Chad Dorsey

Perspective: Distributing Innovation

There are 99,000 public schools in the United States. And there are thousands of software applications and technologies shown by research to help students learn. But despite these numbers, we face an enormous disconnect — much of this good technology is not widely adopted by teachers and schools.

A recent National Research Council (NRC) report1 on using gaming and simulations in science learning noted that for a single software application, commercial educational game companies sell only an average of 200-300 site licenses to schools, a number representing a minuscule fraction of the available schools. With results like this, and in light of the marketing dollars these companies often have to woo potential customers, it’s no wonder that research-based software products developed with federal funding frequently reach very few schools.

Ignoring this problem runs the risk of leaving innovations by the wayside, discarding valuable solutions and lessons, and squandering taxpayer dollars. As computers and technology platforms become widely available in schools, it is incumbent upon us all to ensure that this technology is used in the best possible ways for as many students as possible, encouraging wide support of deeply digital learning rather than settling for shallow or piecemeal solutions.

But how do we do this? Rapidly changing technology combined with the complexities of education has long created a truly wicked problem, one we won’t quickly crack open. We can, however, identify some of the core barriers that stand in the way of our vision. Two of the most central of these barriers are the difficulty in establishing distribution of software to schools and the complex transition from initial research and development projects to products that teachers can use effectively.

The distribution problem

One of the principal problems complicating the question of scaling educational technology innovations is the basic question of distribution. Though the new ideas derived from federally funded work have very important impact on their own, it’s hard to sidestep the argument that federal funding supports many quality educational software applications every year, and that teachers and students can benefit most by actually using them. This, of course, requires getting the software into their hands. Federally funded projects developing educational technology are required to disseminate their work and results, but precious few dollars in any budget are designated or approved for marketing these projects or supporting their wide distribution.

This dilemma hits at a seminal point in the history of distribution. Dramatic changes in recent years have ignited an explosion of convenience and availability, as mobile platforms have driven the development of app stores and marketplaces and turned once complex installations into simple — even enjoyable — single click processes. The success of these stores can’t be ignored. The iTunes App Store and the Android Market each have hundreds of thousands of apps. The pervasiveness of this model is its true importance. The revolution has brought the concept far beyond the mobile platforms that launched it. Internet-connected television players such as Roku or Google TV bring easy-install processes straight into your living room, while Ford’s SYNC system brings connections to app store products onto your car’s dashboard. Recently, this revolution has expanded to the realm of desktop and Web-based applications. The Google Apps Marketplace enables administrators of its productivity software to install new Web applications easily across many users, and the recently launched Mac App Store brings this same experience to desktop software.

While there would certainly be no shortage of devilish details, an app store-like distribution channel for educational technology applications would be a distinct boon for independent developers and groups. Such an avenue would bring these groups together into a single location where teachers could easily discover, try, and adopt vetted simulations, games, or technology-based curricula. In its report, the NRC identified the lack of distribution channels as the primary barrier to widespread use of educational simulations and games in science education, suggesting the app store concept as a useful model to consider. Implementing this idea effectively would indeed be no small feat, but for as many potential roadblocks as we might list, we can uncover an equal number of valuable opportunities:

Teachers and schools could discover new applications and curriculum quickly and easily. Busy teachers and schools need easy access to quality materials and curricula that support identified learning goals. A distribution channel could help gather these in one place.

Software could be deployed more easily across multiple schools and classrooms. A modicum of standardization in such a distribution channel could help clarify system requirements and possibly even facilitate the process of deploying desktop-based software in schools. This could also help address the concerns of school or district information technology staff, who are charged with keeping school computers safe and reliable.

Professional development and support could be purchased together with software. New technologies require teachers to learn the ins and outs of software and frequently demand new thinking about pedagogy or the teacher’s role in the classroom. With a central distribution channel for software, districts or schools could purchase professional development packages together with software, increasing the odds that teachers would receive this needed training. Such professional development could even be supplied online within the same channel.

Educational research could benefit and teachers could be better informed. With a central hub for educational technology, research data could find a central home as well. Participating teachers and students could provide secure and anonymized data for ongoing research. And reports on student use of resources could help provide up-to-the-minute information to guide teachers’ decisions about instruction.

A community gathering place could be self-reinforcing. Many examples have shown the benefits of gathering interested communities online. Efforts in educational technology have begun, but have not yet gained critical mass. A central hub for distribution could provide a useful impetus to spur this community, leading to a wider range of development, improved quality of open source work, and a natural location for exchange and development of ideas, applications, and platforms.

Supporting scale-up

Such a grand vision needs to be ushered forward by multiple organizations, and it has no chance to become reality without a source of sustained support and funding. Ideally, a vision would encompass more than simply a distribution location, but would instead concentrate on the larger underlying problem: supporting quality projects in making the transition from initial research and development work to widely established educational products. A center or location with resources and time dedicated to this could help ensure that federal educational technology investments are given a fighting chance to be discovered and implemented. It could gather our best knowledge about how to scale innovations, supply blueprints for success to projects in their infancy, and match academic or nonprofit developers with partners to drive commercialization. A center could reach far beyond distribution, spurring innovation and establishing an entire new sector merging education and technology. Eventually, it could attract ongoing industry support or venture capital investment to help ensure sustainability.

The recently proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education might provide one means of supporting such goals. Or federal sources such as the National Science Foundation could define and fund a locus for researching and supporting the scale-up of federally funded projects in educational technology. With strong support behind a solid vision, high-quality, research-based projects could gain footing and distribution alongside current commercial options, open source software could be easily distributed to many thousands of schools, and a burgeoning community could rally to improve education. Our nation’s dedicated schools, teachers, and students deserve nothing less.

1 National Research Council. Honey, M. & Hilton, M. (Eds.). (2011). Learning science through computer games and simulations. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Chad Dorsey ( is President of the Concord Consortium.