Digital Media & Learning

Our Goal

For the past 10 years, MacArthur has supported research and design experiments to understand the implications for education of young people’s use of digital media. A new approach, Connected Learning, has emerged as a powerful way to connect fragmented spheres of a young person’s life—interests, academic and work opportunities, and peer culture. The Foundation has determined that real scale and spread of Connected Learning requires a new, more diverse set of investors and partners; alternative funding models and mechanisms; and a more entrepreneurial and innovative way of operating than is possible as a foundation program. In October of 2015, MacArthur launched Collective Shift, a new, independent nonprofit organization whose initial goal is broad adoption of the principles, practices, and products of Connected Learning. Grants that do not specifically relate to this new development will come to a close over the next two to three years.


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, numerous 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 ChicagoQuest 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 (2009-2013)

In this phase, we made a transition from exploration, research and raising awareness to a goal of influence and impact. We began supporting a number of demonstration sites to test and scale the concepts of Connected Learning, the program’s framework for reimagining learning for the digital age.  In an effort to capture learning in informal settings, the Digital Media and Learning program also funded the development of an innovative new online credentialing tool called digital badges. Digital badges represent skills, interests, and achievements earned by an individual through specific projects, programs, courses, or other activities. The belief was that digital badges could help make learning that takes place in museums, libraries, and afterschool programs more visible, and by doing so, connect these experiences to each other and to classroom activities.

Phase 3 (2013 – present)

One promising approach that has emerged over the past two years is Cities of Learning. This growing national movement seeks to transform the learning landscape in a city by using badges to connect in- and out-of-school learning, and highlight alternative pathways to academic, civic, and career success. The goal of Cities of Learning is to create the conditions necessary for Connected Learning to take root and spread. Data gathered through badges will help provide a more holistic view of what a young person is learning, where they engage in learning, what they are interested in, and whether city resources are distributed equitably to offer learning programs where they are needed most.

Grantmaking Priorities

Research and Design

Foundation funded research includes ethnographic studies, surveys, interdisciplinary research networks—one on youth and participatory politics and another on connected learning—and other projects that examine what young people are doing online, their views on such activities, and the knowledge, skills, and competencies they are gaining.

Scale, Spread, and Field Building

To continue building the digital media and learning field and spread new approaches to learning, the grant portfolio includes the MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning and the MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning. A website with resources and research related to connected learning and the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, an international research center at the University of California, Irvine, are additional resources for the field. Grants also support the local and national design and implementation of Cities of Learning.

Demonstration Sites

MacArthur supports experimentation in several types of institutions—libraries, museums, schools, community centers, afterschool programs—to demonstrate what connected learning could look like in action. These include:

  • Hive Learning Networks are open, connected networks of institutions and organizations in cities that seek to create opportunities for youth to explore their interests across institutions in both digital and physical spaces. Currently active in Chicago, New York City, and Pittsburgh—with other locations under development—Hives fund innovative youth programming through public-private partnership support.
  • Quest to Learn is an innovative school model—with campuses in New York City and Chicago— developed in response to growing evidence that digital media and games offer powerful models for reconsidering how and where young people learn. Quest schools are designed to bridge old and new literacies, with students working through a challenge-based curriculum.
  • YOUmedia—which first opened at the Chicago Public Library's downtown Harold Washington Library Center in 2009—is an innovative teen space for engagement and learning based on MacArthur-supported research. Expansion to other libraries, museums and community-based organizations around the country is supported by funds from the Foundation and the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Digital Media and Learning Competition 

To encourage innovation and provide resources for new learning environments, the Foundation funds the Digital Media and Learning Competition. Administered by HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), and supported by a grant to the University of California, Irvine, the competition invites U.S. and international participants to compete for grant awards for domestic and international projects that use digital or new media as platforms for connected learning. The most recent competition supported teams of practitioners and designers to develop innovative digital badge systems, data management platforms, digital learning environments, online learning content and related digital tools to promote trust in connected learning experiences.   

Our Legacy Strategy

Bringing Connected Learning innovations, its principles, practices and products to scale quickly will require new partners—public and private—for a wide range of purposes. Scale and sustainability will require new levels and new types of investment. We believe that the best way to achieve these goals is to experiment with a new organizational model that can attract a more diverse set of partners and investors, explore alternative funding models and mechanisms, and accommodate a more entrepreneurial and innovative approach to philanthropy. The Foundation created a new nonprofit organization to scale Connected Learning in October of 2015. Over the next few years, the Foundation will continue funding select research, policy advocacy, and community building activities to ensure the long-term sustainability and impact of the Foundation’s investments in the digital media and learning field.


Updated September 2017

  • 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
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