In furthering the importance of digital learning during National Distance Learning Week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan released a letter on the Department of Education’s “Transforming America’s Education Powered by Technology” initiative. The letter states:
Education is vital to America’s individual and collective economic growth and prosperity, and is necessary for our democracy to work. Once the global leader in college completion rates among young people, the United States currently ranks ninth out of 36 developed nations. President Obama has articulated a bold vision for the United States to lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020, thereby regaining our leadership and ensuring America’s ability to compete in a global economy. To achieve this aggressive goal, we need to leverage the innovation and ingenuity this nation is known for to create programs and projects that every school can implement to succeed.
In light of the letter and the report, it is interesting to observe how many of the for-profit universities have become so sophisticated in their use of digital technology in order to educate larger numbers of students in increasingly sophisticated ways. Indeed, they have the capital to make major advances in the use of digital technology in the near term as traditional universities continue to struggle with dismal prospects from states’ funding and still-devalued endowments.
What students should see is Secretary Duncan and the Department working to support the for-profit sector and this level of innovation and ingenuity from them. Instead, we have watched the Department’s formulation of a set of rules, including the Gainful Employment rule, that have had the effect of limiting the education market’s innovation. The role of the for-profit sector of the higher education industry is not inimical to the goals of President Obama; it is a vehicle for realizing his goals of access, for implementing digital technology, for enlarging access to higher education via online learning, and for increasing the adaptability of education to students’ capabilities to learn.