Digital Learning

Why Digital Learning Design & Development are Broken

Welcome to the third in a series on why the digital learning media market is broken. (For an introduction, and links to the rest of the posts, click here.) Today, we’re looking at design and development—the process by which ideas and research about digital learning become actual digital learning objects.

Resource gaps: If you’re reading this, you already know that investment in learning technologies is escalating, reaching well into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Unfortunately, investors are relatively risk-averse, and most capital is deployed to conservative, sustaining innovations, such as skill-and-drill software that mimics traditional school activities. Few investors seem interested in technologies that capitalize on the unique qualities of interactive media: personalized software that adapts to the learner; participatory products that encourage children to collaborate and create; highly engaging, immersive games and simulations that encourage and reward persistence and exploration (including entertainment media products not originally intended for educational use). Even fewer spend money on technologies that offer opportunities to engage in and practice Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills such as problem solving, creativity, persistence, and collaboration. Essentially, most of the folks with money are using 21st century tools to make 19th century education faster and cheaper. A similar pattern of risk-averse behavior exists in both the foundation and public sectors. [i]

Information gaps: As we noted in a previous post, there’s little knowledge transfer between academia and industry. Many new investors, especially venture capital firms, entering the sector lack the experience to know what they don’t know—especially about how children learn. Many are experts in consumer entertainment technology who know only the education system that they (and perhaps their children) lived through. While this isn’t a terrible thing, we’re already seeing the creation of successful, profitable “education” companies whose products do not actually help children learn anything useful. For those who value rigor, there is a dearth of publicly available knowledge about design practices for digital learning products. The few places where this knowledge does exist are too nascent, academic, or insular to provide accessible, actionable information.

Infrastructure gaps: Digital learning start-ups, for-profit or nonprofit, can turn to only a handful of incubators and service providers as they build their products. Most of the conferences where they might network and learn are either too conservative, or not market-oriented enough to be relevant to creating actual products.

Misaligned incentives: America’s assessment system and our education system are both years behind the skills that children must learn to succeed. Consequently, investors and entrepreneurs have an easier time validating the profit potential of (and making money from) less-than-innovative tools. Education companies lack incentives to invest much in high-risk product development, or to seek out and share knowledge about new learning approaches and goals. The same is true of entertainment companies, which bet on massive entertainment profits, not the uncertain potential of learning media.[ii] None of these companies has much of an incentive to design software or services with children from low-income families as the target audience, because there are more lucrative consumers and families with the money and the interest in products that sound like they will help their children gain an educational edge. The most talented entertainment media developers and education curriculum designers face considerable financial risk, and limited chance of upside, if they opt to leave stable jobs to join digital learning start-ups. Amongst digital learning creators, there exists a vague and minimal merit system: While there are several award programs for digital learning media projects, compensation is insufficient to spur consistent and extraordinary innovation.

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[i] The same dynamic occurs with government money; last year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) program failed to surface breakthrough technologies. To its credit, the DOE is now working to create programs that address this challenge.

[ii] We see an analogy (particularly for entertainment media companies) with the rise of independent/art-house cinema. During the 1980s, the major Hollywood film studios focused on big-budget, least-common-denominator blockbuster films—not the kind of high-end movies and documentaries that make people think or feel in deep ways. Yet some filmmakers working outside the studio system were making great, though unseen, films to meet niche public demand. Through the work of the Sundance Institute and several small, independent movie studios, these movies (e.g. Pulp Fiction) came to prominence in the early 1990s. Within a few years, all six major Hollywood studios had launched or purchased an “indie” studio. Although most of their profits still come from blockbusters, these small studios-within-a-studio often account for the bulk of “Best Picture” Oscar nominees and critical darling films in any given year – with many of the rest coming from a few independent studios that survived. This is one potential path toward a robust, high-quality digital learning media sector—and there are positive signs (e.g. acquisitions) that major media companies are taking an interest in this area.