How Networks Can Transform Learning

An essay by Mark Surman, Executive Director, Mozilla Foundation


There is near consensus that we need to transform our education system. The 9 to 3 classroom was designed to help us industrialize: to help farm kids become city kids with the literacy and regimen needed to be factory workers and office clerks. The thing is: we don’t live in an industrial world any more.

We live in a world where all of our lives are to some degree tied into the culture and technology of the web. We also live in a world of service and creative jobs, where critical thinking, collaboration, flexibility, adaptability, and digital skills are just as critical to being able to read and write. Even in today’s industrial and agricultural jobs, the Internet and 21st century work practices are increasingly a part of how work gets done. Unfortunately, our education system, by its very design, is not suited to help young people gain the requisite skills and mindsets they need to succeed in this world.

The good news: educators, parents, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and young people themselves are stepping up to fix this. They’re mashing up John Dewey with making, playing, inventing, and sharing. Learning is becoming more social and collaborative. Infusing digital skills and tools into all that they do. And tapping into the knowledge and humanity that sits inside the global Internet. These people are social innovators, rolling up their sleeves to develop fresh approaches that create new ways to learn — and giving young people new ways to thrive.

The biggest challenge we have right now isn’t an innovation challenge (or, not primarily). As you flip through this playbook, you’ll see that it is full of innovations that have great promise.

The real challenge we face today is one of spread, scale, and equity. We must spread the innovations we see emerging so they’re in everyone’s hands and minds. And this means everyone: children in America born into poverty on average get 6,000 less hours in learning than their middle class peers by grade 6. In particular, they tend to get far less access to the kind of innovative out of school programs that teach 21st century skills. If we want to tackle challenges like spread, scale, and equity, we need to change the system at some level.

The real challenge we face today is one of spread, scale and equity. We need to spread the innovations we see emerging so they reach everyone’s hands and minds.

One way to tackle systems change like this is with open, collaborative networks: humans connected to each other bringing their own ideas and solving their own part of the problem. Networks lend themselves to this kind of change in part because no one institution has the mandate or resources to take on massive, systemic issues like transforming education. This is fairly obvious. The less obvious — and more powerful point — is that networks have the potential to slowly transform systems by sneaking into the cracks. A single passionate educator can bring an innovative practice to a school or a city. Out-of-school spaces like libraries and museums can invent and try out radical new programs. And young people themselves can simply follow their passion on the Internet and find others to discover and create with. Together, network members come up with ideas, vet for the best ones, try things out, make things better, and over time start to transform their approach to teaching and learning. As this happens, open minded people nearby start to say: “Hey, something is different here. And it’s kind of cool. I can try this.” From there, innovations seep more deeply into the cracks.

We’ve seen this over and over again with the Hive Learning Networks that Mozilla runs in a number of cities around the world. Hives are local networks of educators committed to bringing connected learning and digital literacy into how they teach. The main thing these educators do together is share ideas, try out new tools and, in many cases, invent new curriculum and programs together: an educator at a science museum working with a digital literacy organization to get kids collecting data about plants in a local park (skills: research, design, critical thinking, basic digital content creation); or a local library network and a group teaching hip hop developing a program for kids who want to produce their own music (skills: creativity, entrepreneurship, planning, advanced digital literacy). By working on these collaborative projects — and through regular meet ups and teach-ins — educators develop their own connected learning and digital literacy skills. In a sense, a Hive is at once an open source digital literacy lab and a peer-to-peer professional development program.

We’ve seen similar approaches with Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network (which is tied into Hive). The thinking in Pittsburgh was this: a city is an ecosystem with many actors and many interdependencies. To solve complex problems and achieve long-term goals, people need to put their energy together around a common vision. Remake Learning brought together educators, designers, technologists, researchers, artists, entrepreneurs and community members around the idea that they needed to transform education if they wanted Pittsburgh to be the best place to live, work, and raise a family. Each member of the network acted independently to pursue their own mission and was committed to a loose but intentional affiliation to these common goals. By building a network that made connections between all the city’s assets and resources, Remake Learning created the kind of openly networked approach that helps innovation spread.

