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.

5 Myths About Project-Based and Self-Directed Learning Schools

As I continue to speak and write about both project-based and self-directed learning, I come across people who have any number of pre-existing beliefs about these approaches.  Toward that end, here are five myths that I often encounter. Within each myth are valid, important, and significant questions and concerns, but it is important to dispel the myth that they accurately represent what happens in project-based or self-directed schools. The reality is that traditional schooling still dominates in most schools, so those exploring alternatives can benefit from learning about the common myths and considering how they can respond to them. Of course, the most convincing response is simply inviting them to spend a day in a well-designed project-based or self-directed school.

Myth #1 – “These types of environments are just for the advanced students.” – I hear this often as people argue that certain students need more direction and structure. In reality, this has nothing to do with academic giftedness.  I’ve seen many types of learners thrive in project-based and self-directed environments. What seems to be more important is whether students are willing to embrace a school culture that focuses upon learning and not earning grades, credentials and traditional accolades. Are they willing to learn about asking great questions, developing strong research and communication skills, and growing in their skill with self-monitoring, self-direction and time-management? If so, then they can thrive in a project-based or self-directed learning environment. It is true that some students may enter such a school more or less prepared.  That is where some scaffolding may be necessary to help students cultivate some of these skills and perspectives.

Myth #2 – “Project-based Learning and Self-directed learning schools are all basically the same thing.” – There are hundreds of ways that people come together to envision and start a project-based or self-directed learning environment.  There are multiple approaches to and working definitions for both project-based learning and self-directed learning.  Some project-based schools emphasize team-based shared projects while others are largely individual projects.  Some self-directed schools have lengthy processes for planning and proposing projects, while others are almost entirely student-directed (including the process).  Some have teachers and learning coaches who still play a large role in directing students each step of the way, while others leave more of that to individuals or groups of learners.

Myth #3 – “Traditional schools are better at helping students develop breadth of knowledge where these schools may be better at depth of knowledge.” – There is truth to this.  Students are exposed to a systematically broad body of knowledge in different content areas in a traditional school.  And yet, if we interview learners from different types of schools in their mid-twenties, we are unlikely to find a significant difference in the breadth of knowledge among the learners. Part of this has to do with the minimal knowledge retained by many in the traditional schools, so the real myth is that exposure or “covering material” results in retaining it.

Myth #4 – “If students don’t experience traditional schooling now, they will be at a disadvantage at the next level.” I’ve yet to find any strong evidence to support this claim. Instead, project-based and self-directed environments give learners a chance to develop the skills that we know make a difference in life after school, things like critical thinking, time-management, follow through on projects, research skills, the ability to learn something in teams and with little direction, initiative, and self-discipline. You will find graduates of these schools in top Universities around the world.

Myth #5 – “These alternatives are not as rigorous as traditional schooling.”  It is true that they have fewer or no tests, that they don’t force students to all do things in a similar way, and that there is more student choice in the experience.  However, these approaches, when done well, promote a level of depth that we rarely find in traditional classroom environments. Over a four-year high school experience, many students are developing a collection of eight to sixteen projects that more closely resemble a college research paper or senior project than the typical work in a traditional high school. In addition, these students often have the challenge of presenting and defending their work to an audience of peers and/or community members.  That can be quite rigorous. In fact, one can earn an entire master’s degree or doctorate by research (without attending any classes) at some of the oldest and most distinguished Universities in the world…basically using a model similar to what we see in many project-based or self-directed learning environments.














5 Simple Steps to Developing a Self-Determined Learning Plan

Learning by doing is not new.  One such example is 4-H, a series of clubs around the United States that formed in the early 1900s. While some think of 4-H as focused entirely on tasks related to rural life, that is far from an accurate picture of 4-H today.  Instead, it is a diverse and robust model for promoting learning by doing, whether it be robotics, building rockets, raising pigs, photography, growing flowers, gaining public speaking skills, or getting leadership training.  In addition, as youth sign up for projects in 4-H clubs around the United States, one of the first categories from which they can choose is “Self-Determined Project,” a chance for young people to set the agenda, choose their own project and run with it. Consider this document/guide for the self-determined project.

