The Learning Network
Connecting centers of excellence and leveraging community assets to advance learning innovation.
Networks drive today’s world. The hierarchical, centralized approaches that have worked in the past are poorly suited to a world where dispersion — of ideas, opportunities, and risks — is the reality. Highly coordinated communities of people and organizations allow for synergies, swapping ideas, rubbing shoulders — working together toward a shared vision.
This new reality isn’t limited to the worlds of high technology and global business. In its 2014 report, the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet called for “a shift from the traditional focus on one learning institution, the school, to a focus on the learner and all the places where there are opportunities to learn, like museums, libraries, after-school programs, and the home.” The report’s overarching recommendation is to build learning networks (made up of online and physical places) to connect and spread opportunities for children and youth.
What does that look like? To build a community where anywhere, anytime learning is a reality, cities and regions need to tap into their many talents and resources to create a vibrant ecosystem of opportunities. That’s the approach we’ve taken in Pittsburgh, and we’re not alone. “I have come to see that an ecosystem for learning is essential,” Michele Cahill, program director of urban education at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has said. “Schools themselves have intellectual capital, but a city’s ecosystem has so much more of it. Why are we keeping it so separate?”
The short answer: Probably because these networks don’t just materialize, even when a city has a wealth of resources. They take planning, coordination and time to emerge.
The U.S. Department of Education, in partnership with Digital Promise, has been exploring network-based approaches through its work to develop Education Innovation Clusters, inspired by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter’s “Cluster Development” theories. Dr. Porter demonstrated that clusters of interconnected firms, suppliers, related industries, and specialized institutions raise productivity of each organization as well as the whole region.
The cluster concept for learning envisions three key partners: educators, researchers, and commercial enterprises.
- Education partners pilot new solutions with input from students and teachers. Educational partners might be early learning providers, public or private schools, libraries, community centers, afterschool programs, institutions of higher education, or virtual learning organizations. They provide the flexibility and capability to rapidly develop, test, and collect data on new learning approaches and educational products.
- Research partners conduct basic and applied research. They both inform and help validate the products and approaches developed in the cluster.
- Commercial partners take the new ideas and products to market. They also provide investment capital.
In the Pittsburgh region, we’ve adapted and built on the cluster model to establish the Remake Learning Network. The structure of our network includes five key elements:
Learning innovation begins where learning happens — in schools, museums, libraries, afterschool sites, and community centers.
Education partners, both in school and out-of-school, are the locus of learning in any network — not just as learning institutions, but also as hubs for information, connection, and access to critical community resources. Enterprising teachers trying new approaches in classrooms or visionary administrators reaching out to external partners are jumpstarting change in districts, both from the bottom-up as well as from the top-down.
But learning doesn’t end when the school day ends. A learning network would be incomplete without the participation of key out-of-school learning environments.
Large cultural institutions like museums and libraries, as well as established national organizations like YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs are already deeply trusted in many communities. As learning environments, these institutions often employ instructors, mentors, and coaches who develop their own educational programing. Neighborhood-based afterschool sites, community centers, enrichment providers, and faith-based programs are free, safe, and accessible places for children and youth to connect with one another, seek the academic help they need, and pursue their own learning interests without traveling too far from home.
Intermediary organizations are important conduits for distributing information, resources, and support to front-line education partners. For example, in the Pittsburgh region, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit provides professional development and other support services to teachers in 42 regional school districts, while Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time provides ongoing support and coordination for hundreds of afterschool learning sites large and small. As members of the Remake Learning Network, these and other intermediaries advance the spread and adoption of innovative approaches to teaching and learning among the organizations they serve.
Innovation Research & Development
From new technologies to new pedagogies, higher education institutions are engines of innovation.
Higher education institutions are sources of equipment and talent, basic and applied research, and professional connections to local and national leaders.
Universities are hubs of intellectual capital at the forefront of human investigation and discovery. They house precocious students and erudite faculty importing and exporting ideas as part of a global academic community. By bringing the latest knowledge and most advanced expertise to bear, university labs and research centers act as generators of new ideas and pilot programs that can be put into practice through effective partnerships with other members of the network.
