15 Organizations That Model & Inspire Educational Innovation

We live in exciting times. There is unprecedented educational experimentation and exploration. Even more exciting, people and organizations are exploring new and creative ways to address important social problems and challenges by rethinking how we go about education in an increasingly connected world.

There are hundreds, even thousands of organizations that are doing good and important work in education. While there are plenty of organizations in the education sector that continue to be driven by the yearning for as much market share as possible or for what seems like the primary goal of self-preservation, there are plenty of others that have clear and compelling visions, that embrace their responsibility and calling to promote social good through work in education, and that are helping us explore and imagine new and promising possibilities for education in a connected world. While far from an exhaustive list, here are fifteen such organizations, ranging from private to public, non-profit to for-profit, education providers to facilitators of educational movements. If you want a glimpse into some of the more promising things happening in education today, take a look at what these organizations are doing. In fact, if you want to be part of  some of the most promising movements in education, find a way to get involved with one or more of these groups. 

1. Digital Promise – The mission of this organization is to, “Improve the opportunity to learn for all Americans through technology and research.” This mission has led them into any number of initiatives: efforts to bridge the skills gap for adult learners, the league of innovative schools (a coalition of K-12 schools working together to address important challenges through a blend of educational research and learning technologies), and their new micro-credential / digital badge project focused upon reimagining ongoing professional development for educators.

2. Jobs for the Future – This is one of the more exciting organizations to me right now. They are “working to expand the college, career, and life prospects of low-income youth and adults across 25 states.” This includes projects like Credentials that Work (“aligning career training with employer demand”), efforts to increase college readiness, as well as impressive work around early college designs (“reinventing high schools for post-secondary success”). 

3. Badge Alliance – Started this year (2014), this alliance of key organizations like the Mozilla and MacArthur Foundation, “is a network of organizations and people working together to build and support an open badging ecosystem, with a focus on shared values including openness, learner agency and innovation.” They are leading the way and providing important connections among those who are interested in exploring the possibilities of micro-credentials for everything from out-of-school learning to increasing job opportunities for veterans, creating citywide networks of learning around digital badges, or even a growing number of K-12 and higher education institutions experimenting the role of these new credentials. This is a new group and much of the work is just getting started, but I am already seeing some exciting developments from the early working groups organized by the Badge Alliance. 

4. Western Governor’s University – WGU has been around for over 15 years, and it currently serves over 40,000 students throughout the United Sates with quality competency-based online degrees. There are parts to their model that I would like to tweak (like leaving more room for self-directed learning within a competency-based model), but what they have done has created a model for others. They have been groundbreakers in the developing world of competency-based education, challenging the odd historic practice of measuring student progress by seat time instead of what students know and can do.

Arizona State University – What Michael Crow has promoted during his time as President of ASU is nothing short of impressive: casting a vision for an entrepreneurial state University, building a high-quality online program through ASU Online, creating “trandsciplinary schools”, efforts to increase access and opportunity to higher education, corporate partnerships like the recent ASU / Starbucks program, and nurturing a startup culture. ASU is, without question, one of the most innovative higher education institutions in the world.

5. P2PU – Their tag line reads, “learning by everyone for everyone about almost anything. completely free.” P2PU is a brilliant social experiment in open education, leveraging the power of life and learning in a connected world, and peer-to-peer learning. Their MOOCs and other open courses are not just replications of authoritarian educational institutions and frameworks put into an online format. They have re-envisioned and redefined the word “University” with an unswerving commitment to openness and peeragogy.

6. Udacity – This one gets mixed reviews in the media (as to almost all innovative organizations), but Udacity is helping us to rethink credentials and education leading to employable skills through their new nano-degrees and courses designed around project-based learning. Unlike other online learning provides, both Udacity and P2PU are making their work about more than just digitizing old school courses and programs. They are giving us new and promising models. In fact, Udacity’s most recent is potentially a direct challenge to traditional Universities that dismiss workforce development as beneath them (which, by the way, is just what happens to companies and organizations that are just about to experience a disruptive innovation).

