What a Cluster! Dispatch from #EdClusters16

WaterFire - Providence, RI

via http://waterfire.org/

Last week, Digital Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating innovation in education, hosted its fourth convening of Education Innovation Clusters in Providence, Rhode Island (#EdClusters16).

According to Digital Promise, “Education Innovation Clusters are local communities of practice that bring together educators, entrepreneurs, funders, researchers, and other community stakeholders (families, local government, non-profits) to support innovative teaching and learning in their region. By working together, these partners form a network that is uniquely positioned to design, launch, iterate on, and disseminate breakthrough learning practices and tools.”

The goal of the convening was to share best practices and address common challenges among clusters. One of those challenges is research and measurement of innovation efforts so I was there to share our recently released U.S. Education Innovation Index Prototype and Report (USEII).

I gave the whole presentation with my eyes closed (false) & there was more than one person listening (true!). Photo credit: @johnbaldo.

I was thrilled to be invited because there are only a handful of people in the education sector who are diligently working to push the envelope of schools. This group of entrepreneurs, funders, school leaders, and accelerator leaders were refreshingly aware of the current everyday realities of students, teachers, and principals, but thinking five to ten years into the future.

There was another reason that I was excited about joining this convening. Clusters are prototypical innovation-supporting institutions, structures that specifically aim to increase and improve innovation activities. The clusters facilitate social connections, help practitioners solve problems, and serve as hubs for the diffusion of new ideas. Because of this research-backed lesson, cities that are part of one of Digital Promise’s innovation clusters score higher on the USEII than those that don’t. Convenings of cluster leaders like this one create a superstructure for the diffusion of knowledge within and between clusters. It’s one thing to research networks like this, it’s quite another to be swept up in the debate, discussion, and energy for education innovation.

Here are a few observations on the convening and what it signals for education innovation:

Innovation calls for new research and measurement methods. You can see the shift from costly and time-intensive research methods such as randomized control trials (RCT) to those that can keep up with the pace at which entrepreneurs work and technology evolves. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology and Mathematica are developing a process for rigorous rapid cycle evaluations that uses Bayesian inference, a method of analysis better suited for prototyping and rapid iteration than regression analysis. The “RCT or Bust” education researchers may be skeptical of the merit of these new approaches, but their approval isn’t necessary for success.

Innovation is bigger than education technology. Much of the discussion at the clusters convening was about ed tech. And while there’s not doubt that technology can change how teachers teach, students learn, and systems operate very quickly, it doesn’t have a monopoly on innovation. Per our definition of innovation outlined in the Innovation Index (and discussed here), innovation applies to a product, process, policy, organization type, organization model, or organization practice. So let’s not forget huge policy innovations like Louisiana’s Recovery School District, new organization types like venture philanthropy firms, or new processes like value-added teacher evaluations.

Rhode Island wants to be the nation’s pilot site for education innovation. The governor, first gentleman, education commissioner, and chief innovation officer all sent a compelling message: Rhode Island has the perfect conditions for testing new approaches to schooling. It has schools eager to test new technologies, supportive leaders, and a manageable size (you can get all sixty-ish superintendents in a room). The Highlander Institute and EduvateRI are the state’s front door for entrepreneurs and funders. Michele Molnar at Education Week has a good write up.

Innovation and diversity go hand-in-hand. As is the case with many convenings of education leaders, the group of people in the room was not racially diverse. The healthiest and most productive networks — especially those tasked with coming up with novel ideas — are are as diverse as is possible. However, because of the human tendency to seek out others with similar characteristics, social networks tend to be homophilic, and it takes a concerted effort to diversify them. The common refrain that reform initiatives are done to communities instead of with them starts in non-diverse meetings of leaders. Digital Promise and their innovation cluster partners need to do better on this score.

Education technology holds incredible promise for rural America. I focus on urban education, but some of the innovation clusters have a presence in rural areas like the sparsely populated mountains of Appalachia. The promise of virtual reality, teleconferencing, distance learning, and virtual work environments in less dense areas is fascinating to me and something I want to explore further. Trends around the number of people teleworking, telecommuting, and working from home have been increasing and don’t seem to be slowing down. The ramifications of that are huge for how we prepare students and for employment. Imagine a student with in-demand web development skills working for Facebook from a small holler in Kentucky.

Providence was charming. I’m a sucker for small prideful cities and the hosts won me over with local goods from Table Talk Pies, Glee Gum, and Bananagrams. I appreciate that we had our convening in the Providence Public Library, an absolute gem of an institution that is super responsive to its community’s needs and changing times. I’ll take stacks of leather bound books and model ships over a slick, soulless hotel conference room any day.

Were you there? If so, what were your observations?