The Solyndra of Digital Learning

Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, and Netflix CEO, Reed Hasting, have an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that starts out great but then goes dramatically downhill. They begin by recognizing the amazing potential of digital learning:

In the past two decades, technology has revolutionized the way Americans communicate, get news, socialize and conduct business. But technology has yet to transform our classrooms. At its full potential, technology could personalize and accelerate instruction for students of all educational levels. And it could provide equitable access to a world-class education for millions of students stuck attending substandard schools in cities, remote rural regions, and tribal reservations.

But then they advocate for a federal government-backed corporation to realize digital learning’s potential:

Too often, the market for educational technology has been inefficient and fragmented. The nation’s 14,000 school districts, more than a few of which have byzantine procurement systems, have been inefficient consumers and have failed to drive consistent demand. And a robust R&D base for improving and refining educational technology has been sadly lacking.

To help remedy those gaps, the Department of Education is launching a unique public-private partnership called Digital Promise.

The last thing digital learning needs is a government funded outfit to develop it. The government is particularly bad at picking technological winners and losers. And if the government pours money into Digital Promise and signals to states and districts that they should adopt what Digital Promise endorses, they will stifle a developing vibrant marketplace that will experiment with different technologies and approaches to learn what work best.

If you don’t believe me that the government is particularly incapable of picking winners and losers in technology, just look at the example of Solyndra. The government poured more than half a billion dollars of stimulus money into Solyndra’s technology for solar energy, believing that it would be the wave of the future. As it turns out, they backed a more expensive technology that failed to win in the marketplace. Solyndra recently declared bankruptcy, laying off more than 1,000 workers and blowing more than half a billion dollars of taxpayer money.

In addition to blowing taxpayer money by backing the wrong technology, Digital Promise is the digital learning equivalent of mandating Betamax. If we privilege the wrong technology we will crowd out better solutions and productive innovation.

Giving taxpayer money to certain outfits also runs the risk of corruption, since political connections may well influence which company and technologies get backed. This leads to Crony Capitalism, or crapitalism.

For the sake of digital learning, Mr. Secretary, please stop “helping” it with a government backed company, like Digital Promise.

(Correction: Digital Promise is a Non-Profit Organization, but all the points still apply)

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