In 2000, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals identified one of the biggest challenges to education as simply getting students into classrooms. Back then, nearly one in five children didn’t attend school. Today, in less than two decades, targeted intervention and political will have halved the number of kids who aren’t in school, and the percentage of kids who are has reached 90% worldwide.

Too many students, though, still aren’t acquiring basic skills. Some 130 million children complete four years of school without learning to read or add and subtract. In India, for instance, roughly half of all 5th grade children can’t read a second grade text or perform a two-digit subtraction problem. In Brazil, only one in ten high-school graduates performs at grade level in math.

These gaps in student learning, which are reflected in places all around the world, stem from a host of challenges: students lacking materials at their reading level or in their mother tongue; teachers who lack the tools they need to succeed; and kids who can't get to school because they're stuck in a conflict zone, to name just a few.

Google has long believed that technology has a vital role to play in tackling these and other educational challenges; it can get more books to students, more lesson plans to teachers, and classrooms to kids who can't get there themselves.

But technology unevenly applied only worsens disparities in access and opportunity. In prosperous communities, the internet delivers ever-richer learning experiences. But as children in this wired world enjoy online videos, digital tutors and virtual reality, less fortunate students all around the globe are falling ever further behind.

At Google.org, our approach to education is to find the most promising nonprofits and put the best of Google—our philanthropy, our people, our products—to work helping them close this worldwide gap in learning and academic opportunity.

Philanthropy, the Google way

In 2016 Google.org launched a new initiative to give $50 million to organizations that are using technology to solve some of the trickiest parts of this problem in a scalable way.

Google has never taken a conventional approach to solving problems, and neither does Google.org. When we support an organization, we commit more than just our funding—we bring these grantees into the company and give them access to our best thinkers. Google engineers volunteer their skills and time to help our grantees take their products to the next level, and Google provides products and tools help them scale solutions. And, always, we share what we learn with the rest of the nonprofit sector; we believe technology solutions that can help anyone ought to belong to everyone.

We're not looking to help nonprofits go from x to x+1. We want them to get to x squared.

Jacquelline Fuller, Director of Google.org

Our education grants will focus on three areas where technology can help: giving more students access to quality learning materials, supporting teacher development, and reaching students in conflict zones.

1. Giving kids the right materials

Around the world, students in low-income communities have to learn with less: fewer books, out-of-date texts, and materials that are culturally irrelevant or even in the wrong language. Technology can bypass the geographic and financial boundaries that can block educational resources from reaching students, while also making those resources more engaging, interactive, and effective.

One of our first grantees in this area is the Foundation for Learning Equality, which is building free open-source software to bring online materials—including books, video tutorials, quizzes—to the 4.3 billion people who lack consistent access to the internet. Their new platform, Kolibri, runs on numerous devices, from repurposed desktop computers to low-cost, off-the-shelf file storage drives, and helps educators access, organize, and customize digital content, even in the most remote locations. So far they’ve brought 7,000 videos and 26,000 interactive exercises offline for students in about 160 countries.

Our funding, along with Google volunteers providing technical support, will help Learning Equality build a bigger content library and scale their reach to hundreds of thousands of new students. This summer, Google engineers and product experts are volunteering to spend four weeks working side-by-side with Learning Equality’s product team in areas such as UX/UI, content integration, and video compression technology.

Young boys and girls access offline learning materials on tablets provided by Google and Learning Equality.

Young boys and girls access offline learning materials on tablets provided by Google and Learning Equality.

2. Keeping teachers trained and engaged

It’s no surprise that having a great teacher is one of the best predictors of a student’s academic success. In many countries there simply aren’t enough of them. By 2030, India alone will need 3 million new primary school teachers just to keep up with its growing population of students.

But great teaching isn’t just a numbers game; too often, teachers are burdened with large class sizes, infrequent training, rigid, creativity-stifling curricula, and even simple isolation.

Teaching is a lonely profession. You go into a class and no one sees you. There’s a community of teachers out there, but it’s hard to reach them.

Abhinav Mathur, engineer and cofounder of Million Sparks Foundation

Technology can make it easier. Google.org is helping local leaders invest in digital tools that offer teachers quality training and confidence-building tools that encourage creativity in the classroom. The first of these grants goes to Million Sparks Foundation's ChalkLit, an app-based platform that combines bite-sized, curriculum-aligned content with online community to support high-caliber teachers and promote first-rate teaching. Google engineers volunteering their time and skills will advise the Million Sparks team on how to optimize the ChalkLit app for use by teachers in low-bandwidth and offline environments.

3. Helping students learn in crisis

While more children than ever are attending school, 32 million primary school-aged students can’t reach traditional classrooms because of violent conflict and displacement. Quality primary education is especially important to kids who, living in camps or other hard-to-reach settings, are highly vulnerable to poverty and exploitative labor.

One interesting approach to this problem comes from Google.org grantee War Child Holland, whose game-based method, Can’t Wait To Learn, helps keep displaced children from falling behind by reaching them with a full year of lessons and exercises that align with a host country’s curriculum.

Data collected from Can’t Wait To Learn’s first deployments in Sudan showed students significantly learning from the game, with boys and girls gaining equally and those who knew the least, learning the most. Supported by Google product experts who are volunteering to help them build their product road map and expand their tech team, War Child Holland aims to reach a million students in the next five years.

A child plays an educational game on a tablet provided by Google and War Child.

Launch, iterate, measure

The solutions we’re testing don’t come fully formed and guaranteed to succeed. Our initiatives are carefully considered bets on seasoned innovators, and we plan to measure our progress to inform our work’s trajectory, and share our results to ensure that everyone can learn along with us.

Stay tuned for updates about our success and lessons learned along the way.