Request for Information: Advancing Learning Technology through Pull Mechanisms

Yesterday, the Office of Science and Technology Policy released a Request for Information to give the public an opportunity to inform the Administration’s approaches to supporting the development and use of learning technologies.

Advances in the science of how learning happens—and in technology to enhance learning—have  the potential to transform education, not only in K-12 but in higher education, life-long learning, and workforce development.  Imagine, for example, if learners in the United States had access to technologies that:

  • Dramatically reduced the large and persistent gap in vocabulary size between children from wealthy and poor households;
  • Helped middle- and high-school students outperform their international peers in math and science;
  • Gave non-college-bound students an industry skills certification or set of cognitive skills (e.g., literacy, numeracy, or the ability to understand and use charts, graphs, and diagrams) that are a ticket to a middle-class job, increasing their employability and their annual incomes by $10,000 to $20,000 or more in less than a year; and
  • Were as effective as a personal tutor and as engaging as the best video game, and improved the more students used them.

OSTP seeks input on how “pull mechanisms” might be used to accelerate the development, rigorous evaluation, and widespread adoption of high-impact learning technologies.  As economists such as Michael Kremer have noted, pull mechanisms such as incentive prizes, milestone payments, and Advance Market Commitments “increase the rewards for developing specific products by committing to reward success.” Already, Federal agencies have offered almost 300 incentive prizes on, providing opportunities for citizen solvers to offer novel solutions to a wide array of tough problems. We’d like to build on this pull-mechanism momentum with a specific focus on learning technologies.

Some of the advantages of pull mechanisms are that a funder can: (a) pay only for success; (b) set a goal without having to choose in advance which team or approach is most likely to be successful; and (c) increase the number and intellectual diversity of the teams that are working to solve a particular problem.  Although there are a variety of different types of pull mechanisms, they generally require establishing a clear goal and an agreed-upon set of metrics for evaluating progress towards that goal. In order for education to benefit from an increased use of pull mechanisms, policy makers and stakeholders should identify some specific challenges that are important, relevant outcomes that are measurable, and specific domains where learning technology could plausibly help improve student outcomes.

OSTP also would like to hear from various stakeholders (e.g., Federal agencies, philanthropists, employers, researchers, non-profits, and state and local education agencies) about what roles they would be willing to play in the design, funding, and implementation of a pull mechanism for learning technology.

The full Request for Information can be found here and supplemental information on pull mechanisms can be found here. Comments are due by March 7, 2014, and can be sent to  We look forward to hearing from you!

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at OSTP

Cristin Dorgelo is Assistant Director for Grand Challenges at OSTP

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