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Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Netflix Founder Reed Hastings Announce “Digital Promise”

U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan and Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings just gave a huge shot in the arm to the Education Tech community this morning, with an OpEd column in The Wall Street Journal this morning. They explain how some new ideas can boost student achievement in the U.S., which is stagnating compared to economic competitors like China and India.

Imagine, though, an online high-school physics course that uses videogame graphics power to teach atomic interactions, or a second-grade online math curriculum that automatically adapts to individual students’ levels of knowledge. All of this will happen. The only question is: Will the U.S. lead the effort or will we follow other countries?

In the past two decades, technology has revolutionized the way Americans communicate, get news, socialize and conduct business. But technology has yet to transform our classrooms. At its full potential, technology could personalize and accelerate instruction for students of all educational levels. And it could provide equitable access to a world-class education for millions of students stuck attending substandard schools in cities, remote rural regions, and tribal reservations.

They point to South Korea as a country that’s outperforming the U.S. with 21st-century classrooms. It plans to get rid of textbooks and replace them with digital products by 2015. They point to countries like Uruguay that give a computer to each student.

It is no secret that advances in educational technology have been hailed as breakthroughs in the past, only to disappoint. Too often, the market for educational technology has been inefficient and fragmented. The nation’s 14,000 school districts, more than a few of which have byzantine procurement systems, have been inefficient consumers and have failed to drive consistent demand. And a robust R&D base for improving and refining educational technology has been sadly lacking.

To help remedy those gaps, the Department of Education is launching a unique public-private partnership called Digital Promise.

Digital Promise is a bipartisan initiative that will be sustained primarily by the private sector. It was created by a law signed by President George W. Bush. Federal seed money will fund the program’s start-up, but it will be overseen by a board that includes business executives—such as John Morgridge, the chairman emeritus of Cisco, and Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qualcomm—who will work with researchers, educators and other private-sector leaders.

They say the Digital Promise aims to find breakthrough technologies that will transform teaching and learning. They want to build a market for education technology. They point out that education currently spends less than .2% on research and development.

To spur more R&D, Digital Promise can promote the rapid testing of new products modeled after Internet companies such as Netflix, which use low-cost experimentation to improve their products. Thankfully, educational technologies already have the potential to quickly identify what works to boost learning and refine tools that need improvement.

WSJ Article:

By Obama-Biden Transition Project via Flickr under Creative Commons


From the Ed. Dept. web site and press release:


Today, the White House and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the launch of “Digital Promise,” a new national center created by Congress with bipartisan support to advance technologies to transform teaching and learning. Digital Promise will receive startup funds from the Department of Education as well as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. It will be overseen by board made up of prominent leaders in education and technology appointed by Secretary Duncan based on recommendations from the House of Representatives and United States Senate.

Digital Promise will work with leading researchers, entrepreneurs, and schools to identify and spur breakthrough learning technologies, determine quickly what’s working and what’s not, and transform today’s fragmented learning technology market, paving the way for the widespread use of learning technologies that deliver the best results for students, parents, and teachers. These efforts build upon the President’s call to create jobs by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building the rest of the world, including the Administration’s efforts to bring all of America’s schools into the 21st century.

To realize the potential of learning technology, Digital Promise will work with educators and leading researchers, technology firms, and entrepreneurs on three key challenges:

    • Identifying Breakthrough Technologies. For years, researchers have been working on developing educational software that is as effective as a personal tutor. Preliminary results from a DARPA/Navy “digital tutor” project suggest that we can reduce the time required to become an expert in IT from years to months. Achieving similar results in subjects such as math would transform K-12 education. Digital Promise will begin its work by partnering with technology firms and researchers to map the R&D landscape, identifying opportunities for similar breakthroughs in learning from cradle through a career.


    • Learning faster what’s working and what’s not. Internet startups do rapid evaluations of their sites, running test after test to continually improve their services. When it comes to education, R&D cycles can take years, producing results that are out of date the minute they’re released. Digital Promise will work with researchers and entrepreneurs to develop new approaches for rapidly evaluating new products.


    • Transforming the market for learning technologies. With more than 14,000 school districts, and an outdated procurement system, it’s difficult for entrepreneurs to break into the market, and it’s also tough to prove that their products can deliver meaningful results. Meanwhile, the amount we invest in R&D in K-12 education is estimated at just 0.2% of total spending on K-12 education, compared to 10-20% of revenues spent on R&D in many knowledge-intensive industries such as software development and biotech. Digital Promise will work with school districts to create “smart demand” that drives private sector investment in innovation.


Today, Secretary Duncan announced the inaugural board members of Digital Promise and the Administration made several additional announcements, including $15M in new awards from the National Science Foundation to support research that is developing next-generation learning environments. In addition, a number of private-sector partners announced an array of related efforts, including an initiative by schools and school districts to improve educational outcomes through the wider use of effective teaching and learning technologies; the launch of a new national alliance of top education-policy researchers focused on improving outcomes among the Nation’s disadvantaged children; and a number of new challenges and prizes for the development of video games and other forms of digital entertainment that spur learning and interest in science, math, and engineering.

Today’s event will be livestreamed at 10:00 a.m. ET For further details about Digital Promise and related initiatives please visit and



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