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R&D: Solving Grand Challenge Problems

The model for 21st century learning presented in this plan assumes that we will develop, adopt, and ensure equitable access to a technology-based education system that provides effective learning experiences, assessments, and teaching and a comprehensive infrastructure for learning to support both formal education and all other aspects of learning. It also assumes we will incorporate many of the practices other sectors regularly use to improve productivity and manage costs and will leverage technology to enable or enhance them. We now have considerable knowledge about the essential components of such a system, but that is not the same as developing and deploying them.

In the past, we have relied on public education entities and private companies to develop technology resources and tools for learning. In both these sectors, however, incentives are provided for developing discrete products and services without regard for how they work as parts of a system or for research on their effectiveness. Public education entities can mandate use of their products and services. Commercial enterprises gain market share through compelling value propositions, effective marketing, and broad distribution channels. But research on the effectiveness of learning technology typically comes after products and services have been deployed – when it is too late to result in major improvements – if it comes at all.

If we are to achieve our goal of leading the world in education, we must be leaders in the design and implementation of a more effective education system. To accomplish this, we require an organization with the mission of serving the public good through research and development at the intersection of learning sciences, technology, and education (Pea & Lazowska, 2003). The Higher Education Act (P.L. 110-315) passed in August 2008 authorizes establishment of the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies (also called the Digital Promise). Housed in the Department of Education, the center is authorized as a 501(c)3 that would bring together contributions from the public and private sectors to support the R&D needed to transform learning in America. Federal funding of the center at a level commensurate with its mission should be provided. The Digital Promise’s intent of involving private sector technology companies in precompetitive R&D with the center can be realized only if the government provides the funding that would demonstrate its own commitment to a major program of R&D addressing the complex problems associated with redesigning our education system.

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