U.S. Ed. Department’s Ed-Tech Nonprofit Was Born This Week: #TBT

By Benjamin Herold — September 18, 2014 3 min read
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Three years ago this week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the launch of Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to identifying, supporting, and spreading innovations in learning technology.

My predecessors at Digital Education had the story:

The center will receive start-up funding from the U.S. Department of Education as well as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and will be overseen by a board of ed-tech leaders selected based on Congressional recommendations. "Today marks an incredibly important turning point," Duncan said at a White House announcement. "The level of talent in this room today is pretty extraordinary." Both the Carnegie Corporation and Hewlett Foundation also contribute funding to Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit publisher of Education Week. The National Science Foundation will also be one of the first contributors to the effort, announcing today $15 million in awards to support research on how best to create contemporary, digital learning environments... The announcement is one of the most visible in a string of efforts from the Education Department to act as a facilitator of education technology in the absence of new, significant federal funding.

On Wednesday, I caught up with Karen Cator, now Digital Promise’s president and CEO (and formerly an Apple exec and the director of the U.S. education department’s office of educational technology). In addition to talking up the progress her organization has made, Cator said the rapid proliferation of digital tablets into schools and the increasingly affordability of one-to-one student computing have in a short period dramatically changed the nature of the ed-tech innovations Digital Promise looks to support.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

What spurred the creation of Digital Promise in 2011?

In 2010, [the Obama administration] launched the National Educational Technology Plan. In the plan was a chapter that included the ideas about having the opportunity to do advanced research projects, to try innovative things. So launching [Digital Promise] was an opportunity to make good on one of the recommendations included in that plan.

What has the organization accomplished so far?

One of the big ideas was the League of Innovative Schools. It was one of our first initiatives, involving a group of superintendents who banded together and said, ‘Let’s work on innovative practices, integrating technology, focusing on leadership.’ As of next week, we’ll have 57 school district superintendents who are members.

[They have] provided us a whole series of examples of what an innovative learning environment looks like. One district might focus on early learning and how tablet computers and very well trained teachers can advance the achievement of very young students. In another place, it might be career and technical education, infused with coding, design challenges, and maker spaces [where students are encouraged to do hands-on building work.] The biggest thing the League has given us is multiple examples of where compelling things are happening.

When Secretary Duncan announced the launch of Digital Promise, he talked not just about schools, but also about the private sector, saying the organization would “help spur breakthrough learning technologies” (see video below.) How has that part of the work gone?

I would say one of the visions for Digital Promise is to be able to advance research projects, specific projects that would solve a challenge in education.

[In addition], the League of Innovative Schools covers now up to 3.2 million students. Within that context a lot of people do come to us to show the products they’re building, and they would love places to try it out. We just finished a market-research study focused on connecting with both the supply side, developers, and entrepreneurs, asking them [about] the procurement practices of school districts, and likewise we asked district personnel about their procurement practices and whether there could be [improvement] in ways they find, acquire, and implement new technologies.

What has surprised you about the work?

One of the continued challenges is the degree to which research can support both the work of entrepreneurs and work of practitioners. There are tremendous advances in what we know about how people learn, from emerging neuroscience and things like that, but the degree to which that information finds its way to entrepreneurs and practitioners is particularly challenging.

What’s next?

There will be continued expansion of the League of Innovative Schools. We also launched an initiative called Digital Promise schools, where we’re doing deep implementation with eight middle schools in county. That’s just starting right now. Part of the project is to implement, and the other part is to document so that other people can follow along...and think through challenges and strategies for implementing a tablet-based initiative. And we’ll bring it all to life through stories.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the number of school districts soon to be participating in the League of Innovative Schools. The correct number is 57.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest (and oldest!) news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.