Perspective: Forging the Future: a Three-fold Path

By Chad Dorsey

We are at one of the most exciting—and critical—junctures in the history of educational technology. Rapidly developing technology platforms and devices open doorways for new applications and bring futuristic scenarios into daily reality. Huge venture capital investments and intense interest from education communities fuel an atmosphere of high expectation and excitement. Lessons from decades of learning research amplify the potential for new ideas to make a true difference. We increasingly feel ourselves standing on the brink of something very big.

Chad Dorsey is President of the Concord Consortium.

However, we’ve been at this brink before, only to see the moment’s potential pass unrealized. In order to ensure that we seize this opportunity for meaningful impact, we must cultivate a number of possibilities simultaneously.

Building the future through directed development

Educational technology (so-called “cyberlearning”) has become widely supported by federal dollars, especially for STEM learning. This funding—primarily from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Education—provides the lion’s share of support for the work that we at the Concord Consortium and most of our colleagues do regularly. It also represents the nation’s most vital source of new ideas in educational technology. Yet as important as this funding is, it leaves some very wide gaps.

Funding from these agencies is focused on one area: basic and applied research, which is designed to build knowledge and to inform policy and practice. These paired agendas, essential as they are, move on a deliberate timeline that typically measures its progress in units of decades. Yet this work plays against today’s societal backdrop of radical technological transformation, where changes and new ideas—in devices, startups and even in classrooms—occur on practically a monthly basis. Other sectors recognize the need to address working solutions rapidly, and most invest between 2% and 10% of their overall expenditures on novel R&D. In contrast, education invests barely 0.2%. Further, almost none of this proportionally minuscule investment goes toward directed development to solve specific problems and needs.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology highlighted the need to support such innovative development years ago. The administration has responded, repeatedly suggesting a solution as a tangible budget request: the creation of an independent agency for directed development. This agency, named ARPA-Ed, would fund game-changing technology innovation. It’s an important idea with plenty of precedent: both the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its cousin ARPA-E, founded in 2009 to support energy-related projects, have led to innovations as world-changing as the Internet itself. As a similar organization for education, operating with flexibility and independence, ARPA-Ed could create a wealth of new solutions, from core technologies to new curricula and models for teaching and learning. As a first step toward making the most of our current moment, this organization must be fully funded and supported now.

Supporting deeply digital learning

A core element of future innovation in the optimal use of educational technology is the development of high-quality examples for teaching and learning. We must use technology not simply for technology’s sake, nor in shallow applications that result in glorified PDFs or surface-level interactivity and social engagement. Instead, in our second step toward tomorrow, we must develop examples that demonstrate how technology can make a difference for deep learning across time, in ways that leverage all we know about effective teaching and learning. Technology-based approaches must be deeply digital, employing rich models and simulations for in-depth student inquiry, facilitating data collection and investigation with probes and sensors, building in new forms of collaboration, providing feedback on student learning, enabling flexible approaches for a variety of teaching styles and much more.

Currently, federally funded projects supply the best representations of this type of learning. However, federal funding mechanisms limit these resources to individual projects, resulting in a set of unrelated products that lack coherence and continuity. Though private companies are building more complete solutions, it is not at all clear that their development can support true innovation or sufficiently integrate research-based understanding of teaching and learning. Instead, we need to see how deeply digital learning looks in extended situations across time and topics. This will require solutions that resemble courses rather than activities, either developed as complete projects or coherently assembled from a series of independent modules. Until this is fully supported, innovation in STEM teaching and learning will continue to suffer. Identifying the means to fund these solutions must become a priority.

Sustaining research-based work by bridging the gap to industry

We are building many great innovations for teaching and learning every year. However, these examples are supported only up through their initial development. Federal dollars such as those from NSF programs do not provide funding for the sustainability of these resources, nor do they include provisions or requirements for ensuring that sustainability is factored into the creation of these projects. As a result, promising innovations are lost every year when their creators do not have the time or receive the support needed to keep them funded. From the other side, private industry groups, such as publishers with wide distribution channels, frequently have no way to discover that these resources exist, let alone benefit from the research base that created them. As a result, publishers and new media distributors go on to develop independent programs that may be less effective than research-based solutions, while the promise of millions of research dollars every year sits unrealized.

It should come as no surprise that no mechanism exists to support the translation of resources from federally supported research and development to industry use. Without one, these two fields simply continue, out of habit and necessity, within their own independent spheres. But if we are to generate the true impact our taxpayer dollars and research efforts demand, this pattern needs to change. As the third of our three action steps, we need to create an intermediary that can correct this situation. A new organization, overlapping both spheres, would work with the research community early in their projects’ life cycles to help identify goals that foster sustainability or large-scale use. It would also work with industry partners and distribution channels to identify industry needs and time frames and match them with research innovations that show promise. Such an organization would likely need an infusion of seed money to become established, but would quickly transition to become self-sustaining through service-based fees charged to the two sectors it would bridge.

The course is set, and now we must act. All of these three steps are needed. Any one of them in itself would bring important benefits. But their power is especially evident in combination— taken together at this critical juncture, they could launch us on a new trajectory entirely. By moving boldly to accelerate directed development, create high-quality curricular examples and bridge the results of research to widespread impact, we can turn this moment of opportunity into lasting change and set the nation on an upward track for generations to come.


Chad Dorsey (cdorsey@concord.org) is President of the Concord Consortium.

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