Outside of academia, independent tech developers and designers, as well as public-private innovation hubs and tech-transfer offices, help bring innovation from the lab to the market. By building bridges between developers and the audiences for which they are designing, the network turns the community into a collaborative test-bed for innovation.
Working closely with educators both in- and out-of-school, researchers and designers put their latest innovations into practice in a variety of learning environments. That enables instant feedback from students and teachers and informs the design of early-stage products. Coupling this iterative process with ongoing professional development for educators, innovators ensure that their creations are relevant and approachable.
Additionally, outreach is critical to assuring that powerful new tools don’t get stuck in the ivory tower of academia. In Pittsburgh, the CREATE Lab Satellite Network connects researchers and developers with regional schools of education so that tomorrow’s teachers can experiment with new technologies and integrate their use into lessons and curriculum planning.
And through programs like Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, student design teams take on projects for “clients” from the Remake Learning Network, including school districts testing gamification in the classroom and museums seeking to create more immersive learning environments.
Learning Scholarship & Advocacy
Grounding action in research and making the case for innovative practices that work.
In addition to being sources of new technological innovation, higher education partners provide critical evaluation resources to help practitioners test the effectiveness of their programs.
Learning scientists and design researchers actively evaluate new approaches to teaching and learning being implemented throughout the network. Their work informs the design and implementation of new products and pedagogies, and evaluates the effectiveness of new practices or policies, and the network itself.
In Pittsburgh, initiatives like the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE) embeds research and design fellows within education organizations to develop deep understandings of existing programs and provides expert consultation on the design of new programs.
Advocacy organizations, particularly those focusing on specific areas of importance like early childhood education or afterschool enrichment, use research findings to advance the spread and adoption of innovative learning practices within their field. These organizations also raise greater awareness among elected officials and other policymakers.
For example, the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC) campaigns for greater emphasis on early childhood education on the local and state level, while also offering professional development opportunities to help early childhood educators learn how they might integrate new digital tools and technologies into their classrooms.
By contributing to national academic discussions, research and advocacy organizations also spread research findings to a global community of practice. At the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning & Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, research fellows and children’s media experts study programs led by network members and share their learnings with key stakeholders. These efforts have shaped national recommendations for the appropriate use of digital media in early childhood education.
Commercial & Entrepreneurial Engagement
Designing and marketing new products with input and investment from the network.
Digital technology products — from touchscreen apps and tutoring software to hands-on kits and online platforms — are the textbooks and chemistry sets of the 21st century. The ed-tech firms and media companies creating these learning experiences are an integral part of the network, whether they locate their businesses in the community, partner with educators to co-design and test new products, or work with network members to adapt existing tools and services to meet local needs.
Ed-tech incubators facilitate connections between entrepreneurs and their end users by inviting educators and students into the design and development process — from the idea generation stage to user testing and beyond.
In the Remake Learning Network, the Pittsburgh Technology Council launched the Creative Industries Network to support companies working in a variety of fields, including education technology. And through informal activities like ed-tech meet-ups, firms connect with one another, learn about investment opportunities, and participate in “design jams” with teachers.
Small ed-tech enterprises are engines of economic growth for communities. They attract talent with a heightened appreciation for high quality in the learning environments for their families. Schell Games, a game design and development company founded by Carnegie Mellon University professor Jesse Schell, has grown to the largest game developer in Pennsylvania with more than 100 employees.
The contributions made by companies to the network aren’t limited to technology development. Major regional employers want today’s students to be prepared with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they’ll need to be effective members of tomorrow’s workforce. They often focus their corporate giving efforts on learning programs that cultivate these competencies and can be a source of funding for innovative training and workforce development programs.
Guiding the network, supporting its members, and sustaining an environment where learning innovation thrives.
The Remake Learning Network first came together as a small group of like-minded people who met to exchange ideas over breakfast. In its earliest days, these personal, informal gatherings helped innovators communicate, seed some of the first collaborative projects, and build momentum. But as networks grow in size and complexity, direct coordination often becomes necessary.
Even in a self-organizing network where partners come together and begin collaborating right away, intentional coordination helps networks go farther, quicker. Philanthropies often lead the way, using funding to focus the network’s attention and set regional priorities.
