School & District Management

Obama Unveils Education Research Initiative Modeled on DARPA

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 14, 2011 5 min read
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As part of a drive to ramp up education innovation, the White House in its 2012 budget proposed creating a $90 million education research initiative modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the government agency that’s perhaps best known for creating the forerunner of the Internet.

Most of the details of the ARPA-ED project were still under wraps Monday, but James H. Shelton III, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, said the agency would follow DARPA’s research model, which differs from that of traditional education research groups like the Institute of Education Sciences or the National Science Foundation. DARPA operates outside of typical grant frameworks, using interdisciplinary teams and contractors working on projects.

“The notion is to fill a critical gap we have in the R & D infrastructure for education—the ability to do directed development, the way DARPA does, using cutting-edge technology and research to solve specific high-leverage problems,” Mr. Shelton said.

The notion of a DARPA-style education project has been “kicked around for a number of years” by officials in the Education Department, DARPA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Economic and Domestic Policy councils. In fact, the project was announced Feb. 4—not by the Education Department—but by Gene Sperling, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, as part of a new version of the White House’s two-year-old Strategy for American Innovation. While ARPA-ED would be an Education Department initiative, Mr. Shelton said it could be initially “incubated” in DARPA itself.

“When things are nonclassified, we would be able to share pretty extensively [with DARPA]. It’s one of the great benefits, being able to build on the great work they’ve been doing already,” Mr. Shelton said. “DARPA is doing really exciting work around digital tutors as well as systems that allow for verification and validation of the effectiveness of particular curriculum and instructional approaches.”

The agency’s budget, as described in the fiscal 2012 proposal, would include $50 million in discretionary funding and $40 million in mandatory funds to “pursue breakthrough developments in educational technology and learning systems, support systems for educators, and tools that improve educational outcomes.”

DARPA’s Model

While it’s best known for projects like ARPA-net, the Internet’s precursor, DARPA also has several learning and education-related projects such as a digital adaptive tutor that quickly trains young U.S. Navy recruits in information technology; CS-STEM, a computer-based science project-learning curriculum for middle and high school students; and the International Space Station SPHERES Integrated Research Experiments, or InSPIRE, a $6 million science program that allows high school students to participate in simulations of creating the space station.

At a panel on education innovation held in December at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, Dan Kaufman, the director of DARPA’s Information Innovation Office, said the agency has been exploring more science-of-learning research. “We’re looking at neuroscience in a really, really deep way,” he said, particularly how students’ saturation levels from studying may affect learning.

“You know, when did you hit that burned-out level …[when] you’ve just studied enough,” he explained. “There’s a way to optimize that, so we’re looking at things like that all the way down to are there ways … to improve performance.”

Richard Wainess, a researcher at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California Los Angeles, who has researched differences between military training and civilian commercial video games, said he is not surprised that national security groups have been taking more of an interest in K-12 education in the wake of rising concerns about training needed for new military recruits.

“As they get more technology, they’re going to need fewer people able to just do the casual jobs and more people able to do complex tasks,” he said. “We keep expecting the next generation to understand more and more and more than the last generation.”

Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the Washington-based American Educational Research Association, believes ARPA-ED’s projects may provide inspiration for existing education researchers.

“I think it’s always good to look outside one’s comfortable arena to see other ways of doing things,” Mr. Sroufe said. “We really are kind of provincial, I think, in our models of organizing educational research.”

Translation Issues

At the same time, Mr. Sroufe and other research experts said they are “skeptical” that the DARPA model will translate easily to the education field.

“In the military what we typically will do is find an application through which we can do our research. We will build a product that is useful to a group in the military, and that becomes a research platform for us, to be tested and implemented in the military as a whole,” Mr. Wainess said. “It’s hard to do that in the public arena, to just suddenly say, ‘How about we build a game for your school and your school uses it while we research it?’ There are a lot of logistical and political issues associated with saying, ‘OK, let’s implement your game in our school.’ There’s less of that in the military.”

The funding infrastructure is also different, added Ross Wiener, the executive director of the education and society program at the Aspen Institute. “In the Department of Defense setting, the U.S. military is the client, buying billions of dollars of customized product, and that’s not something that the Education Department seems to be doing.”

Moreover, Mr. Sroufe said he doubted ARPA-ED will get through the appropriations process in the current political climate, in which congressional Republicans have vowed to cut spending and bar new initiatives. A similar DARPA franchise in the U.S. Department of Energy, created in 2007, went unfunded until 2009 it received $400 million through the federal stimulus package. President Obama requested an additional $300 million for the Energy Department ARPA in the fiscal 2011 budget, which has not yet been approved by Congress.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Obama Set to Unveil Education Research Initiative

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