As the afterglow of early May’s Teacher Appreciation Week quickly begins to fade and all of the cute thank-you cards handwritten by students go into file cabinets, it’s quite natural to forget about education and be pulled back into what many would consider to be more significant national events, like NASDAQ glitches that soured the Facebook IPO, Donald Trump again challenging Obama’s birth certificate, or the San Antonio Spurs trouncing the Oklahoma Thunder. But this year foretells something different.
Perhaps a bit overshadowed by the announcement of the Facebook IPO on the very same day, AT&T also announced that it had made one of its single largest grants ever to the small nonprofit GameDesk, a pioneer in game-based and digital learning for at-risk kids (see this recent commitment to education. The signal to educators, consumers, and legislators alike is that the company has a transformative role to play in the education arena. Second, the choice by AT&T to invest heavily in GameDesk speaks volumes on how major corporations view the convergence of technology, entertainment, and curriculum to create more engaging and effective learning models and platforms (see here).
But there is also something else worth noting here. Without question, this is a departure from the "tried and true," philanthropic grant to the United Way, one which many corporations and organizations routinely make year in and year out (AT&T included), often times accompanied by a traditional, check-the-box employee giving campaign. Not that there is anything wrong with the United Way. To the contrary, it is a venerable organization with a long history of doing great work in education, financial literacy, and health. Nevertheless, it’s rather hard to characterize a grant to the United Way as disruptive or as an innovative approach to philanthropy, both of which are precisely what the education system needs.
Unfortunately, most private investors—and educators—tend to be risk averse when it comes to investing significant dollars or time in disruptive approaches to teaching, like game-based and simulation learning, particularly for at-risk kids. Much of the focus right now is on developing new products for embedded assessment, skills-based software, and platforms to deliver digital content to students via tablets, though there is still a long way to go before the price point for tablets becomes remotely palatable to budget-strapped school districts. On the other side of the disruption equation, the media and gaming industries tend to churn out "edutainment" that makes learning incrementally more fun for kids. But this isn’t anything like the beautifully rendered video games that: (a) can engage even the toughest students (b) can replace entire chapters out of textbooks, and (c) map to Common Core Standards.
The kind of brand-plus-disruptive partner strategy we see from the AT&T/GameDesk partnership is exactly how senior leaders from Fortune 500 companies and their foundations need to be thinking when it comes to their brand’s role in education, and for that matter, any social issue. Why? Consumers and brands continue to build richer, more transparent, and impactful two-way conversations. The former is increasingly demanding more meaning and purpose from their favorite brands, not just flash. They acknowledge and reward those brands that strive to make a real difference and take bold steps to do so. When it comes to the future of our children and country, taking a risk and investing in "game changing" technologies not only demonstrates cultural relevance, a sense of brand vibrancy, and a real point of view on a key social issue, but also sends a clear message to parents, consumers, students, and educators that the status quo must change.