Digital Learning Day: No Better Time to Consider Our R&D Investment in Technology and Education

Each time I have a conversation with a questioning child or watch a teacher help a student grasp a new concept or make an important new connection, I am amazed. The potential of children and the power of teachers to change lives — moment-by-moment — are both awe inspiring. When those two phenomena intersect, you know that you are witnessing something special.

We desperately want our children to experience those moments as often as possible. We want them to love learning, to love school, and to use both to find their passions and fulfill their dreams. For many, even of those who did “well” in school, we want them to experience what we did not: to have those “special moments” be the norm rather than the exception, to have school be the place where the most exciting learning happens, to have every teacher be the teacher who “gets” them.

Each day in this country, we ask millions of teachers from preschool thru college to create those special moments for each child in their care — to match each student’s needs, interests, and personal circumstances with the perfect content, instructional approach, and support so they can make sense of that big idea or master that critical skill or negotiate that challenging person or situation. We ask them to do this for each of the 20 to 40 to 400 students in their class, each class of the day, almost every day of the week. And we ask them to do this well and do it with passion because those are so often one in the same.

We want all of this and we ask all of this and yet we have invested more in improving the buses that take our children to school, than we have in researching and developing the tools and resources that will help students and teachers achieve our lofty expectations and more importantly their incredible potential.

Over the last century, the capabilities of doctors, lawyers, engineers, farmers, drivers, artists, musicians, and countless other professionals have been transformed by technology. In less than a century, doctors have gone from literally “practicing medicine” to being able to diagnose and treat almost every known disease;  and through technology, nurses now have capabilities that doctors, a few decades ago, only dreamed about. What’s more, these transformative practices are available to doctors and nurses in almost every corner of the country. Musicians can access compositions and performances instantaneously, produce scores from original music with the click of a button, and compose and jam together in real time from places that span the globe. Each of these professions can do more of what they do best in ways that take less time and effort than most in their fields would have imagined a short time ago. They have been empowered to take their crafts to another level, elevating their professions, increasing their reach, and allowing them to serve (well) people who previously would have been denied the opportunity.

We have the ability to do the same for our teachers and our students. We can put the resources of the world at their fingertips just when they want and need them, diagnose their needs and preferences at a pace, scale, and level of granularity and with so little burden that our current testing and evaluation debates will become anachronisms, and make teaching even more impactful, more sustainable, and more interesting for both teachers and students. However, this will not happen on its own or simply by holding teachers more accountable or by just putting technology in their hands or the hands of their students. These are necessary but insufficient conditions.

Research, Development and Innovation have been the keys to transformative improvements in almost every sector. Education underinvests in R&D relative to each of them. The U.S. defense and health R&D budgets are somewhere between 50 and 100 times bigger than the education R&D budget. This is not only inconsistent with our stated values and our highest aspirations; it is also counter to our national interests. As President Obama said, “we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

Within the next four years, we can construct a new infrastructure for research, development, and innovation in education, leveraging technology to not only enhance learning but to accelerate the pace at which we learn about learning. For the first time in history, digital learning will allow us to (cost effectively) study the process of learning at greater levels of detail and insight than just the outcomes of learning, and to come to conclusions empirically on critical questions that have remained the fodder of ideological debates for as long as any of us can remember.

And, when we do, teachers will be empowered by new research, new tools, and greater capabilities, making their lives and those of the students, whom they touch, better for it.

No one asks if we invest in R&D to render doctors irrelevant or engineers or farmers for that matter.  To the contrary, their associations advocate for more investment in R&D for their sectors. But who is advocating on behalf of educators, education and our children?

Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton, in a TEDx Mid-Atlantic talk last October, outlines a new infrastructure for learning about learning – one that capitalizes on digital learning’s potential to help all children, and adults, achieve their full potential.

Jim Shelton is the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement.

February 6th is Digital Learning Day, a national celebration of educators that shines a spotlight on successful instructional technology practice in classrooms across the country. Participation is free, and a highlight is the National Digital Town Hall that will be simulcast live from the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Digital Engagement at Home Increases Early Math Skills

Digital learning games based on “Curious George” and “The Cat in the Hat” can boost preschoolers’ math knowledge and skills, making them better prepared for entry into kindergarten. That’s the finding of a new research study from WestEd that engaged low-income parents and their preschool children with online games and at-home activities from PBS KIDS. The study, along with other support for PBS KIDS, was made possible by a grant from the Office of Innovation and Improvement’s Ready to Learn Television (RTL) program. 

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Incentive Prizes Target Middle-School Math Achievement

School leaders in New York City are soliciting the best ideas for technology-based approaches to help middle school students excel in math through the Gap App Challenge, announced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott earlier this month. The competition, which will award $104,000 in prizes and services in June, is part of the city’s education department’s Innovation Zone (iZone), a consortium of schools committed to personalizing learning. Its efforts are supported through a $3 million Investing in Innovation (i3) Development grant from the Office of Innovation and Improvement. i3 Development grants support promising but relatively untested projects with high potential for impact on student achievement.

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From Innovation Clusters to Datapalooza

“By accelerating the pace of innovation in educational technology, we will have the opportunity to close the achievement gap, improve national competitiveness, and drive economic growth,” according to Richard Culatta, deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology, in the November/December 2012 issue ofEDUCAUSEreview. Find out how innovations from fields outside of education — innovation clusters from bioscience and open data initiatives from the health care industry, for example — can point the way to the desired acceleration. Click here to read “From Innovation Clusters to Datapalooza: Accelerating Innovation in Educational Technology.”

