Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

White House Launches “Digital Promise,” a National Learning Center

September 16th, 2011 / in big science, research horizons, Research News, resources / by Erwin Gianchandani

(This post has been updated; please scroll down for the latest.)
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announcing the Digital Promise moments ago at the White House [image courtesy The White House].

Moments ago at the White House, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Deputy Director Tom Kalil, Congressman John Yarmouth (D-Ky.), Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and a bright young 11-year-old from New York City launched Digital Promise a new national center created by Congress and supported with funds from the Department of Education, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation — to advance technologies to transform learning and education.

As part of the announcement, National Science Foundation (NSF) Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Farnam Jahanian, together with NSF’s Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources (EHR) Joan Ferrini-Mundy, highlighted $15 million in awards (to more than 30 institutions) the Foundation has recently made to support fundamental research in learning technologies. These projects — part of NSF’s larger $40 million investment in “Cyberlearning: Transforming Education” research — “cover a wide range of areas and show deep creativity by the research community” in attempting to explore information technology that has “the promise of transforming our schools and enhancing lives,” Jahanian said.

The government officials gathered for the announcement cited space travel, the Internet, and Google as examples of past successes of fundamental information technology R&D. “With dedication, collaboration, and sometimes most critical, Federal investment, technology can be transformative,” Yarmouth said. “In the twentieth century, there was a direct correlation between America leading the world and information technology innovation.”

And it’s time to bring that success to our nation’s education system. Secretary Duncan emphasized that the “digital revolution in education will require significant research and development… [We must] raise the bar and level the playing field. We all know — we all recognize — that there are no silver bullets in education, but we must use every tool at our disposal… to result in game-changing technologies for education.”

As the Secretary put it, the new center seeks to “keep America’s Digital Promise to America’s children” by working with leading educators, researchers, technology firms, and entrepreneurs on three key challenges:

  • NSF/CISE Assistant Director Farnam Jahanian and NSF/EHR Assistant Director Joan Ferrini-Mundy announce the Foundation's recent Cyberlearning awards, totaling $15 million to over 30 institutions [image courtesy The White House].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 breakthroughs in learning from the 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 outdated procurement systems, 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.

Digital Promise - Knowledge. Technology. Possibility. [image courtesy NSF]Accompanying the launch of Digital Promise and NSF’s new investments in cyberlearning are several additional initiatives that seek to collectively enhance learning technologies:

  • The creation of a new League of Innovative Schools throughout the country dedicated to innovation in learning technologies and significant improvements in educational outcomes. The League will explore key steps to help the learning technology market, including rapid testing of promising new technologies; creating a buyers’ consortium to demand better prices and higher quality; and encouraging entrepreneurs to develop game-changing innovations by promising to buy them via “Advanced Market Commitments.”
  • The launch of the 2012 National STEM Video Game Challenge that harnesses the appeal of making and playing video games to foster motivation for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
  • The establishment of an Education Prize by Valve, creator of best-selling video game franchises and leading technologies. Following the release of its highly acclaimed brain-challenging puzzle game Portal 2, Valve will run a competition next year in which middle- and high-school students and teachers will be able to create levels of Portal 2 to be used in the home and classroom while competing for prizes worth $250,000.
  • The uniting of tech firms to provide recommendations and support for Digital Promise. To further the goals of Digital Promise, TechAmerica Foundation — through an effort dubbed the Recommendations for Education and Advancement of Learning (REAL) Agenda — will assemble a commission of technology leaders and outline a set of initial R&D and policy priorities for the inaugural years of Digital Promise.

We can “completely change the way children learn, revolutionize education, and strengthen our nation,” Yarmouth said. “The decade of work that got us to this point will surely pale in comparison to [the decade that] lies ahead.”

For more details, see a recent White House Blog post about today’s announcement, a fact sheet about Digital Promise, and the Digital Promise website.

(And be sure to check out the CCC’s Learning Technology Visioning Activity, which produced a roadmap last spring describing the important research directions for learning technology in the months and years ahead.)


Updated Friday, Sept. 16, at 11:44am EDT: The NSF has issued a press release touting the innovative research projects and prototypes recently funded through its Cyberlearning: Transforming Education program. Among them:

  • “GeoGames” that help students analyze data across geographical areas to solve real-world challenges;
  • Robots that use non-verbal cues to teach vocabulary to children;
  • Systems that create augmented reality for learners with hearing disabilities to support their learning; and
  • Online tutors that assess a student’s real-time comprehension and tailor learning strategies to improve achievement.

Also from the press release:

“Amplifying, expanding and transforming opportunities for effective learning, and better attracting, motivating and engaging young learners are among society’s central challenges,” said Ferrini-Mundy. “Participating actively as a citizen and productively in the workforce requires understanding science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts and the ability to collaborate, learn, solve problems and make decisions.”


“We are in a very exciting time,” added Jahanian, “Realizing the promise of a new technology depends on more than inventing new tools or resources. Success also depends on designing the ways they will be used and integrated into learning, and on research on learning in technology-rich environments.”

See the full text here.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

White House Launches “Digital Promise,” a National Learning Center