Digital Learning

Why Digital Learning Research is Broken

Welcome to the second in a series on why the digital learning media market is broken. (For an introduction, and the rest of the posts, click here.)

Resource gaps: Research is actually one of the few somewhat bright spots in the digital learning field. The MacArthur Foundation—along with Hewlett, Gates, and a handful of others—have invested tens of millions of dollars on academic research here during the past few years. Partly because of their advocacy and field-building, the DL hype has reached Washington, leading to hundreds of millions in government funding in the past few years, and major corporations from Disney to Dell are spending millions more. Researchers can also draw on significant progress during the past decade in relevant disciplines like learning sciences, cognitive science, computer science, education, child development, and neuroscience.

However, the field remains nascent, and so does funding and other resources. More than 40 years after The Oregon Trail was developed at Carleton College, there are still barely a dozen full-fledged university departments or centers dedicated to digital learning research,[i] and few tenure-track positions devoted to researching digital media and learning. Spending in education research in general lags that in others sectors, and education technology is no exception. Even tenured professors tell us they’re finding it difficult to attract grants from the government, foundations, or companies.

Information gaps: The relatively young field and small funding pool—along with fast, continuous changes in technology use—create a situation where even experts do not yet fully grasp how, when, whether, and why digital learning works. This is no surprise given the funding deficiencies, but it’s a massive problem that hasn’t been solved, and given the speed of innovation it seems like a tough challenge.

Infrastructure gaps: Some of the most valuable (and most often overlooked) work by MacArthur in this area has been its grantmaking in field-building, working to create the academic infrastructure for digital learning—conferences, online forums and offline communities, and dedicated laboratories. But all of these structures, no matter who has funded them, remain immature.[ii] This means there are too few connections or technology transfer points between academia and industry, with some notable exceptions. Researchers find it difficult to persuade existing businesses[iii] to use discoveries in building products, and seldom have the skills (or support) to realize research findings in either commercial or nonprofit products. And, of course, not every researcher wants to collaborate with industry. The knowledge transfer and partnership difficulties run the other way as well—digital media companies (from Zynga to Disney) collect vast troves of data and knowledge that are inaccessible to the academic community.

Misaligned Incentives: Commercial efforts are competitive and proprietary; hence, important results derived from corporate research are closely held. Tenure-track academic researchers are rewarded more for publishing papers than for transforming pioneering research into real-world application, or sharing theories about research failures. Despite the growth of interdisciplinary research, many academics are still incented to compete with other disciplines rather than collaborate. What’s more, the natural speed of academia is slower than that of industry—the pressures push professors toward accuracy and deliberation. The same is true of the incentives for young researchers to specialize in very niche areas. None of these is necessarily bad, but it does mean there are many, many researchers examining the effects of broadcast television on children, and comparatively few examining, for example, mobile apps.

That’s it for now…up next: Design & Development.

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[i]University of Wisconsin, Carnegie Mellon, USC, MIT, UC-Irvine, and ASU are the most well-known.

[ii] For example, the Games+Learning+Society conference, seven years into existence, at times still functions more like a start-up than a well-oiled machine such as E3 or CES; so does the younger DML Conference. UC-Irvine-based DML Central has yet to achieve its potential as an online hub for digital media and learning research. (Disclosure: SCE funded GLS in 2011.)

[iii] Most of SCE’s digital learning work focuses on three types of digital learning businesses: entertainment media companies (e.g. videogame publishers) with an interest in creating learning products or incorporating learning into their products; education companies (e.g. textbook publishers) with an interest in making their products more engaging for kids; and pure-play education technology companies (e.g. learning games publishers). We acknowledge there are important industries that take advantage of digital learning research—for instance, corporate e-learning providers, and social impact gaming publishers—that lie outside the bounds of our grantmaking.