White House makes ‘Digital Promise’ to schools

Duncan said Digital Promise would increase research and development in ed-tech programs.

A nonprofit start-up funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) will quickly evaluate which educational technologies are worth the investment – and which ones aren’t – while driving private-sector innovation that could modernize technology in public schools nationwide.

ED Secretary Arne Duncan on Sept. 16 unveiled the independent nonprofit initiative approved by Congress in 2008, called Digital Promise, which will be funded by government dollars, along with philanthropies like the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Higher education is expected to play a role in the formation of Digital Promise. The initiative will be guided by Duncan-appointed board members, including a Tulane University official, and research from the Chicago’s Urban Education Institute that will determine which technology programs work best in the classroom.

Digital Promise’s first contributions to public schools will include software that can tutor students struggling in math or English, for example, after the same “digital tutor” technology was shown to reduce the time required to become an IT expert from years to months.

“Digital Promise is a unique partnership that will bring everyone together – educators, entrepreneurs, and researchers – to use technology to help students learn and teachers teach,” President Obama said in a statement. “There’s no silver bullet when it comes to education, but technology can be a powerful tool, and Digital Promise will help us make the most of it.”

The nonprofit group will also work to boost the amount of spending on research and development of educational technologies. The country’s 14,000 school districts use about .2 percent of total K-12 educational spending for research and development of burgeoning technologies, while the private sector spends upwards of 20 percent.

And whereas internet startup companies continually test their website and online services, testing and evaluation of classroom technologies lags behind, meaning the most up-to-date programs are rarely available to students and educators, the White House said in a blog post.

“When it comes to education, R&D cycles can take years, producing results that are out of date the minute they’re released,” the White House blog said. “Internet companies like Netflix and Amazon don’t make decisions on the basis of hunches. They use rapid, low-cost experimentation to continually improve their products. Similar opportunities exist for learning technologies.”

Digital Promise could combine the disparate ed-tech funding efforts from philanthropists and government entities to create a larger, more reliable way to develop up-and-coming technologies, said Russell Poulin, deputy director of WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), an organization that advocates for online instruction.

“I know foundations have looked for ways to leverage their work and to work together instead of working independently of each other,” Poulin said. “Historically, they’ve been at odds with each other.”

Critics of the White House’s plan to partially fund Digital Promise came out in force just hours after the nonprofit was announced.

Bryan Preston, a writer for conservative blog Pajamas Media, called Digital Promise “yet another potential technological boondoggle” introduced by the Obama administration, adding that the nonprofit’s board is filled with “tech CEOs whose companies stand to benefit from the government’s classroom tech choices and decisions.”

Poulin said the government’s investment in Digital Promise “doesn’t appear to be enough money to move the market,” but rather to “encourage and promote research and innovation” in the education sector.

“This doesn’t appear big enough to pick winners and losers” in the technology industry, Poulin said.

Seton Motley, a blogger for the conservative site Less Government, said any government funding of Digital Promise would be “unconstitutional.”

“Government allegedly investing in the private sector is at best using American taxpayer money to choose winners and losers – and far more often than not losers over winners,” he wrote. “These are decisions best left to American consumers spending their own money in the free market.”

Motley encouraged the White House’s political opponents to halt funding of Digital Promise before the independent nonprofit gets off the ground, even after funding for the initiative received bipartisan support.

“The end result of Digital Promise is as predictable as it is pathetic,” he wrote. “If there is any way to stop this latest inevitable and inevitably colossal Obama administration waste, let us by all means do so.”

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