Community Network Eyed as Model for Supporting Digital Learning

How has the Remake Learning Network emerged to remake learning in Pittsburgh?

Writing for Education Week, Benjamin Herrold visits Pittsburgh to explore how members of the Remake Learning Network are collaborating across sectors and leveraging new technologies to make an impact on early childhood education.

From hands-on circuitry projects for kindergartners to “maker spaces” inside local museums, this former steel town has quietly emerged as a national model for supporting fresh approaches to technology-infused education, especially for young children.

The energy and innovation flow from a close-knit network of philanthropists, educators, technologists, and advocates who prize collaboration over competition. National experts are smitten with the approach.

“Pittsburgh is absolutely a leader when it comes to building a learning ecosystem for the 21st century,” said Constance M. Yowell, the director of education at the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which is supporting the city’s efforts. Ms. Yowell described the city’s active funders and universities, as well as the willingness of unlikely partners to work together, as “core ingredients for really dynamic learning opportunities.”

Take, for example, “Message From Me,” a new app for preschoolers developed by Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. The project centers around a simple digital tool, extensive training for the adults who will be using it with children, and outside-the-box outreach that will soon include weekly programs at a local barbershop.

Early-childhood advocate Cynthia Battle and Greg Powe, who works at a local barbershop, are among the unlikely partners who have come together to support digital learning efforts in Pittsburgh.

Undoubtedly, there are challenges: Bringing the 25,000-student Pittsburgh public schools into the digital-innovation fold has been difficult, raising questions about how broad the benefits of the city’s efforts will be. Large pockets of southwestern Pennsylvania—including Pittsburgh’s devastated Homewood neighborhood, where Message From Me is being piloted most extensively—are profoundly disconnected from the city’s overall renaissance.

And the lack of a robust broadband and wireless infrastructure is as much a problem here as in other parts of the country.

Nevertheless, Pittsburgh has been flooded with awards and money for its efforts.

In February 2013, the MacArthur Foundation awarded the city $500,000 to join Chicago and New York City in creating a “hive learning network” to support nontraditional youth programming.

In April of last year, on the strength of its Remake Learning Network, which serves as the connective tissue for more than 200 organizational partners, Pittsburgh became the first city in the country to receive a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award, given to groups that “have broken the mold to create significant impact” in public-policy areas such as education and health care.

And in December, local officials announced plans to create a “learning-innovation playbook” to help other cities undertake similar work. The idea for the project came from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Read the whole story at Education Week.

Published January 14, 2015