Transmedia Approach to Early Math Launches Outreach Phase

“They’ve successfully hidden the peas in the mashed potatoes.” That’s how Andy Ackerman of the Manhattan Children’s Museum describes the creative way that UMIGO—yoU Make It GO—successfully combines entertaining media with the concepts and practices of math for elementary-aged children. Parliament Funkadelic music legend Bootsy Collins joined children and their parents on Oct. 4, at the Manhattan Children’s Museum to introduce this first-of-its-kind transmedia (using multiple media platforms to advance a fictional story with characters and events) venture and to announce its national outreach launch in 10 cities.

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Panel Shows What’s Possible in Education Technology

Last Monday, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and committee member Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado co-sponsored a briefing on innovation in public education through the use of learning technologies. More than 50 Senate staff members came to hear from a panel I moderated that featured leaders in the ed tech field.

The panelists, Dr. Stephen Elliott (founding director of the Learning Sciences Institute at Arizona State University), Jennie Niles (founder of the DC-based E.L. Haynes Public Charter School), and Jeremy Roberts (director of technology for PBS Kids Interactive), all concurred that the promise of technology to transform education has fallen short of expectations for the past two to three decades. However, they also all agree that we are finally at a time where many factors are converging to overcome historic barriers: increasingly ubiquitous broadband, cheaper devices, digital content, cloud computing, big data, and generally higher levels of comfort with technology among the general population.   

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Feature: What Role Can Online COPs – Communities of Practice – Play in Achieving Teacher Excellence?

As 2012 unfolds, the Department of Education continues to pursue an important question for closing the achievement gap: How can online communities of practice (COPs) best address some of the most pressing challenges in P-12 education? For the past year, a multi-pronged effort by the Department’s Offices of Innovation and Improvement (OII) and Educational Technology (OET) has pursued several critical issues associated with that question.

Following the 2010 release of the National Education Technology Plan, “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology,” the OET outlined best practices for managing online communities of practice in a report entitled “Connect and Inspire.” The report employed both research literature and observations of mature communities of practice to describe ways that online COPs can help educators access, share, and create knowledge, as well as build a professional identity that goes beyond what is possible face-to-face.

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Educational Assessment Technology Standards

Can you imagine if someone with a Yahoo email address couldn’t send a message to someone who used Gmail? It may sound crazy, but that is similar to the current situation in educational assessment. When new, improved, and more efficient products come out that better meets State and district needs, they struggle to take advantage of those innovations without losing access to past information and tools. Common educational assessment technology standards can help.

The State consortia building next-generation assessment systems under the Race to the Top Assessment program, the General Supervision Enhancement Grant program, and the Enhanced Assessment Grant program must:

  • Develop all assessment items to an industry-recognized open-licensed interoperability standard, without non-standard extensions or additions; and
  • Produce all student-level data in a manner consistent with an industry-recognized open-licensed interoperability standard.

Attached is a draft document detailing what that requires ― what kinds of common standards are needed so that States and districts can freely choose the best technology vendors based on their efficient, effective, economical, and innovative assessment platforms. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is asking for feedback on the attached proposed framework, which is based on the public feedback received last winter to a Request for Information on this topic.

Just to be clear ― all educational assessment technology interoperability standards and practice must be consistent with relevant privacy laws and regulations. No matter what solutions States, districts, and schools use, they must protect personally identifiable information.

ED wants your thoughts on whether this framework includes the appropriate areas for standardization to permit interoperability and spur innovation. We encourage all interested parties to submit opinions, ideas, suggestions, and comments pertaining to educational assessment interoperability by commenting below or emailing RacetotheTop.Assessment@ed.gov by November 7, 2011.

The fine print: Posts must be related to educational assessment interoperability, should be as specific as possible, and, as appropriate, be supported by data/relevant research. All opinions, ideas, suggestions and comments are considered informal input. ED will not respond to individual comments or emails, will publicly display all those that are appropriate, and may or may not reflect input provided in the policies and requirements of the Department. If you include a link to additional information in your post, please ensure that the linked-to information is accessible to all individuals, including individuals with disabilities. This is a moderated site. That means all comments will be reviewed before posting. Additionally, please do not include links to advertisements or endorsements; we will delete all such links before posting your comment.

ED intends to post all responsive submissions in a timely manner. We reserve the right not to post comments that are unrelated to this request, are inconsistent with ED’s Web site policies, are advertisements or endorsements, or are otherwise inappropriate. To protect your own privacy and the privacy of others, please do not include personally identifiable information such as Social Security numbers, addresses, phone numbers or email addresses in the body of your comment. For more information, please be sure to read the “comments policy” details at http://www.ed.gov/blog/comments-policy.

Again, thank you for your interest in this opportunity to expand educational assessment interoperability. We look forward to hearing from you.

Draft Document [PDF, 1.8MB]

Comments received [PDF, 2.76MB]

Keeping the Promise of a World-Class Education Through the Power of Technology

“We are rallying the full forces of the federal government, academia, entrepreneurs, the technology sector, and researchers … to fundamentally re-imagine learning,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as he announced the launch of Digital Promise at the White House on September 16.   “There’s no silver bullet when it comes to education,” observed President Obama on the occasion of the launch, “but technology can be a powerful tool, and Digital Promise will help to make the most of it.”

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