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.