Federal government launches ‘Digital Promise’ to foster new educational technologies

Do U.S. schools need an infusion of digital technology to transform teaching and learning? A new nonprofit center known as “Digital Promise” thinks so, and it will help fund the development of new technology like learning software and educational games in schools across the country. The center, created by Congress and launched on Friday, hopes to make it easier for public and private companies to pilot digital-centered curricula in classrooms. It was founded, according to its website, “to spur breakthrough technologies that can help transform the way teachers teach and students learn.”

U.S. Congressman John Yarmuth (D-KY) — a major force in bringing Digital Promise to life — introduced the new center at the White House on September 15th, where U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan shared details on technological advancements in other countries.

South Korea, for example, is committed to having no textbooks in classrooms by 2015. In Uruguay, there is a laptop for every student, said Duncan, who posed the question, “Will the United States lead or lag behind?”

Duncan and others highlighted digital successes in North Carolina and New York City, and other speakers described a move toward a competency-based learning environment enhanced by technology rather than a time-based one, which plans lessons based on hours of instruction, not students’ level of understanding.

It’s a concept that Michael Horn — founder of Innosight Institute and a contributor to Forbes.com — agrees with.

Digital Promise comes into being at a time when increased spending on educational technologies is under scrutiny. A front-page article earlier this month in The New York Times described how scores on standardized tests have remained flat in digital classrooms, on average, despite in many cases an investment of millions of dollars. The story caused a stir in the education policy world, and renewed the discussion about technology’s potential to transform teaching and learning.

John Merrow, president of Learning Matters and education correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, said teachers must know how to use technology to enrich students’ learning experiences. Merrow went on to suggest that the $10-12 billion a year that the country spends on technology in schools is largely wasted, in large part because of “unimaginative uses of the technology, essentially digital versions of routine stuff.”

Among other activities, Digital Promise will form partnerships with entrepreneurial start-ups that are developing educational software. For example, video-game company Valve Corp. will create educational video-game competitions in physics.

Funders for Digital Promise include the U.S. Department of Education, the Carnegie Corporation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Disclosure: the Carnegie Corporation is among The Hechinger Report‘s current funders, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is among the Hechinger Institute’s past funders.)

At the event launching Digital Promise, the National Science Foundation also announced its first round of winners for $15 million in grants as part of its “Cyberlearning: Transforming Education” program.

The Hechinger Report is interested in hearing more views on the growing digital debate in education. In what ways can technology improve teaching and learning?