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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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August172007

Pitch Your Digital Learning Project to the MacArthur Foundation

Got a great idea for an education project that brings together students and digital collaboration? Here’s your chance to back up that idea with some serious cash.

About 10 months ago I wrote about a multi-year initiative by the John D. and Catherine C. MacArthur Foundation through which they plan to invest $50 million dollars researching the role of digital media in learning. The foundation is particularly interested in how social media tools and virtual environments can be used to engage young people.

Typically, grants from foundations will go to institutions conducting research or developing services of some type or another, because they have the capacity to implement a project on a large scale. And some of the money invested by MacArthur has been spent this way, going to universities like MIT or nonprofit groups like GlobalKids.org. This week, though, they announced a new program in which they plan to give out two million dollars in grants to anyone who is conducting pioneering educational work in digital media.

Let me translate that. Teachers. Community activists. Entrepreneurs. And yes, even students.

From now until October 15, 2007, you will have the opportunity to apply for an award from the Digital Media and Learning Competition. MacArthur will make grant awards in two different categories: knowledge networking and innovation.

The knowledge networking awards, ranging from $30,000 to $75,000 each, will go to individuals with a track record as communicators and connectors. These are the folks who have a knack for using the Internet and other tools to pull people together to create powerful learning experiences. They’re specifically interested in people who can pull together projects with a focus on collaborative thinking. Applicants should be able to demonstrate their track record as educational networkers and pitch a project in which they’ll put those skills to good use.

The innovation awards, which will be doled at either $100,000 or $250,000 each depending on the nature of the project, “are intended to appeal to pioneers, builders of new digital learning environments.” They’re interested in seeing existing digital environments, such as social networking sites or virtual reality spaces, being retooled for collaborative learning purposes, or having new tools created from scratch. These grants will be given to projects that take a constructivist approach in which all participants learn from one another. This category of grants also places more of an emphasis on cross-generational learning experiences, with adults as well as young people collaborating with each other. They’re giving larger grants in this particular category because they expect the grantees to have higher start-up costs due to project development and infrastructure.

In terms of eligibility, the primary applicant for either grant type must be at least 21 years old and reside in the United States. Beyond that, other partners involved in a project may be under 21 or reside outside the U.S., opening up the possibility of creating projects that directly involve students or overseas participants.

Of course, I expect a lot of experts to apply for these grants. There’s no doubt that researchers from universities and nonprofits will have some great ideas worthy of consideration. But if you’re a teacher with a passion for digital learning and a great idea, you should seriously throw your hat into the ring as well. Better yet, if you have a group of students with the technical skills to build new digital tools, consider organizing them into a team, come up with a project and give it a shot. Opportunities like this come around only once in a blue moon. -andy

Filed under : Events, Research

Responses

Andy does not comment on the dubious intellectual property provisions attached to these grants. While the grant winner retains ownership of the intellectual property created, 50% of the profits subsequently generated from the work by the award winners must be paid to the sponsors in perpetuity.

This pretty much rules out having entrepreneurs get involved (unless they hack around the restriction with some kind of shell corporation or the like), and creates all kind of weird ambiguities about their intentions and the long term legal encumbrances attached to the grant and subsequent work.

The creator of the work is also put in a position where their work is literally worth half as much (in monetary terms) to them as it is to any other person or corporation (once the work is sold and the initial price split with the funders, the buyer has no further obligations).

It is an embarrassment for the MacArthur Foundation to simultaneously reach out to people outside the traditional grant community, but to do so on unfavorable terms that would never be considered for awards within their regular circles.

“An embarrassment?” That’s a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly. Since you asked, let’s look at the intellectual property language in the grant documentation:

The intellectual property rights will be retained by award winners; however, as a condition of being funded, the award winner must agree to license such rights in accordance with the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, ShareAlike License. If a project results in commercial use and profit to the award winner, then fifty (50) percent of any such profit will accrue to the University of California Humanities Research Institute to be used for future awards or other charitable purposes.

For one thing, it is common practice for funding programs that supply startup funds to money-making ventures to expect a cut of any profits. That’s called revenue sharing, and it’s rare to not see that happen in seed funding to commercial enterprises. It’s actually the whole basis of venture capital funding. Any company that’s looking to get rich by making the next big edtech tool probably would go after VC funding directly from investors in Silicon Valley, since they can access millions of dollars that way, not tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. So there’s nothing unusual about this being a part of this grant program.

And as for copyright, MacArthur is saying that whatever you publish remains your own intellectual property, but you must also be willing to share it for noncommercial purposes as required under the Creative Commons license. That strikes me as a very good thing, if one of the goals of your work is to disseminate tools to a larger audience so they can build upon your work.

What lesson should you take from this? If all you care about is making money, then don’t apply. But if you want to create tools that get adopted and adapted by others for noncommercial and educational use, while sharing profits with the entity that funded your endeavor in the first place in the chance you make some profit, then by all means apply. -andy

I love the course (simple still, of course, but still a course) of this discussion…

We are now struggling with issues regarding grants, copyrights and the like that we didn’t struggle with or have the capacity to see through and analyze just a few years ago…

This is a good thing. Ownership. And, since this is an education blog, talking about issues about ownership with students is part and parcel with talking with them about technology.

This is “integrated” technology.

The conversations no longer held in a vacuum. Journalism, writing, reading, biology stem cell research, prisoner’s rights, dual-language, marketing, design, structural engineering… etc, etc.

Forget dispensing information to children. We’ve been doing that for too long. It’s high time to teach kids to think. And, as Ed De Bono has taught us, it’s not only something we could do, it’s something we should do.

Andy,

How many other grants are structured this way? For that matter, how many VC investments are stuctured this way, where you ostensibly own the intellectual capital but its commercial use is encumbered, but only by the initial creator? Isn’t venture capital an investment in the, you know, venture? Can you give me any examples of another program structured like this? Any successful examples? This is an embarrassment because it is so poorly thought out and executed.

One more point…

Here’s how I see this playing out:
  • teacher creates something of value with their grant, which, in this country means it has monetary value.
  • Grant-funded work is shopped to VC’s and corporations at the conclusion of the grant period, as is their stated intent.
  • Because the commercial value of the work to the creator is at most half of its real value, he or she is likely to sell it out at a discount. Grantor and grantee split the proceeds between them.
  • Corporation wins; gets high quality content at a low price.
  • The commercial version forks from the CC-licensed version, which is crippled by its un-free license, severely limiting who can support and distribute it and how it can be remixed and mashed-up.

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