Partnerships Will Unlock Digital Promise

Newt Minnow proposed Digital Promise a decade ago

While launching an over due edtech center, Duncan gave a great speech on the power of personal digital learning (I suspect Karen Cator gets most of the credit there).  DigitalPromise is supposed to “identify breakthrough technologies, learn faster what’s working and what’s not, and transform the market for learning technologies.”
The launch, and the associated announcements, is all good but I’m not holding my breath that the center will deliver on these monster objectives.  Rather, I think the rhetoric adopted by the secretary may actually be the most important shift evident today.   Duncan described the ‘digital promise’ of customized learning, of extending time and eliminating boundaries, and of expanding access to quality resources to all American students.
While the politicians prepped, Pearson bought Connections.  In the most axiomatic event of the week, online learning went mainstream and the world’s leading education publisher became the world’s leading learning platform and services company.  With investors like Pearson and McGraw and funds like Learn Capital, the market is well on the way to accomplishing the objectives of Digital Promise.
The Department and its philanthropic friends appear willing to maintain the historically skeptical stance toward private enterprise.  Case in point: nine states and a couple foundations are building their own learning management system.  In a market exploding with innovation, it’s hard to understand how a quasi-government platform will be anything but antiquated before launch despite massive investment.  Even if they hit the narrow success window, the process will dampen rather than accelerate private investment for five years.
Instead, a much faster and cheaper approach would be for a state to issue an RFP and describe what they want in the way of a free learning platform.  If they leave a little room for fee-based learning services, they’d get a great platform in three months not three years.
Look around: students, parents, and teachers are adopting great free viral learning apps by the millions.  As singularity scholars Ray Kurzweil suggests, we’re living on an exponential curve of technology development (even in a walled off sector like education)—the future will not be a linear projection of the past.
The big advances that are now possible, like learning platforms, would benefit from public-private-philanthropic partnerships.  Political leaders can set goals, frame markets, and aggregate demand.  Philanthropic leaders can extract risk and focus efforts on equity.  But producing and scaling innovation is a role that belongs to private enterprise.  Profit is not a dirty word—it’s just a return to risk capital for building a capability that works for students and teachers.
Education entrepreneurs already live the digital promise.  Let’s work together to make it the personal digital learning reality.
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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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