Mark Zuckerberg, who has made global Internet access a top priority through Facebook’s Internet.org project, is now using some of his personal wealth to expand high-speed Internet access in the United States.
On Monday, a nonprofit group that helps kindergarten through 12th-grade schools tap federal funds to acquire and improve high-speed Internet connections announced that Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, had agreed to donate $20 million to its work. The nonprofit group, called EducationSuperHighway, had received a gift of $3 million from Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan in 2013.
Mr. Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, supports the group’s goals as a means to his ultimate goal of spreading “personalized learning” — the idea of using online platforms to help tailor education to the needs and interests of individual students. He and his wife are hoping to accelerate school district adoption of the telecommunications infrastructure needed to support those kind of customized digital education programs.
“Mark and Priscilla believe that equipping K-12 classrooms with Internet connections is essential for students to thrive in the knowledge economy,” Jen Holleran, the executive director of Startup:Education, a nonprofit that oversees the Zuckerberg family’s educational giving, said in a statement. “Fast, reliable broadband is the foundational infrastructure that is needed to bring personalized and digital learning to every child and teacher in America.”
EducationSuperHighway, the group that received the donation from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, was founded in 2102 by Evan Marwell, a start-up entrepreneur.Credit Danny Johnston/Associated Press
The effort comes at a time when many technology company executives, government officials and school superintendents are urging schools to increase student use of laptops and learning apps in the hopes that use of digital devices can significantly improve grades, test scores, graduation rates, and ultimately college and career prospects. Many of these novel systems, however, have yet to prove their effectiveness. Earlier this year, the Department of Education issued a guide for learning-app developers, urging them to test their products rigorously before deploying them in schools.
In September, Facebook announced that it was working with Summit Public Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area to develop a platform to facilitate personalized learning that it intended to make available nationally.
Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan, a pediatrician, began giving to education-related projects in 2010 with a $100 million donation to the public schools in Newark, and pledged to spend $120 million more on Bay Area education projects.
Last month, they announced a new project, called The Primary School, which will be a prekindergarten through elementary school serving two low-income communities near Facebook’s headquarters. The tuition-free school, which will enroll its first students next August, will combine education with health care and family support.
EducationSuperHighway, the group receiving the gift announced Monday, was founded by Evan Marwell, a start-up entrepreneur, in 2012 with the aim of helping schools with slower Internet connections attain the same kind of high-speed broadband connections that some students already had at home. The federal government allocates billions of dollars annually for such access programs, funded by a tax on phone bills, but libraries and schools have often struggled to apply for the money and spend it effectively.
To bring attention to the issue, his group set up an online testing site for school administrators that wanted to determine the speed of their classroom Internet connections. In 2013, after an analysis of 800,000 such tests, EducationSuperHighway analysts concluded that only 30 percent of school districts in the United States met a minimum Internet access goal, established by the Federal Communications Commission, of 100 kilobits per second per student.
In 2013, President Obama announced an initiative, called ConnectED, with a goal of providing 99 percent of students in the United States with access to broadband by 2018.
In 2014, the F.C.C. modernized the federal grant program, called E-rate, which provides discounted telecommunications services for schools and libraries.
Through that program, the commission is making $5 billion in funding available over five years specifically for Wi-Fi for schools and libraries, and another $1.5 billion to support high-speed connectivity. In addition, private companies have committed more than $2.25 billion in hardware, software and wireless services to the effort.
EducationSuperHighway has worked with a number of school districts and states to evaluate their Internet infrastructure needs, as well as help them obtain government funding for such services. The group has also started a price transparency project to help administrators better understand the fees charged by Internet providers and negotiate for better deals.
Today, 77 percent of school districts meet the minimum federal Internet access goal for students, a new report from the group concluded.
“In just over two years, we’ve cut the share of students without high-speed Internet in the classroom in half, while expanding access to the digital learning tools that kids need to succeed,” Jeff Zients, the director of the National Economic Council at the White House, said in an emailed statement. “That’s tremendous progress, putting us on track to meet the President’s goal of connecting 99 percent of all students to high-speed broadband in the classroom by 2018.”
So far this year, the F.C.C. has committed to spend $2.2 billion in E-rate funding to connect schools and libraries.
Mr. Marwell said EducationSuperHighway plans to use the $20 million from the Zuckerberg family to hire additional staff members, including data quality specialists, software developers and consultants to work with state and school district officials. He is seeking to raise another $40 million, some of which is expected to come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, another early donor to the group.
“Twenty million kids have been connected,” Mr. Marwell said. But, he added, “we’ve still got 20 million kids to go.”