By their very nature, innovations are new, untested ideas emerging as a result of existing solutions not meeting the needs of a specific group of individuals. For example, blended learning emerged as an innovative modality of learning to afford each student a more personalized learning experience. Over the last decade, schools across the nation have begun to test various models of blended learning and procuring edtech tools to offer students some element of control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of their learning. Yet, even amidst the increased adoption of blended learning during COVID, school systems continue to struggle to scale the potential game-changing benefits of technology in the classroom.
As someone who was once deeply involved in edtech procurement decisions for a school district, I know that this stubborn challenge isn’t because school leaders aren’t committed to finding the best solutions to meet their students’ needs. In fact, most principals select edtech tools with a deep commitment to scale.
But in their decision-making process, they struggle to access meaningful data that can sustainably scale the power of edtech in their efforts. Why? Because contrary to popular belief, data that drives scaling of innovations rarely emerges from a randomized controlled trial (RCTs). It’s usually sitting in the school next door. And that’s precisely the problem.
The power of peer insights to facilitate scale
“What are some of the effective ways for bringing on employer partners? How can we balance the role of coaches as sources of data with the need to maintain coach-student relationships? How do we differentiate between school leader and educator training?
As our team continues our work into students’ social capital innovations, these are some of the questions that continue to emerge among early innovators deliberately designing models to deepen and diversify students’ networks. Two commonalities exist between these questions and those often posed in regards to scaling other edtech innovations: 1) they all focus on how the programs are implemented, and 2) there’s often an unmet need to identify conditions in which a program works for some subgroups of students and not others.
Unfortunately, lifting the hood on the specifics of implementation and nuanced insights into subgroup outcomes—both critical data points needed for sustainable scaling—isn’t accomplished in a wide-ranging, mostly homogenous RCT; but, rather, through peer-to-peer communications and dialogue.
In short, when it comes to innovations powered by edtech, the inability to facilitate deep learning across peer organizations has handicapped the education system’s ability to scale solutions that could have the biggest impact on student mobility.
In response, within our own social capital work, we launched the Social Capital R&D Network, which aims to capture and share nuanced insights during the course of pilots with the broader education field. The goal of the Network is to help others invest in their students’ social capital through effective program design and measurement.
One of our activities included producing a “Living Map” of emerging pilot projects to share with funders and Network participants to make current project designs, measures, and tools transparent and accessible across the Network. During the pandemic, program leaders provided updates on their challenges and responses, enabling others to learn from their peer programs in real time. As a result, 70% of the R&D Network improved how they designed for social capital.
Expanding a peer-to-peer data-sharing solution to the innovative edtech space more broadly, another solution could stem from funders allocating resources to a third-party organization that can serve as a peer connector to alleviate the added burden of additional communication efforts on schools.
Finally, in addition to connecting peer organizations to share real-time insights, effectively scaling innovations also requires democratizing access to evidence—as it is being built by early innovators—on both implementation lessons and outcomes of interest. In our social capital work, we quickly recognized a demand for this more robust resource and launched the www.WhoYouKnow.org website to feature research, strategies, meaningful metrics, and program spotlights that we discover over time.
The lack of facilitated knowledge sharing between districts and readily accessible, nuanced insights is a key contributor to years of edtech piloting and testing that hasn’t been able to scale what works and for whom. Partly for this reason, our social capital team established a clear goal from the beginning to ensure that any data we acquire through our researchers would be made freely available to school and district leaders, educators, non-profit leaders, and funders. I believe these lessons can also be applied to other types of innovations, allowing educators to scale in meaningful ways within their own contexts.