Building a Better Innovation System in EducationWednesday, March 9, 2011
It may be the moment for innovation in the education system. Earlier last month, President Obama released a budget proposal calling for the creation of an “Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education.” In a nutshell, the audacious goal of ARPA-ED is to look at a system that has historically sputtered on even incremental reform and seriously consider what radical change might look like. Coming from a federal level, this kind of radical re-envisioning could easily terrify so many entrenched stakeholders that it shakes apart before ever putting marker to whiteboard, but it could also succeed beyond our wildest expectations.
ARPA-ED might just succeed because the education system is in a rare moment of alignment around the prospect of innovation. The issue is building consensus across party lines, bringing President Obama and Republican ex-Governor Jeb Bush together for a recent press conference in Miami. The NEA is also on board, stating that “the technology environment of today’s public schools should match the tools … of work and civic life that students will encounter after graduation.” Wind of this alignment has reached the private sector, where investors are predicting a 28% annual growth rate in the K-12 educational technology market:
There is no question that a shift is happening. Now ARPA-ED and other innovators in the education space must face the daunting challenge of imagining what that shift might look like. As Republicans, Democrats, superintendents and teachers unions all gingerly approach the notion of radical change, they each project radically different images of what that change will look like. Some envision e-schools that can deliver high-quality learning at a fraction of the current cost, others imagine teachers trained to facilitate fully customized learning experiences through technology, others just want graduates ready to compete in the global economy of the 21st century. These competing visions of the future, though often fundamentally compatible, can layer on top of innovation until it is smothered.
Whether ARPA-ED succeeds or fails will ultimately depend not on its skill at ed-tech wizardry, but on its ability to combine these visions into a unified whole. It’s a daunting challenge, especially because more people still need to be invited to the table. Parents need to be given a voice. So do kids, so do teachers on the ground, so do the 21st century industries that will be hiring after graduation. Effective innovation, especially in systems as complex as education, is less about great edtech and more about the conditions that allow it to be developed – overall it is about the ability to construct multistakeholder innovation systems.
Making Innovation Systems Work
Collective Invention’s ethnographer, Fiona Hovenden, has been working with the Stupski Foundation to study how these innovation systems are being constructed in schools and communities across the country. In every case successful innovation networks start by generating a shared vision of the future, often distilled as profiles of the future graduates that the community wants its schools to foster. These profiles can trigger a phase change: they get people to stop worrying about what everyone else will accept and start pushing for what everyone else aspires to.
Once stakeholders have been aligned, a rich and complicated conversation needs to take place. Teachers, superintendents, and entrepreneurs all need to become adroit in the use of innovation techniques that they can take back to their workplaces and classrooms. Ideas need to be visualized, prototypes need to be played with, and new relationships need to form between people and between ideas. Much of this process can and should happen online, but the most powerful components also require a physical meeting place with crowded whiteboards and a busy front door.
Future personas and innovation hubs. Both tools come from a rich history of strategic innovation that should be required reading for innovators in education.
In the late 70s, early creators of business software became frustrated at how teams of designers would often become divided over conflicting visions of a finished product. They found that illustrating and even play-acting a set of concrete set of user personas helped designers step back from their own opinions and come to a consensus around what was best for the end user.
But why profile graduates from the future, rather than graduates today? The answer may lie in the work of the Global Business Network (GBN), which found that articulating likely scenarios of the future had a curious affect on entrenched bureaucracies. Telling stories about likely future scenarios and asking people to plan for them makes change seem inevitable rather than apocalyptic. At Collective Invention we combine macro scenarios with the micro-stories of future personas. Thought leaders in education have already begun to combine these two tactics. Future personas are already being used effectively by the nation’s top educational grantmakers and by top-performing local innovators.
Innovation hubs have a their own rich history, though they have generally been applied to technical rather than social challenges. At centers like XEROX PARC innovators laid the foundation for modern computing and carried around iPad prototypes 40 years ahead of schedule. More recently, innovation centers have been popping up in other social arenas. Healthcare-focused Innovation Center Denmark has proven so successful that it has opened up hubs in Silicon Valley and Shanghai. The concept of ARPA-ED springs from this lineage, and educational innovators should be sure to look across sectors for best practices in making these hubs effective.
What does success look like?
Where could this catalytic moment in education lead? It might start with a set of structured conversations about what we want the graduates of 2025 and 2050 to be able to do in the world. These conversations need to tap into our highest aspirations for our kids and for the communities that they’ll be defining. A struggling mom in LA will be able to tell her story in a place where someone’s listening, where she sees how her hopes overlap with those of her kid’s teachers, the district superintendent, legislators from both sides of the aisle. She’ll feel like the education system is actually changing, and like she and her kid are a part of that change.
Once she’s invested, she’ll plug into regular conversations about how her daughter’s education is transforming for the better. She’ll make friends not just with her daughter’s teacher, but with an entrepreneur who’s prototyping a groundbreaking education game and with a representative from the nanotech conglomerate that would like to hire her daughter when she graduates from college.
Truly groundbreaking changes in education aren’t going to come from highly-paid experts at ARPA-ED, they’re going to come out of these sorts of friendships. Our best hope may just be to build an innovation system that invites everyone to the table and to invite them to dream together.