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Investing in K-12 Digital Innovation

In a panel discussion today at the DML conference, three seasoned veterans of education philanthropy and investment spoke about the changing landscape of K-12 education, what role technology is playing in that shift, and where money is best spent to fuel innovation.

The panel, titled "Investing in Education Innovation: Where and How to Focus," featured Carina Wong, the deputy director of education for college ready work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which also provides support to Education Week, the publisher of Digital Directions); Connie Yowell, the director of education for U.S. programs at the MacArthur Foundation; and Mitch Kapor, founder of the Lotus Development Corporation and an entrepreneur, software designer, and investor.

Like many of the sessions at this conference, the panelists focused on inequity in today's education system. "There is an enormous amount of top talent that we are just neglecting because they are in places like East Oakland and East Palo Alto," said Kapor. "[Those students] are not being challenged, they're not expected to go to a top college, and this is just unacceptable."

But they pointed out that what role investments in technology can play in raising those expectations and expanding opportunities for those students has been difficult to decipher.

"Education is the last arena in which information technology is seriously underleveraged," said Kapor. "It is simply not widely and effectively deployed in ways that are central to the learning experience."

Connie Yowell argued that scaling innovations to meet the needs of all students may not be the right approach to the question. "Context matters deeply in the world of learning," she said. Simply replicating learning models that work with one set of students does not guarantee they will work with another, she said. For instance, the Quest 2 Learn school in New York City, which uses game-design principles to teach students, has now expanded to include a school in Chicago as well. But, says Yowell, the schools, while working with one another, are not exactly the same. "We've been careful to call it a remix," she said.

In addition, innovation in education is more likely to happen on the edge, said Yowell, in more free-form educational environments such as museums and libraries. It's difficult to create innovation in the high-stakes environment of a traditional school, she argued.

Carina Wong suggested that innovation will occur in schools, but at an incremental pace. "If we think way far out of the system, we're going to miss those thousands and thousands of kids that are in the system now," she said. And that change may start from within school districts—beginning with students. "The youth voices will rise up and that will create the change we seek," she said.

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