7. EdSurge – This is my single favorite news source for educational innovation and educational technology. If you have not done so, sign up for their newsletter today. From their website, “EdSurge is an independent information resource and community for everyone involved in education technology.” It is more than a news and resource center. Leaders at EdSurge are pulling up their sleeves and helping to build important networks, communities, gatherings, and even helping to recognize and highlight high-impact people and organizations through their Digital innovation and learning awards. Organizations like EdSurge help build bridges and networks among educational innovators that help great ideas spread, and help people find their place in this exciting world of educational entrepreneurship and innovation.

8. Maker Faire – The Maker Faire movement is helping to elevate a culture of creation in a world of consumption. They are doing it one maker faire at a time: providing a forum for makers to share their amazing creations, giving people a glimpse and invitation into the maker world, and promoting a vision for learning by doing and creating.

9. Thomas Fordham Institute – Here is their stated mission, “The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is the nation’s leader in advancing educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio.” Even if I do not agree with all the commentary, I find this to be one of the more researched and enlightening sources of information about current and emerging research focused on educational innovation. They are leading voices in places like Ohio around a vision of ample choices for diverse students; whether it be charters, magnet schools, school choice programs, blended and online learning options, and dual credit. 

10. Khan Academy – If you haven’t check it out lately, take a few minutes. Their mission is, to change, “education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” It is an instigator for a world-wide conversation about the flipped classroom (although there are certainly many other major voices). Along the way, they have grow into some fascinating work that ventures into mastery-based learning, personalized learning, self-directed learning, adaptive learning, and learning analytics. As such, Khan Academy is a great example of a how an education startup can help people imagine new ways of going about teaching and learning, even impacting traditional schooling environments from the outside…but then seeing it find its way into many of those very traditional schools.

11. North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens – I remember talking to one of the founders about three or four years ago on the phone, just learning more about the work they do. They are not a school. Instead, students sign up with the state as a homeschooler, but they come to this place of self-directed learning, get coaching and guidance as needed, and take responsibility for their own learning. Check out their site and videos for a better understanding of their work. Since my initial conversation several years ago, they have gained national attention and become a model for other self-directed centers around the United States. As such, they have essentially created a new model of schooling, neither traditional homeschooling or a teacher-led traditional school. They are an example of

12. Kidnected World – “kids create social good by doing what they love to do” – I learned about this group at the 2014 ISTE conference, more specifically as part of the the startup pitchfest (Have I mentioned that I am addicted to education startup pitches…what I consider the poetry slams of the education startup world?). This nonprofit exists to provide the tools that kids need to change the world. The goal is to connect kids to one another and provide them with tools to be agents of change by using their imagination and playing with others (what they already do well). That is where their “wonderment” comes in. It is a community. Kids enter, pick a path, participate in a challenge, see other kids joining in, the “wonder meter” rises, and they see the impact of a social good project. This is one of many exciting efforts to blend education and having a social impact. Is it more effective to tell kids about the good they can do once they finish twelve or sixteen years of formal school, or to actually provide them with the tools and means to impact the world right now? Organizations like Kidnected World are showing us the wisdom and possibility of the latter.

13. The Learning Revolution Project – Developed by Steve Hargadon, the Learning Revolution Project includes opportunities to learn about and from leaders and innovators across the field of education. The project has an impressive list of partners ranging from higher education institutions to professional organizations and companies in the education sector. This project includes opportunities to learn from and network through various communities, a growing number of free online conferences (with a refreshing spirit of openness), tour events with a special theme, as well as the beloved ISTE unplugged event hosted before the official start of the ISTE conference each year. Education is a field that thrives on openness, sharing, and networking; and The Learning Revolution Project is a champion and model for all three.

14. Alternative Education Resource Organization – The stated goal of AERO is to, “advance student-driven, learner-centered approaches to education.” As such, this is a single organization where you can learn about everything from Waldorf education to Sudbury schools, Montessori to Reggio Emilia, educational co-ops to unschooling. Even if you don’t embrace any of these models or visions, it is an organization that provides a collection of alternative voices to the dominance of talk about testing and national standards that seem to drive so many other contemporary K-12 efforts. This is an organization to follow if you want to learn from diverse models and perspectives.

