Digital Learning

SCE’s Digital Learning Challenge: What Happened, What We Learned

The Challenge didn’t start with a Challenge. It began with a question: Why isn’t the best stuff getting to the most kids? And by “stuff,” we meant “digital learning media.”

During late 2011 and early 2012, our staff and board talked through this problem with our partners and advisors. At one point, it was “building the School in the Cloud.” At another, it was “creating the systems integrator for digital learning.” We thought someone should build The Platform for digital learning, but we knew it wouldn’t be us. As with everything SCE does, we were looking for a high-leverage way to address a multibillion-dollar problem.

We settled on an idea, inspired by our board member Paul Jansen, an expert on prizes and innovation. Why not just put up a vision of what we think should exist, and let the experts in the field tell us how they’d build it? That became the Digital Learning Challenge.

The Knight Foundation and Gates Foundation are two of many organizations using similar methods, with great success. There would be two key differences from what we’d seen before:

  1. We were more specific about the world we wanted to create
  2. We were more focused on system-level change than the success of individual projects.

We were thrilled to receive nearly 100 letters of inquiry in response to our Request for LOIs. Our first-round screening process focused on five core criteria (rating each on a 1-to-10 scale):

  • Vision: Does this project offer a compelling vision for changing the field?
  • Strategy: Does the LOI describe a realistic plan for achieving its goals?
  • Organization: Is this organization capable of executing successfully on this strategy?
  • Alignment: Is this project aligned with SCE’s Challenge focus?
  • Accountability: Will we be able to measure the project’s success?

About a dozen rose to the surface for our review team. After discussions with our board, we solicited detailed proposals from five organizations that seemed most aligned with SCE’s goals and our capacity to be strong partners. From that group, we worked with our advisors to select CFY and Ednovo as our two key partners (see earlier announcement).

Here are 5 things we learned about our field during the process:

  1. The field is smarter than we are. That there is wisdom in crowds—and in unexpected places—is no secret. But after nearly three years of deep exploration in the education technology sector, we were still surprised to surface dozens of great ideas and great projects we had never heard of.
  2. SCE is a little different. We thought our goals and our process were ambitious, but straightforward. Yet throughout the process, we heard feedback that we were doing something unlike our grantmaker peers. The downside was that we received some blank stares (or their digital equivalent) when we described the Challenge externally. The upside is that many of the field’s most forward-thinking leaders really got what we were doing, and became passionate about spreading the word.
  3. Everyone thinks they’re the platform. We know that there won’t be one platform for accessing digital learning product, but we do expect major consolidation around how children (and the schools, programs, and people that serve them) access digital learning media. It seems there are a lot of entrepreneurs out there who disagree with us. We’d love to be proven wrong.
  4. People still love school. Edtech boosters seem to fit into two categories. Those who see kids playing videogames all the time, and say, “Hey, let’s bring videogames into school, and make education more like a videogame.” And then those who see kids playing videogames all the time, and say, “Wow, that’s a lot of kid time. Maybe we should get them to play different games, or better harvest the learning that’s happening in the games that exist.” From the looks of what we saw during the Challenge process, most people are still stuck in the former category, and (more disappointing, at least to us) trying to slot technology into traditional school paradigms instead of rethinking new models of blended learning.
  5. Content has a long way to go. We read a lot of strong proposals from content developers. But most of them focused on the basics (reading, writing, arithmetic), not on more complex Deeper Learning skills or social-emotional skills. And the products themselves weren’t pushing the boundaries of technology: we saw zero alternate reality games, only a few virtual worlds, and a surprisingly small number of tablet apps. One of our next big post-Challenge initiatives is aimed at helping developers and entrepreneurs create path-breaking learning products. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading. We’re so glad the selection process went as well as it did, and we welcome feedback as we look to try it again.