The Power of Networks in Education Innovation - Digital Promise

The Power of Networks in Education Innovation

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October 15, 2020 | By

For the past six years, Digital Promise has convened a national network of Education Innovation Clusters (EdClusters)—leaders working to collaborate outside the traditional silos of sector and institution to design and implement transformative learning tools and programs in their communities.

The origin, learnings, and impact of the EdClusters movement offer vital lessons. As Digital Promise sunsets its formal Education Innovation Clusters initiative, its ecosystem-building efforts continue at a time when the need for and power of community have never been clearer. To deepen this work, Digital Promise has launched the Center for Inclusive Innovation, which will partner with districts and communities to pilot a research and development(R&D) model radically centered in amplifying marginalized voices. We remain committed to connecting, collaborating, and sharing with the field in this work.

To capture the vital lessons and stories of the EdClusters work, we’ve published a compendium of learnings from the movement. In addition to tools, resources, and profiles that codify best practices for community network-building, the compendium also highlights some larger takeaways, informed by insights from leaders across the field.

Lessons learned include:

  • Network weaving activities are essential. Strong network programming and relationships helps them to self-sustain.
  • Dedicated stewardship is required. Stewarding an inclusive network requires time, money, and human capital.
  • Establish responsive, reflective infrastructure. Networks processes for sharing, feedback, and change.
  • Leadership must be local.Outside entities may bring support, but it takes local buy-in and investment to sustain the work.
  • Dedicated resources make a difference. Funding for network management was critical to grow and sustain work.
  • Make the vision broad and the activities specific. Concrete projects give meaning and show the unifying vision at work.
  • Define multiple entry points for participation. Stakeholders need different ways to engage, matched to their goals.
  • Leverage connections, but don’t be exclusive. “Who you know” builds connective tissue but excludes vital voices.
  • Find a champion, but don’t depend on them. Champions bring clout and support. But don’t concentrate their influence.
  • Tell your story, but make it about others. Showcasing partners, especially those under-represented, tells a network story.
  • Be intentional about equity. If it isn’t equitable, it isn’t innovative. Advancing equity means designing and redesigning for it with intention through ongoing commitment. It requires listening to community, acknowledging harm, and making changes—across partnerships, leadership, culture, funding, and programming. If it isn’t equitable, it isn’t innovative.

Being intentional about equity has anchored much of our learning. EdClusters are situated in cultures and contexts that have historically marginalized people, organizations, and communities—chiefly those who are Black, Brown, Indigenous, people of color, and people experiencing poverty. EdClusters can either disrupt or perpetuate those equity gaps.

Education networks will continue to leverage the best of learning science, digital tools, community wisdom, partnerships, and student voice to not just improve learning but redefine it.

Looking forward, we see the EdClusters field focusing in several key directions:

Specialization. As organizations and EdClusters develop expertise, they are beginning to more clearly focus their efforts. A focus on broader network-building efforts has shifted to more specialized programs and partnerships.
Reimagining learning. EdClusters will continue to support models that disrupt the broken industrial model of school. They will continue to leverage the best of learning science, digital tools, partnerships, community wisdom, and student voice to not just improve learning but redefine it.

Responsive collaborations. Partnerships will arise to meet specific needs, leveraging the connective tissue of the network. (Read our blog series on EdClusters’ COVID-19 responses here.)

Deepening specific projects. EdClusters are increasingly focused on key initiatives that can be built over time, leveraging multiple partners. Specific programs will likely provide the anchor for EdClusters work going forward.

R&D infrastructure. EdClusters will continue to build, expand, and deeper infrastructure to support education innovation R&D work. Challenges remain around how best to share leadership, center equity, and scale learnings, but the promise and momentum of R&D partnerships in the EdClusters ecosystem is growing.

Reengaging the role of government. With shifts in policy and administrations, the field is poised to better partner with government at the federal, state, and local level. Government has the opportunity to invest in ecosystem-building at a time of critical need.

Centering equity. EdClusters are deepening their understanding of equity and are increasingly committed to amplifying marginalized voices and advancing anti-racist practices throughout their work. We urge decision makers and funders to align their investments of time, capacity, and resources with those commitments.

Since 2015, the EdClusters network has included more than 50 organizations in 20 regions across the country. Dozens of regions have built community ecosystems that incubate ideas, relationships, and projects. And they’ve launched powerful partnerships that brought schools, researchers, and innovators together in new and impactful ways. Digital Promise has been honored to convene and support this network, and we remain committed to sharing outputs, learnings, and partnerships as we continue in our individual and collective work.

To learn more, read the full compendium—The Power of Community Networks: Learnings from the Education Innovation Clusters Movement.

Follow the work of the Center for Inclusive Innovation, and sign up for email updates at the end of our blog here.

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