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White House school-technology effort aims to boost learning

By Juliann Francis
Bloomberg News / September 16, 2011

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The Obama administration will create a national center to advance technologies that may improve teaching and learning in US schools, the White House announced.

The board that will oversee the Digital Promise center is made up of technology and education leaders, and aims to close the education gap between US and foreign schools, according to a White House statement.

The Digital Promise is part of Obama’s jobs plan. In a Sept. 8. speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama said part of the initiative involves modernizing 35,000 schools, including installing high-speed Internet connections in classrooms.

“Digital Promise is a unique partnership that will bring everyone together -- educators, entrepreneurs and researchers -- to use technology to help students learn and teachers teach,” Obama said in a statement. “There’s no silver bullet when it comes to education, but technology can be a powerful tool, and Digital Promise will help us make the most of it.”

The initiative will operate as an independent, nonprofit organization created by Congress through the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act. It will receive startup funds and support from the Education Department as well as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, according to the White House.

$15-million awards

“In support of the administration’s initiative, the National Science Foundation” announced “$15 million in new awards to support research that is developing next-generation learning environments,” according to the statement. Those projects include games that help students analyze data, systems to assist students with hearing disabilities and online tutors.

Digital Promise will “support a comprehensive research and development program to harness the increasing capacity of advanced information and digital technologies to improve all levels of learning and education,” according to Digital Promise’s website.

A primary goal of the initiative will be to reform the “outdated procurement system” that prevents technology entrepreneurs from entering the educational market, according to the statement. Currently, $59.8 billion, or 4.5 percent, of the total $1.3 trillion annual US education spending is devoted to technology, including computer-assisted learning and the use of the Internet.

‘Left for dead’

Valve Corp. is the type of company Digital Promise will aim to help, Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan said at a White House event announcing the initiative.

The Bellevue, Washington-based video-game creator, which sells games such as “Portal” and “Left for Dead,” began working with educators after it noticed teachers bringing its products into the classroom, Gabe Newell, co-founder of the company, said at the event. The company wants to “engage and excite children” by modifying some of its popular games to help teach concepts such as physics, he said.

Concepts in the software programming and video-game industry apply to gaming and learning, Newell said. “We have to think about progression, we have to think about pacing,” and the balance between challenging a gamer or student and frustrating them, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Juliann Francis in Washington at