As networks like Hive and Remake Learning mature, we start to see innovation not only in the cracks of the system, but also at the heart of the system itself. The growth of creative digital literacy programming in New York City provides an example of this. Hive New York was the birthplace of Mozilla’s web literacy work — an effort to help people learn how to read, write, and participate on the web. As an initial spark in this effort, enterprising educators in organizations like MOUSE and the New York Public Library helped Mozilla create a program that quickly gets young people making things together. It then builds more real-world skills like resilience and advanced creativity and technical skills from there. After three years working with educators like these, this approach is now part of the thinking being integrated into the thinking of the New York Department of Education’s Office of Post-Secondary Readiness. Their Digital Ready program connects Hive organizations to schools to provide the kind of digital learning experiences that schools cannot typically offer. Ideas that emerged and grew “in the cracks” have gained the credibility and strength needed to become a part of a more mainstream plan for educational transformation. This is how innovation spreads — and how networks have an impact.

This slow shift into the mainstream isn’t about spreading for spreading’s sake. It is about making the kind of shift to 21st skills that young people need today available to everyone — whether they can get to a specialized after school program or not. Hives are very focused on who learns, why, and when, in great part because network leaders and members share a commitment not only to new skills and new approaches to learning, but also to equity. With the right approach and patience, a network can start to move the ball on the equity agenda.

When people build things together they tend to own them emotionally and want to roll them out after they are created.

One critical element in the effectiveness of these networks is “working in the open.” This includes a number of simple practices commonly associated with open source software: making curriculum and tools easy for others to discover; publishing using an editable format that allows others to freely use and adapt them; using an open license like Creative Commons. It also includes a set of work practices that make it easy for people to collaborate across organizations and locations: collaborative writing in shared online documents; shared public plans on wiki or other editable documents; progress reports and insights shared in real time and posted on blogs. These simple practices are the grease that lubricates the network, allowing ideas to flow and innovations to spread. More importantly, they make it possible for people to genuinely build things together — and learn along the way. This point cannot be emphasized strongly enough: when people build things together they tend to own them emotionally and want to roll them out after they are created. If the people building together are from different institutions, then the innovations spread more quickly to more institutions.

Another key element of open innovation is connecting these city-based networks to each other. In 2014, we created Hive Global: an umbrella network to connect New York, Pittsburgh, and a dozen other cities aiming to transform learning and give young people the skills they need for today’s world. This effort provides ways for local educators to see what is happening in other cities, get copies of program materials and curricula they might try in their own work and, from time to time, to travel to other cities and countries to work with their peers. This global work is essential fuel for the work of local educators who are able to adapt new ideas quickly to their own local context. The result is an approach that is at once global and local.

In the past, social innovators like the members of Hive and Remake Learning could only share information through informal networks or trade publications with limited distribution. In the age of the web and open source, we have the opportunity to build networks where ideas move much more fluidly — and where new innovations seep more quickly into the cracks. As these networks mature, they have the potential to spread innovations beyond the cracks and into the mainstream. They have the potential to make new skills and new ways of learning available to everyone. They have the real potential to change the system.

What does this mean for transforming education? Hopefully it means that we’re moving toward a future where young people have the skills and mindsets they need to thrive in today’s world. If we can build that future where this is the mainstream of education, we can help all young people not just get a job — we can also help them pursue their own path and figure out who they want to become. Whether it’s in Pittsburgh or New York or anywhere, that’s the kind of future I want to see us build.

A community activist and technology executive of 20+ years, Mark currently serves as the Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, makers of Firefox and one of the largest social enterprises in the world. At Mozilla, he is focused on using the open technology and ethos of the web to transform fields such as education, journalism and filmmaking.

About the Remake Learning Playbook

This is a guest essay included in the Remake Learning Playbook, an ambitious effort to open source the “project code” for learning innovation undertaken by Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network.

We’re eager for your feedback! We’ve released the Playbook on Medium so readers can share feedback and help inform the field. Please add comments, notes, suggestions, and questions throughout these chapters to help us make the Playbook as useful as possible.

<PreviousNext>

Table of Contents


Top photo: Summit to Reconnect Learning / Ben Filio for The Sprout Fund