What Cardona’s innovation agenda should look like (opinion)

For millennia, the transfer of knowledge (aka learning) has been a locus for innovation. What we once painted on cave walls and etched into stone we later captured in printed books and then translated into binary code. The expertise of a single teacher, once constrained by disciplinary boundaries and classroom walls, is now accessible to learners across the globe, on demand and at their own pace.

Today, we wrestle with questions about what the future of learning could and should look like, such as what roles both human instructors and emerging technologies will play and how we might harness innovation to advance opportunity and equity.

To answer these questions, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona should borrow a page from his colleague Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who recently laid out a forward-thinking vision for the changing nature of transportation, and share his vision for what innovation could look like for education.

The most profound innovations come from a deep understanding of systemic challenges and leverage points for change. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the development of new learning environments, but colleges continue to fall short in meeting the needs of the learners and educators with the least access to resources.

The urgency of the pandemic has been used in rapid, fragmented attempts at innovation whose potential for impact and scale is limited by the inability to integrate them meaningfully into our current education system. The result is that the American public sees a distorted—or at best uneven—application of what could otherwise be effective new models of teaching and learning.

We need large-scale federal government investments to accelerate and support innovation. Here are a few things the federal government should do.

  1. Provide innovation grants. The billions of dollars the federal government spent during the pandemic have plugged holes and kept institutions afloat. Yet little investment went to innovation that can allow institutions and our system to better prepare for the future. The Department of Education should provide funding to:
    1. Design new models: Small grants to enable experimentation and the testing of innovative ideas and approaches to teaching and learning.
    2. Validate promising practices: medium-size grants to adapt and replicate promising and emerging practices; and
    3. Scale proven solutions: Large grants to scale evidence-based practices to larger populations or target new segments to spread practices across institutions that often remain atomized and localized.
  2. Ensure better transparency and metrics. The department is, rightfully, focused on student protection measures to provide guardrails against the worst actors, but there is more it could do to mitigate risk for students while providing innovation to serve equity goals. One example is providing better quality assurance for short-term credential programs and other nondegree options. Done responsibly, this could drive better accountability for outcomes and promote equity by enabling students to attend more high-quality options. The department should also expand the use of alternative metrics for evaluating programs, such as the US Department of Labor’s WIOA performance metrics for workforce development programs or those in the bipartisan, bicameral JOBS Act. Finally, they could encourage accreditors to ensure programs are relevant to the labor market.
  3. Leverage the bully pulpit and its convening power. In the coming year, Cardona and his leadership team should challenge the field to leverage innovation to drive dramatic increases in equity over the remainder of the Biden administration. He can spotlight those promising innovations that are beginning to show success through his travels and during department events, thereby giving visible support to innovators. Never underestimate the power of a visit or invitation from the secretary or the president to validate and provide running room for individuals or institutions.
  4. Invest in research on education. The federal government spends billions of dollars on research and development each year. The education share of this spending is minuscule, despite the great need. For example, in just the science of learning, we need more basic research on the brain, applied research on how people learn and funding to develop new learning environments and experiences.

There are already innovations out there, but we need many more. And Cardona should leverage the power of the federal government to amplify and catalyze this innovation.

Higher education institutions and other learning providers—from online learning companies to corporations providing training—invest tremendous time and effort into designing new learning experiences. For example, colleges and learning companies are investing heavily in producing learning content that meets students where they are. Whether that’s simple learning content that can be accessed on a flip phone through Cell-Ed (full disclosure: JFF’s impact investing arm is an investor in Cell-Ed), bite-size modular content being delivered by Arizona State University on YouTube, or the Captivating and cinematically produced courses developed by Outlier, these new approaches to learning are proliferating. But how might the federal government lend support to supercharge these types of efforts—and ensure that they are equitably developed and accessible?

What if we had a Manhattan Project for learning, whereby the federal government invested in research and innovation at organizations across the country? Such an effort could bring together innovative universities and companies that are very invested in providing learning for their employees. President Biden and Secretary Cardona could use both their convening and funding levers to bring together everyone thinking about new ways of learning and set a moonshot for the future, bringing together professors and learning engineers from top universities, community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, and tribal colleges, along with the chief learning engineers of, say, Walmart, Amazon and Google.

What if we took this proposal from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project to launch a federal project on the future of learning, opportunity and work seriously?

Can we finally build a long-hoped-for “education DARPA”—or ARPA-ED—by which government investment in emerging technology could spin off to multiple applications in teaching and learning, much like what Buttigieg suggests we could do for transportation?

Just as self-driving cars practice on controlled tracks and with test drivers before they are autonomous, we can provide that educational test track with the backdrop of government support from federal leadership. We owe it to our learners to try to harness the tremendous ingenuity and creativity of countless educators and leaders across the country.

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