Our Strategy

MacArthur is exploring how digital media are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. The goal is to make education more powerful for all students by creating more opportunities for more youth to engage in learning that is relevant to their lives and prepares them for success in school, the workplace, and their community.


We believe that our society is in the midst of a reinvention of how knowledge is created, organized, accessed, and shared that has far-reaching implications for our institutions of learning – schools, libraries, museums, and more.  Digital media offers the promise of a new learning system that acknowledges and nurtures individual talents, skills, and interests. The initiative in Digital Media and Learning aims to drive positive change in American education that builds on the new modes of learning observed among young people using digital media and related tools.


MacArthur has invested in education since 1980, but direct investment in schools met with mixed results and few clear successes. In the 1990s, we awarded more than $40 million in grants in Chicago, working to develop more skilled teachers and better principals. In 2000, we sought national impact with The Learning Partnership, a $40 million school district reform initiative in Chicago, Minneapolis and Baltimore. Three years into that effort, 11 superintendents had cycled through the three districts with little improvement in students’ educational experiences or performance. 

In 2004, we decided to consider alternative paths. Instead of focusing on schools and school districts, we turned our attention to how young people were learning outside school. Digital media and the Internet seemed to be sparking new ways of creating, sharing and organizing knowledge.

We decided to investigate this topic. Site visits, a literature review and modest exploratory grants suggested that it would be a promising area to work in. In June 2005, the MacArthur Foundation Board established Digital Media and Learning as a new grantmaking area, which launched in 2006.

Phase 1 (2005–2009). In this phase, we focused on inquiry and raising awareness. We wanted to understand how learning is changing as a result of digital media, and asked:

  • How are young people changing as a result of their use of digital media?
  • How are learning environments changing? How should they change in the future?
  • How are civic and social institutions changing? How should they change in the future?

The first phase of the work exceeded our expectations. Research we funded received widespread attention; we established a research hub at the University of California, Irvine, which has become a vibrant intellectual center; programs such as YOUmedia Chicago, Quest to Learn, and the Hive learning networks in New York and Chicago generated significant interest from schools, other learning institutions, and government; and MacArthur was acknowledged as a leader in a new field. This success persuaded us to launch a second phase in September 2009.

Phase 2 (2009-present).  In this phase, we make a transition from exploration, research and raising awareness to a goal of influence and impact. We hope to demonstrate and test new approaches that will be implemented and change schools and other institutions across the country, and to shape a more supportive policy environment.

Our Strategic Approach

Phase 2’s theory of change has two steps:

  • demonstrating a new vision of “connected” learning for today’s youth at specific sites to illustrate what is possible and pragmatic; and
  • working with industry, government, education, media, and other foundation partners to support learning anyplace, any time– all in the broader context of the network of institutions, organizations, and online spaces that influence learning.

Our premise, that we are in the midst of a knowledge revolution, implies that schools will need new teaching approaches, tools, programs, and metrics for measuring success – and new partners to work with. Our strategy includes:

  • establishing clear evidence that new approaches to learning are effective;
  • designing and developing new learning environments;
  • forming networks for learning; and
  • creating a new vision of connected learning that is interest-driven and more motivating, engaging, social, and supported by a constellation of mentors, educators, knowledgeable peers, and parents.

Grantmaking Priorities

Research. Foundation-funded research is contributing to a growing body of evidence about young people and digital media. Ethnographic studies, surveys, interdisciplinary research networks, and other projects are examining what young people are doing online, their views on such activities, and the knowledge, skills, and competencies they are gaining.

Practice. Grants also support efforts to develop new learning environments to understand how schools, libraries, museums, and other formal and informal institutions need to adapt, change, and collaborate in response to young people’s digital media use. Projects are looking at learning in virtual worlds, through game design, with mobile devices, and through the interactions in social networks—in and out of school. Resources support new school design, including a model based on the principles of game design that shapes and informs all aspects of teaching and learning. We support learning networks in Chicago and New York City, in which collaborations of civic and cultural institutions are working together to help young people integrate learning across formal and informal, virtual, and physical environments.

Field Building. To help build the emerging digital media and learning field, our portfolio includes the MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning and the MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning, both published by MIT Press. An interactive Web site and the Spotlight Blog, and the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, a new international research center at the University of California, Irvine, are additional resources for the field.

To encourage innovation and provide resources for new learning environments, the Foundation funds the Digital Media and Learning Competition. This annual endeavor, administered by HASTAC, invites U.S. and international participants to compete for $2 million in grant awards for domestic and international projects that use digital or new media as platforms for participatory learning.


A formal, independent review of Phase 1 is underway. We will commission a Phase 2 formative evaluation in 2013. We will receive an annual review from the six-member Scientific Advisory Council convened by the Digital Media and Learning Hub.


Updated December 2012

Information Sheet

For additional resources, please download our full Digital Media & Learning information sheet.

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  • Reports on Digital Media & Learning

    Published by the MIT Press, these reports present findings from research on how young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life.

    View Reports


Portrait of Julia M. Stasch

Julia M. Stasch

Vice President, U.S. Programs
Portrait of Constance M. Yowell

Constance M. Yowell

Director of Education
Portrait of Jennifer Humke

Jennifer Humke

Program Officer, Digital Media & Learning
Portrait of Karen S. Hott

Karen S. Hott

Senior Executive Secretary
Portrait of Julie W. Squire

Julie W. Squire

Program Administrator