AOL Foundation Interactive Education Initiative Year 2 Evaluation Report

September 1, 2000

In 1999, the AOL Foundation's Interactive Education Initiative (IEI) funded 54 educational technology projects in schools, community-based organizations (CBOs), and youth-serving institutions around the country, as part of its mission to use online technology to improve the lives of families and children and empower the disadvantaged. The initiative sought to help K-12 learning environments make the most of interactive technology, to construct models and/or identify best practices that can be replicated elsewhere, and to nurture a network of educators and others who can promote effective educational use of interactive technology. In 2000, the Foundation followed up this effort by funding 55 additional interactive technology education programs at schools, CBOs and youth-serving institutions.

EDC's Center for Children and Technology (CCT) conduct an evaluation of the initiative's new set of 55 one-year implementation projects. The goals of the evaluation were to document the characteristics of the schools and organizations that received the AOL IEI grant, identify the traits of successful projects as well as factors that impede their success, recognize those projects that exemplify best practices, and assist the Foundation in identifying projects that could benefit from added investment.

As in the first year, our second year evaluations used multiple methodologies to collect both quantitative and qualitative information. The research team collected data through two core strategies: 1) Gathering baseline quantitative information through surveys given to all 55 IEI sites.1 2) Developing a qualitative understanding of the projects in the larger context of their host organizations through site visits and telephone interviews. The information collected by these methods is the basis for case studies we present in Section III of this report. We also used this information to help identify characteristics that contributed to successful implementation and factors that hindered project success.

Last year, the CCT evaluation team found that exemplary projects shared four broad areas of commonality. These were: innovative educational design; reflective use of technology; strong leadership and vision; and status as part of a pre-existing program (see the AOL IEI 1999 report for a detailed discussion of each characteristic, a link to the report is in Further Reading). In this second round of evaluations, we built upon last year's work by testing the validity of these characteristics as yardsticks for judging project success. First, we found that this year's strongest projects tended to share traits with last year's exemplary sites. Exemplary projects were reflective and flexible in their technology use. They supported genuine educational innovation with technology, rather than using hardware to support traditional educational practice or using it for its own sake. Exemplary project leaders integrated information and communications technologies to extend student learning, expand curricular goals, and reshape traditional pedagogy. They also had a firm grasp of how their particular IEI project fit into a larger set of curriculum initiatives. Exemplary project leaders had a strong vision and a clear sense of the realities of the school that had to be coped with. Finally, we found that projects that existed in some form prior to receiving AOL funding were likelier to fulfill their proposed goals by year's end than those that were initiated with AOL funding..

Second, observing 55 new sites allowed us to go beyond affirming last year's basic findings to achieve a more complex understanding of the factors that contribute to project success, as well as those factors that hold projects back from reaching their goals. We began our analysis by grouping the IEI projects into the three categories we used last year: exemplary, promising, and struggling. We also added a fourth category - delayed - for those sites whose projects did not begin in the 1999-2000 academic year.

Well-focused seed money can make a difference. Based on the evidence collected during our first- and second-year evaluations of the Interactive Education Initiative, it is clear that the AOL Foundation's support of grassroots technology efforts is having an impact on teaching and learning. The first two years of the initiative gave educators from all manner of schools and CBOs the resources to make innovative new programs happen.

Although not all of the 109 projects funded by the Foundation have achieved what we call exemplary status - a certain number of missteps are inevitable with experimental new programs - many are already making differences within their schools and CBOs by addressing the educational needs of disadvantaged youth and adults in under-resourced classrooms and communities. Given additional time, and with a sustained commitment from project leadership, many more projects that we deemed "promising" will achieve the same level of impact. As the Foundation contemplates new directions for its education program area, the greatest interest may not be in individual achievements of discrete IEI projects but in the projects' ability to strengthen teaching and learning in schools and CBOs that have not participated in the initiative. In order to do this, the Foundation may want to give special consideration to a select group of grantees whose accomplishments stand out even among the successful sites. These sites found new ways to attack pervasive educational problems, built organizational structures that are strong but flexible, and spent considerable energy on selfevaluation to ensure that their programs genuinely serve the target population. Because of their thoroughness and sustainability, these projects have the potential of being adapted to other environments and organizations. As the Foundation considers its next steps, it may be valuable to revisit these exemplary projects, giving thought to how several of them are poised to reach a larger audience if given additional support. In the "Recommendations" section in this report, we provide specific suggestions for ways the Foundation may further its collaboration with some of these successful projects.


Andrew Gersick