The Digital Promise Initiative

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the Digital Promise Initiative, a high-profile research effort “to advance breakthrough technologies that transform teaching and learning in and out of the classroom, while creating a business environment that rewards innovation and entrepreneurship”.* The reason why classrooms and business innovation are in the same sentence is the belief that new education technology requires “a more efficient market” and support for software developers to reach customers “on an economically valuable scale.”

I’m excited that school reform and technology is receiving such attention. We have a long history where the promise of educational technology never delivers any real change. I’m sure that some of my education colleagues will be skeptical about the private sector involvement in the initiative; today’s Wall Street Journal article was co-authored by Duncan and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and the program’s board includes John Morgridge, chairman emeritus of Cisco, and Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qualcomm. But to the contrary, I welcome the participation of leaders in information technology. After all, we’ll never have effective learning technologies in schools unless there are companies willing to invest in developing and marketing products to schools.

The key will be to get serious learning scientists involved with the initiative. Computers are wasted if their introduction to the classroom is not based on serious, substantial research about how children learn, both alone and in groups. Learning scientists are working to change that. The National Science Foundation is providing the Federal seed money (see their press release) of $15 million through its Cyberlearning program, and their web site shows that Janet Kolodner is the Program Officer; that’s promising, because Kolodner has been involved with learning sciences since its foundation, and was the editor of the field’s journal from 1991 to 2009. (And she was on the advisory board of a book I edited, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.)

Because of a history of failure, some skepticism about computers and schools is justified. But when systems are designed that are based in the sciences of how people learn, children learn better. The cutting edge of educational software doesn’t replace the teacher; it’s designed to facilitate more effective teaching. And in particular, the potential is that hybrid teacher-software curricula could align with what we know about how people learn deeper and more creatively: delivering connected knowledge, targeted to each learners’ developmental level, and bringing learners together through networked technologies to foster collaboration and communication.

As Duncan and Hastings say in today’s WSJ article, “this will happen. The only question is: Will the U.S. lead the effort or will we follow other countries?”

*Duncan and Hastings, “A Digital Promise to Our Nation’s Children.” WSJ Monday September 19, 2011, p. A15.