Education Innovation Clusters: Moving Forward

Office of Ed Tech
Jan 19, 2017 · 6 min read

As the administration comes to a close, it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect on the growth of education innovation clusters in the past few years and where they are heading.

Long before coming to the U.S. Department of Education, I was excited to see Baltimore joining the many communities who were beginning to work together to create regional ed tech ecosystems across the country. In those early days, many of us would organize breakfast meetings at ed tech conferences to connect and identify ways to collaborate. Everyone wanted to work together across the ecosystems, but we were all challenged with not having enough capacity when so many of us were developing our own local communities.

Shortly thereafter I joined the Office of Educational Technology (OET) team with a front-row view of the impressive work ramping up across the country.

Brief History

Taking a step back before my time at the Department, at the request of then Deputy Assistant Secretary Jim Shelton in 2011, Richard Culatta began an exploration of innovation cluster grants given by the Department of Commerce. Finding no education-focused grants, and few education-related proposals in the pipeline, Richard began developing a plan to support the creation of education innovation clusters. In those early days, the Department pulled together two of the first annual education innovation cluster convenings in Philadelphia (2012) and then Arizona (2013) with a handful of participants.

It became clear that the work would be advanced more effectively with an external partner. When the U.S. Department of Education partnered with Digital Promise in 2014 to provide support for these regional education innovation clusters, the annual convenings began to gain grow exponentially.

In August of 2014, I was fortunate to attend the 3rd Annual Convening in Pittsburgh, which was co-hosted by the Department, Digital Promise, the Remake Learning Network, and the Sprout Fund. I was energized by the school visits, which included seeing students using makerspaces, and hearing from other regions how they were building communities across their different stakeholders.

My experience at this convening cemented for me the importance of clusters having opportunities to learn and grow with and from one another. Since joining OET, we co-hosted two additional convenings with Digital Promise and our regional hosts, LEAP Innovations in Chicago in August 2015, and the Highlander Institute and the Rhode Island Office of Innovation in Providence, RI, in September 2016, both events bringing in well over 100 participants.

Education Innovation Cluster Definition

While defining an education innovation cluster may not seem to be a significant accomplishment, in the early days it was not clear what it took to be an education innovation cluster. In collaboration with Digital Promise and other regional education innovation clusters, we defined education innovation clusters as 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.

Highlights from the Field

Since those early days, existing education innovation clusters have matured and new communities have begun to emerge. Over the past year, education innovation clusters have continued to maintain and grow their impact with increased coordination across public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Here are a few highlights from the field:

  • Chicago’s LEAP Innovations works to transform education and accelerate change by leading a community of practice comprised of more than 100 partners including educators, parents, innovators, policymakers, and researchers. LEAP released The LEAP Learning Framework last April, providing actionable strategies for educators to innovate with a learner-centered approach. They also released year one results from the LEAP Pilot Network, which showed promising gains among students who used a literacy edtech tool. Launched in April 2014, LEAP has secured more than $15.5 million in philanthropic funding to catalyze education innovation across the country.
  • The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, a 17-district consortium, worked to empower students to make positive changes in their Appalachian communities through an extensive web of partnerships and programs. (See a video snapshot of some of their work here: Silicon Holler: Training Students for the New Economy, Here in Appalachia)
  • In Pittsburgh, the Remake Learning Network held over 237 events, drew 30,000 participants from 270 unique zip codes, and garnered 97 commitments to support innovative teaching and learning in the region. Connected to Remake Learning, Sprout Fund released a playbook telling their story and guiding others in their model of success.
  • The Rhode Island Office of Innovation and the Highlander Institute established EduvateRI as a formal organization. Rhode Island has become a model for involving state government in their efforts. Governor Gina Raimondo addressing attendees at the EdCluster16 convening, said that “innovation is a critical part of closing the achievement gap and giving all learners a chance.” Most recently, RIDE, the Rhode Island Office of Innovation, Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, Highlander Institute and other partners launched the RI Personalized Learning Initiative.
  • The University of San Diego’s Mobile Technology Learning Center has grown their multi-sector partnerships, supported by companies in the regions to foster learning and innovative regional K-12 districts. (Check out a short video highlighting some of their work here.)
  • In Tucson, Josh Schachter of CommunityShare has developed a platform that connects educators and students with “funds of knowledge” in the community. The CommunityShare platform has brought together more than 450 teachers, 2,500 students, and 360 community partners.
  • Boston’s LearnLaunch announced a new multi-sector partnership to scale personalized learning throughout Massachusetts, and they continue to leverage funding approaches to support the expansion of the ed tech network in Boston.

Toolkits and Templates

In addition to co-hosting the annual convenings, Digital Promise has also developed several toolkits and templates to cultivate four key practices that must be in place for a successful cluster: Strong Stakeholder Engagement, Supportive Infrastructure, Sustainable Operations, and Compelling Communication. These toolkits include guiding questions/ considerations, best practices, models, frameworks, practice profiles from cluster regions, and additional resources to support education innovation clusters. There is a self-assessment survey to help clusters identify their stage of development, areas of interest, and specific elements they need to development further.

Next Steps

Over the past two and half years, the Office of Educational Technology has been honored to work closely with Digital Promise to provide leadership for education innovation clusters.

As education innovation clusters move into the next phase, our hope is that the incredible momentum begun will continue to build. Thanks to all of the regional ed tech ecosystems, and Digital Promise, education innovation clusters are a real, connected community. While the larger ecosystem system is still in its early stages, it has matured to the point where we have confidence this work will continue.

Digital Promise intends to continue to work with key partners to provide not only resources for cluster development, but also technical assistance. It is their priority to see that this work continues and that they and other organizations are able to coordinate, collaborate, and amplify the work of clusters in the education innovation ecosystem. Several other organizations from more advanced regional innovation clusters — Pittsburgh’s Sprout Fund and Remake Learning Network, Rhode Island’s EduvateRI and Highlander Institute and 4.0 Schools — have also committed to continuing this work.

I’m excited to see the next stage of education innovation clusters!

Katrina Stevens is the Deputy Director in the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. She leads the work of innovative R&D in educational technology, rapid cycle evaluations, Future Ready, education innovation clusters, and developer outreach. Katrina has experience as a classroom teacher, administrator, professional developer, startup cofounder, consultant, angel investor, journalist and community organizer. She works to bring people together from across the ecosystem to make better tools for students.

Office of Ed Tech

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The Office of Educational Technology (OET) provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education at all levels.

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