Discovering what’s possible in your particular place

"What makes the EdClusters model powerful is that challenges and solutions are place-based. That context can be a powerful driver for how people approach work and how it's sustained and maintained." - Cricket Fuller

Digital Promise invites you to a special Showcase of Learning!
Digital Promise in Pgh: A Showcase of Learning
Tuesday, September 24 | 5:00 PM – 7:30 PM
Kimpton Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh

Click here to register

Education Innovation Clusters are “local ecosystems that bring together educators, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other community stakeholders to transform teaching and learning in their region.”

That’s according to Digital Promise, the nonprofit organization cultivating and linking “EdClusters” across the country. Digital Promise is a national nonprofit authorized by Congress with a broad mission to spur innovation to advance learning opportunities. Digital Promise takes on some of education’s biggest challenges by leveraging collaborative networks and putting the learning sciences into practice.

From September 24th through the 26th, Digital Promise will bring nearly 100 educators, researchers, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and funders from more than 20 cities and regions across the U.S. to Pittsburgh for the 2019 Education Innovation Clusters Convening (#EdClusters19).

Pittsburgh hosted the first official convening of EdClusters in 2014 and Remake Learning has been an active participant in the growing national network of EdClusters.

We sat down with Cricket Fuller and Donnaraé Wade from Digital Promise to learn more about where the EdClusters initiative has been since its last visit to Pittsburgh, and where it’s headed next.

For people who are just encountering EdClusters for the first time (and for those who could use a refresher), what are EdClusters?

Cricket Fuller: EdClusters are regional or local ecosystems that bring together partners who care about teaching and learning. Those partners come from different sectors—education certainly, but also government and policy, community-based organizations, out-of-school learning organizations, research institutions and higher education partners, and also the business community.

The “cluster” concept came from the observation that economists have made that there are concentrations of innovation within a particular area, like the way that Silicon Valley represents a concentration of technology companies now, or how Pittsburgh was a cluster for manufacturing innovation during the steel era.

The Department of Education during the Obama administration wanted to see what this cluster concept would look like when applied to education innovation. So Digital Promise worked with the Office of Educational Technology to identify places where there was a potential for clusters and bring them together into a network.

What do EdClusters make possible?

Cricket Fuller: There are generally two ways that education change efforts proceed. One is that they remain siloed off within the education field, totally disconnected from any outside partners or collaborators. The other is just the opposite—people try to tackle issues in education from the outside in or from the top down.

So the original seed for EdClusters was the potential for a different way to bring people together to make change in education.

Donnaraé Wade: EdClusters allow people from different organizations to come together, formally or informally, to work together on projects. Over time, you strengthen relationships and create an infrastructure that allows multiple groups in a region to support the design and launch of initiatives. These initiatives benefit a range of stakeholders within the community, and have the ability to not only create but sustain changes in education.

How do EdClusters form?

Cricket Fuller: Clusters form in different ways. Sometimes it’s around a collaborative project, sometimes it’s a driving partner, sometimes it’s in response to a specific challenge. But in many cases, it starts out as an effort to build a structure that will bring people, to start an exchange and engagement that will ebb and flow.

Donnaraé Wade: One thing that’s been really great in working with Remake Learning and PBS to roll out Remake Learning Days across America is that we saw regions using their participation in this event as a galvanizing moment to bring people together and lay the groundwork for an EdCluster. It’s a good example of a collaboration that can be started by a particular project.

Where are EdClusters emerging? How are they similar and distinct from each other? How and why is Digital Promise linking them together?

Cricket Fuller: Some clusters have been doing the network building and convening work for a long time. We often point to the robustness of Remake Learning in Pittsburgh as an example of what a really mature and significant network can bring together and make happen. Some EdClusters have a state-wide focus like in Rhode Island and Boston where partners are convening around a specific project or initiative that could move the needle on policy. Some regions have had a strong blueprint for collaboration for years and are now bringing the pieces together, like in San Diego where key leaders within the county office of education, the higher education community, and the innovation economy are working to connect students to opportunities in the local innovation economy.

Donnaraé Wade: EdClusters are in rural, urban and suburban areas all over the country. The beauty of these networks is that they aren’t one size fits all. They are formed based on the needs, priorities and challenges within a particular region or community. Some EdClusters are made up of a large number of organizations and some are just starting out with a few, some EdClusters are housed within specific organizations, some partner informally, and others have formal memberships. Each EdCluster has goals and challenges that they want to address with the support of one another. We believe regional ecosystems that bring different groups of people together can better support transformative teaching and learning. With Digital Promise, our EdClusters are able to connect to and learn from each other.