15. Duolingo – At first glance, this is just a company if a fun and user-friendly app for learning a new language. Look closer and you see a company serious about figuring out how to best help people learn a new language, promsing work around the gamification of learning, and a willingness to also step into the realm of credentialing and certification of learning. It is probably this last part that ensured a spot on my list of fifteen, as they are providing a distruptive innovation in the world if English language certification for students seeking to study in the United States. They are offering a free (soon to be $20) test that is comparable ot TOEFL! This is a trend to watch, education companies that don’t just stop at offering educational opportunities, but are also willing to establish new forms of certification and credentialing that challenge traditional systems.

A Shocking & Brilliant Interdisciplinary Math Curriculum

How about math that matters? While visiting family in Northern Michigan, I came across a fascinating math curriculum by Smith, Lusse and Morss. Following is part of the preface to the curriculum:

In the teaching of mathematics, the end of the sixth year is a critical point. By that time the pupil has completed the learning of the fundamental operations and processes of arithmetic, so that, unless square root is studied, there are no further processes to be learned. There have been many experiments to determine the type of of work that may most profitably be given in the next two years, either in schools organized on the junior-high-school plan or in those in which the elementary organization continues through to the senior high school. In most cases there is general agreement that a thorough training in arithmetic should be the major objective.

This emphasis upon arithmetic does not, however, imply in any way a return to the type of arithmetic of a generation ago in which, with formal computation as a the sole end in view, the problems had almost no relation to the daily lives and interests of the pupils and but little relation to the ways in which the average adult uses arithmetic in life situations. Through coordination, modern education brings out the social significance of such subjects as history, geography, civics, and everyday science. The course in arithmetic can, if developed along similar lines, present a large amount of valuable information about our American daily life, our vast resources, our modern business organizations, our great industries, and our local, state and national forms of government. With all these topics, or at least with the larger features pertaining to each, our future citizens, ­­- the boys and girls now in our schools, -must be familiar if they are take their places as intelligent members of a community.

Can you guess the date of the curriculum? It was published in 1930 as a shared project between David Smith of Columbia Teachers College, Eva Luse of Iowa State Teachers College, and Edward Morss (a textbook editor). While some of the wording hints at the date, it reads with a strange relevance for today as well.  It is an applied math text organized around real world themes. Here are some of the chapters and themes:

  • Computations that People Use in Everyday Life (earning money, spending money, making money, saving money)
  • Percentage Applied to Simple Mercantile Problems (short cuts and checking, buying and selling on commission, discounts on wholesale purchases, the merchant and his problems, borrowing money, and review of percents)
  • Computation Used by the Individual in Banking and Investing Money (doing business with a bank, interest and notes, general nature of corporations, protecting investments)
  • Study of Useful Geometric Forms, with Practice in Drawing (geometric forms in nature, familiar solids, geometric forms in art, drawing geometric figures)

Part two of the curriculum includes topics like math and our food supply, power supply, clothing supply, transportation, and building industries. It also includes things like stocks and bonds, the cost of government, reading graphs and statistics in the real world, what the government does for us, measurements, everyday science and the metric system.

This is not just a curriculum that answers the “why are we learning this?” question of students. The entire text is built around that question. It would be nearly impossible for a student to go through such math education without having a rich understanding of why math is important for the rest of life. If you hope to one day own a car, take out a loan, finance a new idea, figure out your taxes, buy or sell something, or buy a large-ticket item. In fact, the curriculum is not only focused on the uses of math in the future lives of the students. It spends significant time exploring how math is useful for students in the present.

Note that the purpose of this curriculum is to review or teach the application of math to real world contexts that will be relevant and valuable to most any citizen. It is interdisciplinary in that it touches on business, government, science, home economics, art, and social studies. And it is deeply applied. There is not a single math concept that is taught or introduced apart from the real world contexts where it might be used. There is repetition of math concepts, but not a repetition of the concepts in a single domain of life. In other words, it provides review and repetition without promoting boredom and monotony. It further talks about math as a tool for life, and reading through it I can’t help but think that most learners would readily recognize this fact. In an era where there is frequent focus on teaching math as preparation for the next level of math (in high school or college), this struck me as a wonderfully fresh, creative and promising model. It also offers examples of how math can be learned and reinforced amid self-directed learning projects, project based learning, problem based learning, case-based learning. In fact, I see hints of those approaches in this 80+ year old curriculum.

