2012 Digital Learning Challenge
Millions of underserved and underachieving children are heavy digital media users, yet few have ready access to the most engaging, effective digital learning media software and services.
We want every child to be able to easily access a broad array of high-quality digital media with learning potential; to pair high-quality products with support, enrichment, and helpful contexts to foster the learning of traditional and 21st century skills; and to have a reasonable metric to test and demonstrate learning gains fostered by these technologies.
We are aware of dozens of promising organizations with similar goals: content creators, publishers, content certifiers, curators, aggregators, would-be platforms, and ecosystem builders. Yet we see gaps in the emerging marketplace, and we believe philanthropy has a unique role in addressing them—through direct support, partnership, and activities that influence or connect incumbent and emerging players.
This initiative is focused on addressing key gaps in the following three areas:
- Target audience: Many existing entities, primarily commercial endeavors, target children from higher-income families. SCE places particular emphasis on providing free or very-low-cost digital learning opportunities to children from moderate- or low-income families, many of whom lack access to quality education. We see value in user experiences and delivery models that respond to the unique needs of underserved learners, including English language learners—in collaboration with parents, educators, and other authority figures when appropriate. (While our Digital Learning Program’s core target is low-income U.S. children, aged 8 to 13, we expect some potential partners will offer products to kids of many ages, and from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.)
- Skills emphasis: Many projects align with traditional K-12 curricula and content, or the emerging Common Core Standards. While we value such skills and knowledge, we believe learners also need more opportunities to engage in and practice Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills such as problem solving, creativity, persistence, and collaboration, as preparation toward success in careers and civic life.
- Approach and Environment: Many projects focus on reaching children within a traditional educational paradigm, using tech-based versions of legacy tools, such as skill-and-drill software and digital textbooks. We are more interested in the delivery of products 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 reward persistence and exploration (including entertainment media products not originally intended for educational use). We see significant promise in deploying these tools to reach children during the more than 7 hours per day they spend engaged with digital media outside of school time, or via school-based activities that employ informal, student-centered learning.
Elements of a Potential Solution
We acknowledge that we do not know what the ideal solution looks like, or how to create it. However, we have identified several features, functions, and streams of work with high potential to be a part of the overall solution—summarized in Appendix A, a straw-man taxonomy that describes our vision of an ecosystem that furthers SCE’s goals. We expect the organizational structure and features of any given partner to address these issues in different ways.
We view the likely core elements to be:
- Choice: A way for learners to easily discover and choose from a curated collection of high-quality digital learning media, aligned to Deeper Learning skills and Common Core Standards.
- Content: A way for learners to engage with those products for free or at very low cost.
- Context: Information about (or access to) practices, add-ons, curriculum, related media, or offline opportunities to amplify learning via the products.
- Credentialing: Assessments that allow learners to test and demonstrate knowledge and skills.
- Data Collection: An information backbone that helps the system and its administrators learn and modify functions based on usage patterns and feedback, and personalize content for each learner.
What We’re Looking For
- We are aware that no single entity can build and distribute such a project on a national scale relying solely on SCE’s support. We are prioritizing high-leverage opportunities—individuals or organizations that will use SCE’s funding and strategic partnership to move an idea, a project, or the field as a whole the greatest distance toward our vision.
- Some categories in our model are more mature than others—for instance, there are far more content aggregators than Deeper Learning assessment engines. We are most likely to fund potential partners that make a strong case that they are addressing high-need areas of work with potential for positive ripple effects throughout the field.
- We are most interested in projects that address the market gaps highlighted above: user experiences geared toward children from moderate- and low-income families; ways to engage in and practice Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills; delivery of products that capitalize on the unique qualities of interactive media; serious attention to outside–of–school time, or informal, student-centered learning in schools.
- We are open to inquiries from individuals and ad-hoc teams, as well as nonprofit, commercial, or hybrid entities from any industry—not exclusively the education sector. We expect that a successful for-profit applicant will have a strong partnership with a public-interest organization.
- In 2011, SCE initiated a major grant to Common Sense Media focused on identifying learning opportunities within specific digital media products, as well as context that extends that learning. While we view this initiative as building on CSM’s achievements, we are focused on ends rather than means, and welcome innovative approaches to achieve our goals.
 While SCE does not explicitly define “Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills,” we are most interested in projects that align with the frameworks proposed by the Hewlett Foundation; Common Sense Media’s learning ratings system; Prof. Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future; and the in-progress National Research Council project on “Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills.”