League of Innovative Schools Fall 2015 Meeting – Digital Promise

League of Innovative Schools Fall 2015 Meeting


Remaking Learning in the Neighborhood

Exploring the role partnerships have played in enhancing creativity, student engagement, and project-based learning

In the effort to solve the complex challenges facing education, even the most forward-thinking schools could use a little help from their neighborhood friends. After all, our nation’s school districts aren’t the only ones responsible for creating a more equitable and effective education system. It takes the collaborative partnerships of schools, researchers, entrepreneurs, and leading thinkers to produce the real and lasting change we need in education.

The importance of partnerships between districts and among non-school stakeholders was the theme of the League of Innovative Schools fall 2015 meeting, co-hosted by Avonworth School District, Elizabeth Forward School District, and South Fayette Township School District in Pittsburgh, PA.

Partners in Pittsburgh invest in students for the long haul, making a long term investment in creating and growing a vibrant and forward-thinking community. From engaging students in the design and testing of new educational approaches, to partnering with researchers and companies to develop new tools, to building collaborative, community-wide networks to bring it all together, here’s a look at what we learned in Pittsburgh.



Students as Partners

Innovation works best when the end users are at the center of the conversation. In the case of education innovation, this means cultivating authentic student engagement by welcoming opportunities for student partnership and honoring the ideas and priorities they share. In his keynote, Don Marinelli, co-founder of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, shared that student interests guided the development of his department. No matter their age or grade level, students can be a source of inspiration and ideas.

Effective student partnerships can take many forms, from co-designing programs and participating in pilot projects to developing peer-to-peer coaching and helping to solve real problems facing the district.

Second graders at South Fayette flipped the script and taught coding to visiting superintendents, reminding everyone that the pace of change demands that the lines between educator and learner continue to dissolve.

An 11th grader from Avonworth emphasized the importance of out-of-school learning opportunities, and the need for schools to ensure students have access to both face-to-face and digital learning opportunities that complement their classroom work.

Speaking on a panel, Pittsburgh-area high school students drove home the point that to be truly student-centered, learning opportunities also need to be student-led. When students have the space and time to discover a problem, devise a solution, and test their ideas, learning can become truly empowering. It’s opportunities like these that recently led students from South Fayette to publish papers in academic journals and make presentations to corporations like Microsoft.

Partnering with Tech Innovators

Education innovation can emerge anywhere, from a highly resourced district in a major metropolitan area to a rural district innovating out of necessity. Still, the concentration of creative thinking and cutting-edge experimentation found in higher education and the private sector can benefit any school ready to reach outside its comfort zone to strike up partnerships with tech innovators.

Colleges and universities, both as sources of technological advancement and educational research, have become the engines of innovation in today’s world. For school districts, partnerships with higher education can unlock the potential for technology-enhanced learning.

At Elizabeth Forward, League members saw first-hand how schools can partner with higher education to transform the culture of an entire district. Through embodied learning experiences created in partnership with graduate student teams from Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), students at Elizabeth Forward are engaging in learning in entirely new ways.

What League members saw in the fluid relationship between Elizabeth Forward and the ETC was evidence that K-12 and higher education are part of a continuum of learning, rather than existing in separate worlds. By establishing mutually beneficial partnerships with colleges and universities, schools can import knowledge and expertise to build their own capacity, while also breaking down the barriers that might exist for students who don’t see themselves as college-bound.

Likewise, the role of companies—from education technology providers to regional employers—can be a two-way street.

Schell Games, a Pittsburgh-based game design and development firm with a client list that includes PBS and The Walt Disney Company, is an active partner of South Fayette. Working closely with designers at Schell Games, students from South Fayette High School provided their feedback on the development of new learning apps and games. Partnerships like these are mutually beneficial—they provide students with project-based learning opportunities in real-world settings, while giving companies like Schell Games much-needed input from their target users.

Identifying partners

Led by LUMA Institute, League members mapped out stakeholders for innovation in their district, identifying potential partners and diagramming how partners (either actual or potential) relate to one another within their local context.

In addition to education partners like schools, museums, libraries, and universities, the diagrams included space for education technology companies, regional employers, and workforce development agencies who help connect education innovation to the private sector.

Among the private sector partners identified through the exercise, several groups listed local Chambers of Commerce, which help facilitate partnerships between districts and businesses, as well as major corporations like Lowe’s and Xerox, who may have headquarters or branch locations in the area. Corporate donors were noted by several groups as being sources of revenue for specific projects and opportunities, as well as important partners for raising community awareness.

For a full rundown of the student-centered design workshop, see the LUMA Institute summary.

Partnering on Pilot Projects

While partnerships with the private sector, higher education research and development teams can be exciting, as Digital Promise’s Aubrey Francisco pointed out in her lightning talk “Beyond Just Kicking the Tires (with Education Technology Pilots),” most pilot projects are unstructured, lack depth, and produce limited meaningful evidence.

