The Download: FCC opens ‘technology experience center’ for staff, industry to interact

A herd of interns huddled around a display table of tech gadgets at the Federal Communications Commission last week, picking up and passing around Hasbro 3-D goggles, an Amazon Kindle and a Polaroid photo printer designed by Lady Gaga.

The agency converted a corner of its library into a “technology experience center” where employees can interact with the latest gizmos from companies that are directly impacted by the FCC’s policies.

“Having hands-on experience with cutting-edge devices, it’s just common sense,” Chairman Julius Genachowski said in an interview. “It will help the staff to understand better how to promote more cutting-edge innovation, how policies will effect it, what the opportunities are.”

The first exhibit focuses on broadband-enabled devices, such as smartphones and Internet-equipped televisions, that have put increasing demand on spectrum — the airwaves that the FCC allocates to broadcasters and service providers.

Many of the country’s leading device makers and Internet companies, including Panasonic, Microsoft, Verizon and Comcast, contributed products for the showcase. Next month, a new display — perhaps focused on education or health care — will take its place.

Some of the companies that donated products to the showcase also sell them to federal agencies, including the FCC, and most seek to influence policymakers’ decisions. Is there any conflict in what the agency chooses to display?

“We asked our general counsel’s office to look deeply into this and to make sure everything that’s being done here is consistent with ethics rules and he has done so and he will continue to monitor it to make sure that the center is fully compliant,” Genachowski said.

Waiting for change

The pending sale of Blackboard to a private-equity shop could give the District-based education technology firm greater flexibility to adapt to changing needs as more colleges embrace online learning, a company co-founder said.

Stephen Gilfus created CourseInfo, a company that merged with Blackboard in 1998, and he helped to devise some of the joint venture’s earliest products. He left in 2007 to launch Gilfus Education Group, a research firm and consultancy.

Gilfus said colleges now want online programs that can integrate with other software, such as student registration, and also be tailored to individual campuses. Current Blackboard products don’t meet that need, he said.

He was in Las Vegas last week for BbWorld 2011, an annual conference hosted by Blackboard to debut new products to their network of business partners. The company launched its real-time learning platform as well as partnerships with several publishers.

“The overarching mood is that change is going to happen,” Gilfus said. “There’s an audience that hopes for innovation. There’s a percentage of the audience that’s generally cautious about what’s actually going to happen.”

Gilfus said Blackboard has struggled to keep pace with the education sector’s changing demands despite its market dominance because of the competing needs to invest in innovation and provide returns for shareholders.

The sale “is a good opportunity for Blackboard, outside of the public eye, to innovate,” he said. “If there is no innovation at Blackboard . . . they could risk losing market share.”

 
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