Our Strategy

Making 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.


Our society is in the midst of a reinvention of how knowledge is created, organized, accessed, and shared that has far-reaching implications for 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, 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 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. 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.

Our Strategic Approach

Phase 2’s theory of change has two elements:

  • demonstrating a new vision of “connected” learning for today’s youth at specific sites to explore what is possible and pragmatic. Cities of Learning posits that cities are the appropriate unit of change for an effective spread strategy for Connected Learning.
  • working with industry, government, education, media, and other foundation partners to support connected learning anyplace, any time– all in the broader context of the network of institutions, organizations, and online spaces that influence learning

The 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
  • 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
  • leveraging these steps to make connected learning a normative approach in education.

Grantmaking Priorities

Research and Design

Grants focus on establishing a new approach to learning research and design experimentation. 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.

Innovation Labs

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 digital badge systems, an alternative learning assessment and credentialing mechanism that is managed online.


Updated March 2015

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 Valerie Chang

Valerie Chang

Managing Director, U.S. Programs
Portrait of Constance M. Yowell

Constance M. Yowell

Director of Education
Portrait of Jennifer Humke

Jennifer Humke

Program Officer
Portrait of Tawa Mitchell

Tawa Mitchell

Program Officer
Portrait of Karen S. Hott

Karen S. Hott

Senior Executive Secretary
Portrait of Julie W. Squire

Julie W. Squire

Program Administrator