Congress provided nearly $150 million more for the department to spend on the competition during the 2012 fiscal year, but details haven't been announced. Even though funding for i3 is pocket change compared with the $68 billion the department is spending this year on K-12 and higher education programs, the contest fills an important niche, officials say.
"What we have failed to create is a pipeline of innovation in education where we have a lot of really good ideas that get vetted and then you say 'Aha, they have real promise; let's take them to scale,' " said James H. Shelton, the department's assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement.
While designed to find innovation, the competition itself has had an innovative twist. For the first time, the department--which is far more accustomed to handing out money based on predetermined formulas--tied the awarding of federal funding to projects showing varying levels of evidence of past success.
Because of those criteria, some have questioned whether the money, which is now approaching $1 billion, will truly identify innovation in education.
A July 2011 report from Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit Washington consulting firm, said the rigorous evidence standards applicants needed to meet to prove their projects could work produced an award list of "usual suspects" that disappointed many in the foundation world. The report raised questions about whether development teams from Apple Inc. working on the iPhone or iPad could have satisfied the competition's evidence requirements.
But Mr. Shelton said: "I never expected i3 to find the way, way-out-there innovative stuff that some people would like to see. But it does provide a venue for those things that are promising."
The i3 competition is part of a broader innovation portfolio that the Education Department is building, which is influenced greatly by the creation of the first national education technology plan in five years. In that document, released in November 2010, the department sought to craft a more comprehensive, forward-thinking approach to how technology can improve education.
"We're really focusing on how can technology truly transform teaching and learning," said Karen Cator, the department's director of the office of educational technology.
That means that the plan goes further than calling for more infrastructure and hardware: It also sets a national vision for making learning more personalized, changing how teachers connect to content tools, and leveraging data from different kinds of student assessments to improve learning.
On a more micro level, that broad plan translates into several new initiatives for the department. It means working with industry organizations to develop, promote, and expand the interoperability standards that allow education data systems within and between states to talk to each other.
The department is also supporting an online-learning registry so teachers can more easily discover, use, and share content on how and what to teach. And the department is helping to start a "league of innovative schools" for superintendents interested in making rapid improvement in their districts by leveraging technology--an idea crafted under the Digital Promise initiative, which was created by Congress, launched by the Obama administration, and funded in part by corporate foundations.
The Obama administration is seeking to keep pace with the rapidly changing technology sector by updating federal policies, which included an important change in 2010 that created a pilot program to allow the use of federal E-rate funds for mobile devices that students and teachers can take home with them.
In July, the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the E-rate program of funding for discounts that enable schools and libraries to connect to the Internet, awarded $9 million to 20 schools and libraries to launch a wireless "learning on the go" project. It helps pay for digital textbooks and other wireless devices needed for digital learning, including for use from a teacher's or student's home. Previously, E-rate funds could only pay for on-campus projects.
"We spend millions of dollars on wireless and connectivity which sits unused for a large part of the day and weekend. Providing access at school was great, but the real power is 24/7 learning," said Jay McPhail, the director of K-12 instructional technology and career technical education for the Riverside district in California. His district is using $1.2 million in E-rate funds to, among other purposes, help pay for broadband access in students' homes.
"The kids that can afford those devices are communicating and learning around the clock, while those that don't, we're trying to provide them access," he said.
The digital divide will be an enormous hurdle to overcome as the Obama administration pushes for national adoption of e-textbooks for all students by 2017. This month, the administration is expecting to convene a group of CEOs in the digital-publishing industry to jump-start the effort.
"Education is one of the most important challenges we face as a country. Part of the solution is new technologies: ...digital devices, digital textbooks," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski during a national town hall meeting last month that was focused on digital learning. "It will require educators, companies, parents, everyone in the ecosystem to come together to agree on a goal and work hard to get there."
Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Most Popular Stories
- Slow Week Ahead of December FOMC Meeting
- Hispanics Seek to Grow School Board Members
- GM Bailout Saved 1.2 Million U.S. Jobs, Report Says
- Bitcoin Used to Buy Tesla Car
- U.S. Companies Eager for Iranian Business
- 'Knockout Game': Myth or Menace?
- Banks Fret as Volcker Vote Approaches
- Questions Remain in Jenni Rivera's Death
- Yellen Set to Become One of World's Most Powerful Women
- Paul Walker Fans Pay Respects