideration of funding.

The finalists are:

Each of these takes a unique approach to the problem of helping students improve their learning outcomes.

For example, Acrobatiq is actually a Carnegie Mellon company that grew out of adaptive courseware research done in the university's Open Learning Initiative. Its approach is based on research in cognitive science, human-computer interaction and statistical analysis.

"Improving outcomes depends on designing courseware based on principles derived from learning science such as students only learn by doing. As they're doing, we collect and model data to adapt instruction, to gauge student progress and to make good decisions about where to focus practice, and to give faculty visibility into who is learning, who's not, and where help is needed," explained CEO Eric Frank.

A learning dashboard displays summaries of student work, which can be used to "clarify" areas where the students are struggling, added Lawrence Rudiger, a lecturer in the Psychology Department at the University of Vermont. "It's not always what I would predict," he noted. "But it's far more gratifying to know what they did not understand before I administer an exam."

Cerego is developing StatsPL, a course that leverages the company's memory management technology and assessment tools alongside open educational resources. Additional courses will surface for other subjects in 2015.

"We're starting with statistics because it's one of the most difficult courses for at-risk learners, and because it's often taught without the use of adaptive learning tools. We find that many students struggle with statistics because the content is typically dense and unengaging. We see a huge opportunity to draw more students into STEM programs if we can make their first experience with this course successful," said Andrew Smith Lewis, executive chairman and co-founder of Cerego.

Initially, StatsPL will be piloted at Columbia College in Missouri. Over the lifetime of the three-year grant it's expected to reach a hundred colleges nationwide, with the hope of reaching 100,000 students in credit-bearing courses. Given the centrality of statistics to other disciplines, StatsPL will also be made available to students in non-statistics courses (with the goal of reaching a further 200,000 students).

Australia-based Smart Sparrow is working with Arizona State University and others to create the Smart Science Network. That leverages Smart Sparrow's toolset, which allows faculty to create and share courseware that can be tailored to individual students.

Ariel Anbar, a member of Arizona State's School of Earth & Space Exploration, will develop two "Smart Courses" to teach basic science concepts in a game-like environment that uses interactivity and adaptive simulations. That's an outgrowth of the university's popular online course, Habitable Worlds, which explores whether non-human life forms exist in the universe.

"Students learn best when education is personalized to their needs and goals," said Daniel Greenstein, director of Postsecondary Success at the foundation. "There is a growing body of evidence that courseware, when integrated effectively by faculty in instruction, can personalize learning at unprecedented scale potentially enabling all students — not just those who are able to attend the most elite, expensive colleges— to get the best and most effective education at a reasonable price."

Those projects that eventually receive the awards from the Gates Foundation must agree to engage in a 36-month effort that includes design, development, distribution, adoption, implementation and delivery of digital courseware. All finalists will also participate in third-party research evaluations to measure student impact and capture and share relevant lessons and learnings for dissemination.

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