Digital Learning

Happy Digital Learning Day…and now, for some skepticism

To celebrate Digital Learning Day, SCE is going to give our sector a little tough love, and kick off a series of blog posts we’re calling “Digital Learning: A Broken Market“…

In a perfect world, kids and adults would have easy access to super-fun, super-effective digital learning media—games, apps, videos, creative suites. Technology would be an important complement to traditional schooling, empowering educators, parents, and kids to personalize and enhance learning. Children would be living in an anytime, anywhere, any-device, always-on blended learning ecosystem. All kids would have the chance to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to fulfill their potential as citizens, workers, and human beings.

We do not live in that world. In fact, it’s almost laughable how far we are from that world. But go to a boosterish conference and watch a digital learning luminary wax on about how technology is going to save the education system, and you could be forgiven for believing that we’re 12 months away from an edtech-powered learning revolution.

And you’d be wrong.

Digital learning is powerful, but it is far from perfect. Unfortunately, it’s in danger of becoming the most overhyped education fad since the small schools movement. So what to do to make sure digital learning fulfills its promise? The first step toward answering that question is to identify what the challenge actually is.

At SCE, we often view digital learning as a marketplace, and we think the root problem is that the marketplace is broken. With the help of a few hundred partners, advisors, friends, grantees, and education gadflies, we have spent the last year and a half examining some of the underlying causes of market dysfunction. We are going to spend the next several weeks blogging about these problems, and SCE will publish the collective as a free digital white paper in the spring. (Future posts will describe the work of SCE and others to repair and cultivate the market.)

As a foundation, our focus is on the public interest—in this case, as many children learning as much as possible. But we believe strongly that markets can serve the public good, and that this marketplace has the potential to serve the interests of children and society without sacrificing long-term profits. So the framework we are using (see graphic below) looks very much like a typical business innovation pipeline. It begins on the left, with ideas for new digital learning technologies, processes, or objects; and it moves toward the right, with learning moments[i] taking place with the support of digital media.



The specific path from idea to learning by children depends on the type of technology, the creator, and the business or sustainability model. For example, a publisher of mobile games must find distribution and sales channels, as well as revenue streams. A university-based enterprise may require government and foundation subsidies, and would need a platform to extend its reach. In most cases, however, successful technology development and usage appears to follow a general sequential path, with successes and failures at each step sending useful information back and forth along the pipeline.[ii]

In our view, the most challenging deficiencies at each stage of the pipeline fall into four categories:

  • Resource gaps: a lack of financial and human capital.
  • Information gaps: a lack of data, analysis, or general knowledge.
  • Infrastructure gaps: a lack of technology or common marketplace platforms to build on, or field infrastructure to support the sector.
  • Misaligned incentives: dynamics that create financial rewards, prestige, power, or accomplishment for behavior that runs counter to the public interest

So that’s how we’re framing the problems and the solutions. The remainder of this series will examine how these deficiencies play out at each stage of the pipeline—starting at the beginning, with digital learning’s research and academic community.

Until then, we welcome your thoughts, criticisms, and questions.

We’ll be collecting all the posts in the Broken Market series here, so feel free to bookmark this page and return in the coming weeks.


[i] SCE’s working definition of “learning moment”: a child acquires or practices an important skill (from systems thinking to emotional resilience), gains content knowledge, or expresses his or her creative capacity to answer or ask a question or solve a problem.

[ii] We recognize our model is an oversimplification. It does not quite describe, for example, the creation of completely decentralized open-source technologies. But even highly community-dependent technology development often depends on a core group of developers, a central platform provider, or a handful of corporate contributors. We also made a conscious choice to build this graphic using a timeline/pathway format—we might have displayed the same information using a list of groups/categories/buckets, as a circle, or as an ecosystem of various players, each of which has advantages and disadvantages.