After 10 Years, Federal Money for Technology in Education

[Source: The New York Times, by Elizabeth Jensen, January 24, 2010]

More than a decade ago, Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of both NBC News and PBS, and Newton N. Minow, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, were asked by several foundations to explore how nonprofits like schools, libraries and museums could tap into emerging digital technologies.

Their bold recommendation in 2001 was to set up a multibillion dollar trust that would act as a “venture capital fund” to research learning technology.

After a tortuous journey — “It’s been one ‘starting all over again’ after another after another after another,” Mr. Minow said — their organization, what is now being called the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies, finally has Congressional appropriation through the Education Department and will be introduced Monday. It could be handing out grants by fall.

“It’s time that education had the equivalent of what the National Science Foundation does for science, Darpa does for the national defense and what N.I.H. does for health,” Mr. Grossman said in an interview. He and Mr. Minow, senior counsel at the law firm Sidley Austin, will be the co-chairmen of the nonprofit organization, along with Anne G. Murphy, former director of the American Arts Alliance.

James H. Shelton III, the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the Education Department, has been shepherding the new center. “We’re really excited about exploring the opportunities for advanced technology in education,” he said. “The vision that started Digital Promise was well before its time. Its time has finally come.”

To build support for the project, the group created three prototypes: an educational video game for biology students called Immune Attack; a game for museums, called Discovering Babylon; and a computer simulation to train firefighters in high-rise fires. They typify the projects the center will be looking to finance.

Mr. Minow said he was disappointed that a major component of the original plan — to use some of the proceeds from the government auction of wireless spectrum as financing — never came to be; the money was spent elsewhere. And the request for an initial federal appropriation of $50 million, made when the center was authorized in 2008, was reduced to $500,000; the center will also solicit private funds.

The project has bipartisan support, but “the economy collapsed and you couldn’t get that kind of money,” Mr. Minow said.

Still, “what we have will get us started,” he said, adding that he was confident growth would follow a few successful projects. The National Science Foundation, Mr. Grossman said, started in 1950 with a six-figure appropriation; its fiscal year 2009 appropriation was nearly $6.5 billion.