According to Digital Promise’s research, when districts are thinking about partnering with ed-tech companies, they need to keep a few things in mind to run better pilots:

  • Set clear goals and timelines for all stages of the pilot
  • Maintain open communication with their partnering company
  • Collect user feedback from students and teachers (and maybe even do pre- and post-pilot surveys)

To learn more, read Aubrey’s report ‘Beyond Just Kicking the Tires (with Education Technology Pilots’.

By checking off these basics, partnering with ed-tech companies can lead to more thoughtful collaboration that is more likely to improve practices and get the right products into the hands of the right teachers and students.

League Members as Partners

The League is founded on the belief in the value of giving school leaders opportunities to work together on shared challenges and opportunities. Facilitating the open exchange of knowledge helps accelerate the spread of good ideas—making it easier for superintendents and instructional leaders to learn from their peers, rather than working in isolation, separated by district boundaries and state borders.

During a student-centered design session led by LUMA Institute, League members worked through some of the challenges facing them as they seek to build new partnerships.

A League member from Texas wondered how rural districts that don’t have museums or higher education partners nearby might best establish partnerships. Fellow League members suggested starting small by reaching out to local libraries and community centers, or even recreation centers that might be interested in partnering on enrichment programs. Conversely, by thinking big, that rural district might be able to connect with national and global organizations that want to help.

League members from Lincoln, Nebraska and Baltimore, Maryland worked together to solidify ideas for implementing makerspaces in school buildings as well as mobile versions that could travel throughout the district, including identifying four partners from different sectors they could work with to make it happen.

If the session had to be summarized in a single key lesson learned, it might be the one captured by Edward Simoneau from League member school Coachella Valley Unified School District:

Scaling Innovation through Communities of Partners

Involving entire communities as partners offers students invaluable opportunities to enrich their learning. One-to-one partnerships between districts and their partners (whether private, public, or nonprofit) have amazing potential to unlock innovation. But going to scale takes more than transforming a single district. By leveraging one-to-one partnerships and broadening community-wide participation in innovation, districts can lead the creation of entire networks of educational innovation that ensure all students have access to meaningful learning opportunities in local schools, at major institutions like museums and libraries, at smaller neighborhood-based agencies, at home, and online.

League members saw how Avonworth School District partnered with a host of local arts organizations, including the world-famous Andy Warhol Museum, to enrich their high school arts curriculum, while also giving students a challenging, project-based learning opportunity.

In partnership with the Warhol, as well as the Carnegie Museum of Art, Mattress Factory Contemporary Art Center, and others, Avonworth established a shadowing program for students to learn workplace skills from arts professionals, and then put that learning into practice by organizing and curating their own contemporary art exhibits in the high school.


One of our League meeting partners, The Sprout Fund, used the meeting as an opportunity to release the Remake Learning Playbook, a new resource full of ideas for building and sustaining collaborative partnerships for education innovation.

With practical advice for building partnerships and catalyzing innovation, all supported by examples of successful in-school and out-of-school projects in Pittsburgh, the Playbook provided League members with a toolkit they could take home to start or continue conversations about education innovation in their communities.

Moving Ahead with Digital Promise

As a committed partner to the success of the League and its members, Digital Promise continues to push forward on some of the most pressing challenges and needs identified by the League.

Beyond Just Kicking the Tires

To help schools run more effective and successful pilot projects in partnership with ed-tech companies, Aubrey Francisco at Digital Promise is on a mission to make collaboration more meaningful, improve practices, and ensure that the right products get into the hands of the right teachers and students. Interested schools and partners should check out the Digital Promise website to get involved.

Competency-Based Education

Schools and classrooms are designed to teach to the average student but the fact is, there is no such thing as an average student. Every student has individual needs, motivations, and aspirations. That’s why educators are embracing competency-based education, a school design that focuses on student growth, gives students ownership of their learning, and personalizes learning to meet students’ individual needs. Learn more about the League’s competency-based education efforts on the Digital Promise website.

Educator Micro-Credentials

To provide educators with a way to better capture and represent their own learning, Jennifer Kabaker at Digital Promise is leading the Educator Micro-credentials project that recognizes teachers for the skills and knowledge they gain through professional development, instead of just for time spent in-session. Educators can learn more about how micro-credentials work on the Digital Promise website.

Global Education’s Dual Personality

To help build schools’ capacity to connect with international partners and support students’ global competence, Chelsea Waite at Digital Promise is leading efforts to help schools meet the needs of a student body that is rapidly diversifying and becoming global citizens. Schools can share their story about their globalizing education and find more resources at Digital Promise Global.

Maker Learning

To help identify, support, and connect America’s maker schools, Randy Paris at Digital Promise is leading efforts to enable more schools to provide high-quality maker learning opportunities to students. As we develop our maker learning work, we’d love to hear from you. Educators can share their stories, spaces, and plans with us by emailing randy@digitalpromise.org.

A special thanks to Digital Promise Corporate Partners and meeting sponsors for their help in making this event possible.

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