Rather than selecting a single organization to lead the network, consider a spoke-and-hub or constellation model that empowers teams of organizations to act as “network hubs” for different sectors of the network. The best candidates for these hubs are intermediary organizations that act in the best interests of the network, allowing other network members to focus on their core mission and programmatic activities.
Hub organizations play several roles. As conveners, they bring people together and build the field. As catalysts, they invest money and resources to get new ideas off the ground or help exciting projects to develop. As communicators, hub organizations enhance networks members’ ability to tell their story effectively and efficiently, internally and externally. As champions, hubs lift up the accomplishments of network actors, regionally, nationally, and internationally. And, as coordinators, hub organizations connect the dots, recommend priorities for the network, and connect those priorities to national resources.
In Pittsburgh, The Sprout Fund, a nonprofit organization, serves as a connector of the many spokes of the network and offers a suite of support services to all network members. At the leadership level, the Remake Learning Council brings together major community leaders drawn from government, higher education, school districts, and the private sector. The Council sets a long-term agenda for the network and brings the collective resources of Pittsburgh’s major institutions to bear.
Regional Strengths and Priorities
Build on regional strengths and channel them into focus areas where the network can make the biggest impact.
With a supportive network structure in place, it’s important to identify key areas of focus that align network activities with regional priorities and build on local strengths.
Focus areas should be based on each region’s unique characteristics. Perhaps your region has a concentration of advanced manufacturing industries. Then, you may consider maker learning opportunities that prepare students for careers in this field. Or your region may have a wealth of arts and culture institutions that can come together to provide learners with opportunities to deeply develop their creative capacities. You can easily see how Los Angeles might focus on the entertainment industry and media making, while in Houston, a dual focus on space exploration and energy might make the most sense.
In Pittsburgh, the Remake Learning Network is leveraging regional strengths in a number of areas:
- Robotics: With the leadership of Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh is a global hub for lab-to-market robotics technology. So it’s only natural that programs and tools for learning, teaching, and designing robotics are being developed in our network.
- Gaming: Regional assets like the Entertainment Technology Center and local companies like Schell Games and Zulama position our network well to dive deeply into educational gaming and playful learning.
- Early Learning: The legacy of media pioneer Fred Rogers is alive and well in Pittsburgh through both the Fred Rogers Company, which produces children’s media like “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” and the Fred Rogers Center, a research institute that studies and advocates for quality children’s media made for the digital age.
- Youth Voice: Pittsburgh is home to several independent media companies and schools working in radio, podcasting, as well as film and video production. Organizations like SLB Radio, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, and Steeltown Entertainment create a rich environment for youth to produce their own creative media. And initiatives like Hear Me and the YMCA Lighthouse program amplify the voices of youth on important social issues.
In addition to these regional strengths, the network has also identified three approaches to learning that are critical to preparing youth to thrive in the 21st century:
- Maker Learning: Students learn how to work together and to reshape the world through hands-on tinkering, hacking, and building with real tools and materials, making combines physical and digital skills from science and engineering, technology and media, crafting, and the arts.
- Digital Learning: New tools are transforming how we learn, socialize, and participate in the world. The pace of change in the digital age will only continue to increase, encouraging everyone to become adept producers and thoughtful consumers of digital media.
- STEAM Learning: Purposefully incorporating elements of multiple disciplines — science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics — STEAM programs develop learners ready to address the complexity of real-world problems by putting their curiosity and creativity to work.
With these areas of focus for the Remake Learning Network, we define the kinds of learning experiences we seek to create and identify opportunities to partner with national leaders.
For example, through STEAM Grants offered by the Center for Creativity at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, regional school districts can seek up to $20,000 in funding to support the meaningful integration of STEAM learning practices in their schools. To expand access to digital learning opportunities, The Sprout Fund worked with Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time to create the Digital Corps, a team of trained digital learning mentors who are embedded in community learning sites throughout Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. These mentors provide hands-on, project-based digital learning workshops free of charge. And through the MAKESHOP at The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, school teachers and informal educators can take part in Maker Educator Bootcamps that provide professional development for those seeking to implement maker learning practices in their classroom or program.
About the Remake Learning Playbook
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.
Top photo: STEAM Studio at Crafton Elementary School / Ben Filio for The Sprout Fund