Digital Promise gathered the EdClusters community in Pittsburgh about five years ago. How has the community grown and changed since then?

Cricket Fuller: Yes, the first official convening happened in Pittsburgh in 2014. That convening was supported and driven by The Sprout Fund. The focus of that first convening was gathering perspectives from the field— many different people from many different places who had been hard at work building regional collaboratives. What had they learned that they could share with their peers and that Digital Promise could build into our approach to supporting EdClusters? It was an important moment for all that’s come since. Some of the work started there eventually became the Remake Learning Playbook that so many of our networks point to as a really valuable guide.

To summarize how the initiative has grown and changed since then, I’d point to the ways that Remake Learning has changed: the shift to focus on working groups that are creating movement around particular challenges, as well as centering diversity, equity, and inclusion in terms of leadership, approach, and investment.

This is exciting for us because the evolution of Remake Learning maps to the growth of the evolution of the EdClusters community in general: networks that have been convening for years, taking steps together, and continuing to hone in on what they really are bringing stakeholders together to achieve.

It’s an inflection point for EdClusters as a whole to come together and take a look at where we’ve come in the past 5 years and where we’re going.

And where is EdClusters headed?

Cricket Fuller: The future of EdClusters is really exciting. We’re increasingly evolving from a convening network into a doing network. For us that means that folks are really aware of both the challenges they face and the tools that they can use when transforming teaching and learning. One of the major focuses of our convening in Pittsburgh will be on community co-design. We’re taking human-centered design a step further by engaging educators, learners, and communities as co-designers of these efforts. This convening is going to be a powerful opportunity for us to learn from each other about the ways in which we are engaging our “end users” as co-designers.

Donnaraé Wade: In addition to our convenings, we are launching Innovation Portfolios, multimedia accounts of the innovation happening within EdClusters, in order to more widely share best practices and new ideas. People all over the country are doing amazing work, and we’re really excited to have the opportunity to showcase it in an interesting way, and make it more accessible, to people inside and outside of our networks.

EdClusters makes a lot of sense if you’re looking at things from a high-altitude, like at the level of a region. But what does it mean for an individual school or teacher in a classroom? How can they make use of what EdClusters are supporting?

Cricket Fuller: We’re excited to bring some resources and research capacity to bear on the work regions are doing to advance innovation in education. One of the ways we’re doing this is through our Challenge Collaboratives that brings together interdisciplinary teams of educators, researchers, and subject matter experts. Together, they take on a challenge in education and try to address it by going through a design process.

We’ve piloted these Challenge Collaboratives through our League of Innovative Schools, which has included engagement from schools and districts in Pittsburgh working on computational thinking pathways, next-gen science standards, open educational resources, and real-world learning pathways.

Donnaraé Wade: Teachers are an integral piece of the puzzle. They help to create, test and validate the work that is being done. Our current collaboratives involve multiple school districts, often from different cities. What makes the EdClusters model powerful is that challenges and solutions are place-based, and that context can be a powerful driver for how people approach work and how it’s sustained and maintained.

To wrap up, let’s return to Remake Learning’s mission to “ignite engaging, relevant, and equitable learning.” How does the EdCluster model help a region like ours do that?

Cricket Fuller: There are a few ways to ways to think about that.

First, individual regions are looking at the needs in their learning communities and figuring out the most relevant steps to take for their learners. And for some regions, like southeastern Kentucky, that have seen students and jobs leaving the area, that means engaging learners in building the future economy. And then there are other regions that are connecting students to the vibrant innovation economy right where they are. And there are others that are thinking about engaging learning as steeped in the arts or indigenous communities. So what this shows it that EdClusters is a model that helps different regions figure out what it means to ignite engaging, relevant, and equitable.

Second, if you think about the power of connecting organizations across the country, it means that you have the opportunity to understand and learn from each other about what is working and scale that from place to place. This means more opportunities to connect learners across the country to relevant models, peers, and mentors. As a national network, we are in a position to facilitate that.

Lastly, we can push each other. Seeing the inspiring works in other places and places like Pittsburgh really pushes us to roll up our sleeves and do a similar work in our own places.

Published September 13, 2019