I found this curriculum (as two thin bound books) in a small used bookstore in Alpha, Michigan, a town of less than 150 people that is celebrating its centennial. Somewhere around the late 1960s, the school closed, and the beautiful but slightly dilapidated building is now used to house a small town library, a used bookstore, a handful of shops, and a small restaurant. I couldn’t help but wonder if these books were not once the curriculum used at the school. So, standing in the hallways of a once vibrant but now closed school, I discovered that the teaching and learning continues…even if it is just through the serendipitous discovery of a brilliant and cutting edge curriculum from 1930. As much as I enjoy looking at the emerging and future possibilities for teaching and learning, I continue to discover rich and valuable examples from the past.

The McDonald’s of Digital Age Learning? Reflections on a Steve Jobs Interview

I recently listened to the 1995 lost interview with Steve Jobs. It is full of thought-provoking comments.  As I listened, I found myself applying some of his comments to digital age education.  Regardless of whether I agree with all of his points in the interview, there is undeniable proverbial and/or symbolic truth in his words.  Here are some that caught my attention, and my thoughts about how they might apply to digital age education.

Paraphrase / Quote – 1When businesses start getting bigger, they want to replicate their initial success, and they mistakenly think that the original magic was in the process and not the content of the work.

Consider the digital age learning term that continues to dominate the news, Massive Open Online Courses.  I wonder how Jobs’s comment relates to something like that.  The “content” is more than just the content of the course, but the nature of the course design…a persistent and unswerving commitment to design a learning experience that is inspirational and provides participants with the opportunity for high-impact learning.  That requires attention to more than just processes and efficiencies.  It is more than aligning with carefully considered rubrics and checklists.

Paraphrase / Quote 2The best people are the ones who really understand the content and they are a pain to manage.

Thinking about some of the more rewarding projects in my work over the years, I can definitely relate and resonate with this.  These are people who are amazing at what they do and they have strong opinions about it.  They don’t just submit to a common process for the sake of efficiency, but are driven by the desire to create something more than a functional learning experience.  They want to create something amazing, and that may require more time and money than other methods.  And yet, these are the types of learning experiences that are worth creating…worth adding to the many vanilla learning experiences that are out there today.

Paraphrase / Quote #3 – John Sculley had the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work, but there is tremendous craftsmanship between an idea and a product.

When I take the Strength Finder inventory, ideation is at the top of my list.  I sometimes think that I could live off brainstorming and exploring ideas.  Yet, over time, even for someone like me, it isn’t ultimately fulfilling.  I have a need to do something meaningful and significant with one of the ideas, and that takes lots of time, team, energy, struggle, and effort.  If you want to turn a great idea for teaching and learning into a great teaching and learning environment or experience, then this is what it takes.

Paraphrase / Quote #4Jobs gave a strong critique of Microsoft.  Regardless of whether I think he is right about Microsoft, his comments are powerful. “They don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture into their product.” “Their products have no spirit of enlightenment about them.”  “Microsoft is McDonald’s.”

In this exercise to apply Jobs’s ideas to my field of digital age teaching and learning, this is one of the single most powerful statement for me.  I found myself asking, “Have I sometimes been content with designing the fast food equivalent of learning experiences?”  Fast food is efficient and it meets the needs a massive and largely satisfied customer base.  However, there is not much culture in such an eating or dining experience.  I have no interest in investing my life in the fast food equivalent of digital age teaching and learning.  My passion resides with helping to design educational products, experiences, and environments that have culture and “inspiration” in them.  Yes, efficiency and other similar factors are still important, but these quotes from Jobs reminded me of something that is central to my own convictions…that design and culture matters.

Paraphrase / Quote #5Humans are tool builders and we build tools that can dramatically amplify our abilities. In a study of the efficiency of different animals with regard to locomotion, humans didn’t fare well.  However, put a human on a bicycle and they blow away the competition. The personal computer is the bicycle of the mind, and the web does the same thing for communication.

I’m still thinking through this one, but I went away from it feeling blessed to be in the field of education at this exciting time in history…to be part of the movement that is experimenting with, exploring, and designing digital age teaching and learning.

