ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

The digital promise
using technology to transform learning

By Michael Feldstein / September 2006

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

A bill now before the United States Congress could radically transform learning in America and even across the globe. The Digital Opportunity Investment Trust Act proposes to take a small portion of the proceeds from planned auctions of wireless spectrum and create the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO IT). The estimated $1 billion in annual proceeds generated from the trust would be invested in research and development of cradle-to-grave digital support for education. Areas that DO IT might fund include the development of sophisticated simulations; digitization of library, museum, and university collections; applying advances in cognitive science to educational software; and development of more authentic assessment methods. Content development funded by the trust could include vocational materials for workforce retraining, lifelong-learning support, and emergency and safety training for first-responders and the general public for terrorist and other man-made and natural disasters.

The act is not without precedent. Its supporters point to three previous laws that changed the face of American education. In particular, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862 both used proceeds from the sale of other public properties (in these cases, physical land) to finance public schools and Land-Grant Universities, respectively. More recently, the GI bill created new educational opportunities for many Americans. Furthermore, the sponsors of the Act claim that "DO IT will do for education what NIH does for health, NSF does for science, and DARPA does for national defense."

The History the Legislation

DO IT was first proposed in 2001 by Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of NBC News and PBS, and Newton N. Minow, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in a report called A Digital Gift to the Nation. The proposal quickly garnered broad support ranging from Google and Hewlett Packard to the Carnegie and MacArthur Foundations to the American Federation of Teachers and EDUCAUSE. By 2002, versions of the bill were introduced in the House of Representatives by Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and in the Senate by Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) and James M. Jeffords (I-VT). In 2003, the effort received its first Congressional appropriation of $750,000, which funded the Federation of American Scientists to create a roadmap for the trust, which they published later that year.

Legislation based on that report has subsequently been introduced by Representatives Ralph Regula (R-OH) and Edward Markey (D-MA) and Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and others. Bi-partisan support for the legislation has grown in both houses of Congress, despite a very difficult fiscal and political climate. In fact, momentum appears to be building. According to Anne G. Murphy, the executive director of the Digital Promise Project, "We have been working closely over the past months with key Committee Chairmen including House Energy and Commerce Chair Joe Barton (R-TX), who has endorsed the concepts outlined in DO IT and instructed his staff to develop possible options for implementation. On the Senate side, Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) and his staff are working with HELP Committee Chair Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and [Conrad] Burns (R-MT). Congressmen Regula and Markey are also providing key leadership for this effort."

A Sense of Urgency

The growing support for the bill comes at a time of rising concern regarding the education system in the United States. For example, the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education recently released a draft of their report which is widely regarded as alarming. These concerns have not gone unnoticed by Congress. "America is falling behind the rest of the world in education and this greatly diminishes our role as a global power whether it is militarily, in the manufacturing sector, or in the fields of math and science," notes Congressman Regula. "We must take action now to turn this tide so that America will maintain its competitive edge for the future. I feel that this legislation will give us the opportunity to reaffirm and enhance our status as the global leader." Senator Dodd agrees, emphasizing that the need to respond to global competition will only get more intense over time. He asserts, "By establishing DO IT now, Congress would again make a bold investment in education for the new century to prepare future generations for fierce global economic competition and a world connected by information technology."

The work of the Congressional leaders championing the bill would benefit from more vocal support from the general public, Ms. Murphy notes. "I invite you to visit our Web site to see how you can add your voice to these efforts."


  • There are no comments at this time.