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Transforming Education

Obama Administration hopes to invest $90 million to stimulate development of educational technologies

by Linda Wang
July 4, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 27

Credit: Shutterstock
Educational technologies
Credit: Shutterstock

President Barack Obama is proposing to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Education (ARPA-ED) in the Department of Education to spur the transformation of the U.S. educational system through innovative technologies. Modeled after the Defense Department’s successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ARPA-ED is slated to receive $90 million as part of Obama’s 2012 federal budget request. The decision of whether or not to allocate the starter funds, however, now rests with Congress, which is wrestling with setting a tight fiscal 2012 budget.

According to data from the Department of Education, R&D accounts for only 0.2% of total national K–12 expenditures, an amount the Administration argues is too small. “Teachers go into classrooms with many of the same basic tools they had decades ago,” says James H. Shelton III, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement in the Department of Education. “We don’t invest enough in education research and development, and we’ve especially underinvested in breakthrough ­technologies.”

If funded, ARPA-ED would invite industry, universities, and other organizations to compete for grants. Examples of projects that ARPA-ED would support are digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, virtual courses that improve the more students use them, and educational software that is as compelling as the best video game.

“Our hope is that by creating an environment that’s conducive to innovation of all kinds, it will bring out the best that our country has to offer and create new solutions to the problems that have plagued education for some time,” Shelton says.

“Another rationale for why to make these investments at these times is that we’re starting to see some really interesting ideas bubble up from the research community,” says Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

Initial response from the chemical education community has been positive. For example, George M. Bodner, Arthur Kelly Distinguished Professor of Chemical Education at Purdue University and an expert on educational technologies for chemistry, says that he “enthusiastically endorses” ARPA-ED as long as the program satisfies several key criteria: “It must focus on transformational approaches to education rather than pursuing new approaches to training individuals in narrow content domains. It must be built on the foundation of the results of research on how students of different ages learn. It must differentiate between the use of the latest technology and the use of appropriate technology. And it must recognize that the choice of technology for a given task should be dictated by asking, ‘What is that technology particularly good at doing?’ ”

ARPA-ED is not the first agency to be modeled after DARPA. In 2007, Congress created a similar agency for the Department of Energy to support new energy technologies (C&EN, Jan. 4, 2010, page 19). The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (known as ARPA-E) received its first funds—some $400 million—in 2009 as part of the economic stimulus bill and has since funded projects in areas such as advanced technologies that capture carbon from coal-fired power plants, and low-cost batteries for electric vehicles.

The current budget climate, however, is extremely tight, with Congress looking for budget cuts on all fronts. The House of Representatives and Senate Appropriations Committees are still working out the Department of Education’s 2012 budget.

If ARPA-ED doesn’t get funded in 2012, Kalil says, “we will have missed a really large and significant opportunity to improve the performance of our educational system by harnessing advances in technology.”

Shelton agrees. “We think that one of the most important investments that we can make in our future is education, and innovation is the only way we’re going to make dramatic progress,” he says. “Our hope is that because there’s broad agreement between Republicans and Democrats that education is critically important and that we need to make progress, this will be something that a consensus can be formed around.”


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