I’m Seeking Online Mentors More than Online Teachers

I have been involved with online learning since my first online high school pilot in the mid-1990s.  Even in those days, I distinguished between the design of effective online courses and the teaching of those courses.  By separating the two, I soon started to break down the role of online teacher into distinct tasks that can be accomplished by a single person or by a blend of people and technologies.

Eventually, I came to realize that the role of teacher, in the traditional sense, is not especially important in highly effective and engaging online courses.  Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that online teachers are unimportant.  In some ways, I’m suggesting the opposite.  In many content areas and with many learning outcomes, there is great need for modeling and mentoring to take place. It is within modeling and mentoring relationships that people learn to become a practitioner of a given discipline, that they progress toward expertise.  With the exception of a few prodigies, one doesn’t become a great musician without ample modeling and mentoring.  The same is true in many areas of study.  As a result, some of the most powerful lessons learned in traditional classes come from students carefully observing the teacher, sometimes imitating the teacher, as well as getting persistent and customized mentoring from the teacher.  Each of these things are important in the formation and transformation of a learner, but it doesn’t necessarily require a teacher in the traditional sense.

This is where my concern resides with what I see happening in online learning, even in my own online teaching.  Imagine that you are a teacher who believes that your greatest contributions come in the form of presenting new content, facilitating a few class activities, and providing feedback on student papers.  Now put that person in an online course where the content is pre-developed and the activities are pre-determined.  What do you do with your time?  Unfortunately, some decide that their only important tasks are to promptly respond to emails, give a few closing thoughts on threaded discussions, and give good feedback on papers.  I know this from firsthand experience, both as an online teacher and an online student.  This isn’t necessarily bad.  I’ve had wonderful learning experiences in online courses where the teacher did little more than these three things.

With that said, this is where we have an opportunity to fundamentally transform teaching (yes, I intentionally wrote “teaching” instead of “learning” in this instance) in the digital age.  What I am about to suggest is not a claim that this is the only right way to do it.  I see great potential and value in computer-based instruction, self-directed learning environments, peer-to-peer learning, game-based learning environments, highly scalable online learning and a variety of other traditional and emerging perspectives.

However, alongside each of those, I would like to ensure that we also capitalize upon the power and potential of the highly committed mentor in the online learning industry.  What if I enter the course believing that my primary responsibility is to mentor students individually and collectivity with regard to the course outcomes, even the overall program outcomes? How will I spend my time and effort differently?

  • Perhaps I will host real-time office hours.
  • I might create required one-on-one and small group synchronous sessions to workshop ideas.
  • I might experiment with recording audio feedback on work so that I am more likely to offer lengthy narrative feedback that is personalized, includes stories and examples, and gives a more intimate form of asynchronous interaction than comments embedded in a rubric or inserted in a PDF or Word document.
  • I might provide feedback on projects and papers through Skype and phone conferences, suggesting improvements, letting the student work on them, and then having a follow-up meeting.
  • I’m probably going to take the extra work to give students a chance to demonstrate their knowledge orally and not just in writing, given that oral communication is often a key to their performance in the workplace.
  • I’m likely to use lots of ungraded formative feedback and allow the submission of multiple drafts.
  • I’m less likely to grade a test or paper and move on without ensuring that the students can use their performance on the work in order to improve.
  • My feedback will not be solely focused on form or substance, but the student’s progress toward expertise with the area of student…the student’s ability to apply the ideas in real-world contexts (even, or especially if it is a liberal arts course).
  • I will know the students by name and I will strive to be aware of their individual strengths, weaknesses, goals and aspirations.  I will recognize that they often have other life commitments and I will take that into account as I interact with and mentor them.
  • I will simultaneously teach students as individuals and a group.
  • My written and oral communication with them (individually and in online group settings) will be informed by knowledge about them individually.
  • I will carefully monitor student progress and provide frequent encouragements and gentle corrections in an ongoing manner.
  • I will adjust and customize learning experiences, content, and assignments based upon my assessment of what will best help that student progress toward expertise.

In a time where so many people are looking at the promise of massive open online courses, computer-based instruction, automated paper grading, and other efforts at efficiency and scalability, I am looking for a team of people who want to start a parallel revolution in online teaching and learning, one that is driven by the belief that online learning can be high-impact, highly relational, and transformational through the persistent passion and commitment of mentoring in the digital age.  Are you in?