New High-Tech Teaching Center, Pushed by Congress, Lacks Funds

August 20, 2008

The major higher-education bill approved by Congress last month authorized a new nonprofit corporation to develop novel uses of information technology to improve teaching and learning across all of education.

However, Congress has yet to provide money for the center to operate, and some educational analysts are questioning whether the proponents are focusing too narrowly on technological fixes.

Advocates for the corporation, which would be called the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies, developed an ambitious vision for how it could help "transform" teaching, financing projects such as three-dimensional simulations of abstract concepts. But they may have to settle for a more-modest effort. Early plans called for a dedicated endowment of $20-billion, generating annual income of $1-billion for operations. Instead, faced with a tight federal budget, proponents are initially seeking only $50-million in the 2009 fiscal year, which begins in October.

The new corporation, which was endorsed by several higher-education associations, was included in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The corporation's nine-member board would be chosen by the secretary of education and Congressional leaders.

Unmet Research Needs

The act (HR 4137) authorizes the center to make grants to universities, for-profit companies, and other entities, like museums and libraries, to accomplish its goals. Those include developing prototypes for educational products that others could use and market. Corporations and the federal government have not stepped up to support such research, according to a 2003 report to Congress.

"Education's highly fragmented markets, coupled with tight budgets, make it difficult for businesses to make the kinds of investments in educational software that they have been made in software for other markets," said the report, written jointly by an advocacy group, the Digital Promise Project, and the Federation of American Scientists.

Government efforts have also been piecemeal, says the report, "Creating the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust: A Proposal to Transform Learning and Training for the 21st Century."

Various federal agencies support research and development on teaching and learning, it says. But much of that work is too fundamental in nature and too small scale to be useful in a classroom setting, and does not add up to a comprehensive approach across all academic disciplines. For example, the National Science Foundation, a leading supporter of such research, focuses on tools for teaching science and engineering.

America spends $280-million annually from all sources for research and development in education and training, the federation estimated.

Although plans for the center appear grand, the vision actually may be too narrow, says Susan B. Millar, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who studies science education.

The 2003 report by Digital Promise appears to offer technology as a "silver bullet" to fix underperforming schools and colleges, she said, but there are other nontechnical barriers.

New Methods Ignored

Ms. Millar's research indicates that university scholars have already developed a wealth of better teaching methods, including ones using technology, but academic institutions and schools have failed to adopt many of them because of institutional and cultural roadblocks (The Chronicle, August 3, 2007). (She is helping to lead a committee examining those obstacles.) Ms. Millar said she worries that the new center might produce snazzier technology-based teaching tools that won't be used until that broader problem is dealt with.

"It seems like they're saying, 'We will build it, and they will come,'" she said. "Sometimes that works, and lots of times, it doesn't."

But the center has friends in Congress, and the project's proponents will next need to persuade them to give up some money to start work. Early plans called for the center's $20-billion endowment to come from the auction of public-broadcast spectrum. However, Congressional sponsors shelved that plan because many interests are vying for that revenue, and making the center's creation dependent on it might have prevented the center from being created at all, said Stuart Perelmuter, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat who helped push the legislation.

Congress's Democratic leaders have said they expect to delay appropriations bills for 2009 until after the presidential election because they and President Bush have been at loggerheads over spending priorities.

The center's supporters may have their work cut out for them: Congress has a mixed record in recent years of actually ponying up dollars for the research-and-development efforts it has authorized.