Beverly Perdue, the Democratic former governor of North Carolina who presided over her state's widely acclaimed public-private effort to expand broadband access, is looking to replicate that success through the creation of a new nonprofit.
Dubbed the Digital Learning Institute, or DigiLEARN, the national organization will seek to bring together educators, policymakers, and ed-tech entrepreneurs to "seed and cultivate an innovative economy" in which effective digital learning tools can more easily be brought to scale.
"That's the big hole in state after state," Perdue said in a telephone interview with Education Week. "People in the entrepreneurial community are disconnected from educators. They don't have any idea how to navigate a good idea through the formalized education and procurement systems, and they don't have kids to talk to or beta-test their innovations with."
Supported with grant money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, DigiLEARN will kick off with a "collaborative strategic planning conference" this week.
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The institute's mission still sounds a bit nebulous. Perdue says the group will focus partly on facilitating collaborative relationships across sectors, and it will likely look to do policy advocacy and lobbying related to ed-tech issues. Perdue's stature—and the involvement of other state leaders, including former Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, a Republican who will serve as vice chair, and former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat who will serve on the board—will no doubt help.
"There will be a great opportunity for policymakers to listen and learn from educators and entrepreneurs," Perdue said. "It will allow for this conversation, and perhaps policy recommendations, to be listened to by [groups such as] the National Governors Association or conferences of legislators."
Procurement is likely to be a big issue, she said. Currently, every system handles contracting differently, and penetrating the thicket of processes, regulations, and traditional practices is a huge challenge for companies both large and small.
"There should be an opportunity for the little guy or gal working out in his or her garage to get into this ballgame, but right now it's really hard," Perdue said.
During her tenure as North Carolina's governor, which ran from 2009-2013, Perdue led a number of successful ed-tech initiatives, including a broadband effort that has resulted in just about every district in the state connecting to a high-speed Internet network. (Perdue decided not to run for re-election after her first term.) That work was done through a collaboration that included the nonprofit MCNC, private carriers, and the state. Lessons learned from that endeavor will guide the institute's work, Perdue said.
"We've got a real track record here in [North Carolina] of knowing how to make things happens," she said. "When you talk about bringing [efforts] to scale, there's always the challenge of private versus public. We confronted that early on, and we did it together."