It starts with the following:

“You can design your own 4-H project. Design it around something of interest to you. It can be a hobby, an interest, or something you have wanted to do.

The world is an exciting place with unlimited things to do and learn about.  Think big! This is your chance to expand your horizons.”

Do something you have always dreamed. Investigate micro-organisms, the starts, or the way government works. Write a newspaper column. Don’t be limited by what has been. Produce something that no one else has ever produced before! This is your chance to start something new for you and 4-H!

The document/guide provides a simple but excellent model for self-directed learning. Following is my paraphrased version of the five steps.

  1. Decide what you want to do for your project.
  2. Develop a plan for how to do it.
  3. Determine what help you need to do each part.
  4. Design a means of documenting your progress.
  5. Disseminate (share) what you did and what you learned along the way.

The document also helps one develop a timeline and find a “helper.”

Self-directed learning is not complex. It is just increasingly foreign in a formal contemporary education model that elevates pre-determined standards and outcomes above most anything else. This simple model for self-directed learning works well as a guide, and it can be used in any context:

  • for informal learning,
  • as a tool for teachers helping students experience a bit of self-directed learning within a traditional school experience,
  • for home-based education,
  • as a professional development plan for someone in any field of work, or for
  • graduate student working on a thesis or dissertation.

What are the benefits? 

  • It builds confidence.
  • It builds competence.
  • It builds character.
  • It builds skill in problem-solving.
  • It builds research skills.
  • It builds goal setting skills.
  • It builds skill in self-direction.
  • It builds…literally builds something of value to you and others.
  • It is intrinsically rewarding.
  • From the positive psychology perspective, it gets at all five elements of the PERMA model: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

How many other learning experiences in a person’s formal education get at this many different benefits?

Example of a School That Embraces the Unbundling of Education

In Plano, Texas, Faith Lutheran High School is offering live online high school classes using a two-way video streaming solution.  This concept is nothing new, something that we have seen in many high schools and Universities around the country. While there is not necessarily anything new in the “how,” there is something noteworthy in the “why.”  They are using it to reach a new population of students…home schoolers.

Let me explain why I think this is worth noticing. For almost two decades, Universities and high schools have used two-way video conferencing to offer live classes from school to school.  This allowed high schools to offer combined classes for expanded offerings.  It also provided a new way for Universities to offer qualified high school students the chance to take college courses. This is a technology that provided increased access and opportunity without requiring anyone to explore a significant approach to teaching and learning. More recently, the price of the technology dropped enough that it became possible to also connect students from home with these live face-to-face classes. This is used, for example, in instances where student health concerns might prohibit a student from attending in person for a time. With these instances, the technology was used to further support the otherwise traditional operations of the school, serving mainly the students who were full-time students at that school or a partner institution. It was not used to reach a different population of students.  What is new about this latest offering at Faith Lutheran High School is that they are using the two-way video as a tool to offer unbunded services.  This is a private tuition-based school and instead of offering a single package service (full tuition and full participation in the school or nothing), they are offering an à la carte menu.  Choose the courses that interest you, and use them to support your otherwise personalized home school curriculum.

I am aware of other instances where private schools are reaching out to home-based learning communities, offering part-time tuition packages, access to certain extracurricular activities, or free access to the school resources (like a computer lab) when they are not used by school personnel. All of these also speak to the growing awareness of schools that the demand for unbundled, personalized learning is a present reality. The fastest growing sectors in K-12 education are those that are the most personalized, catering to the distinct needs and/or interests of each learner (namely distinct charter schools and home schooling).

I continue to argue that this unbundling provides us with a glimpse into the future of k-12 education, especially k-12 education that provides an alternative to traditional public schools. Separate all of the distinct attributes of a given school and imagine a model where families and students can pick and choose from those services, paying only for what they use (in the case of private schools). This requires leadership that is willing to follow the trends and respond to them with courage and creative practices. It also requires an ability to see schools as partners with families and learners, collaboratively designing unique experiences for individual learners. It is not simply a professional prescribing an educational intervention.  I suspect that this shift in thinking will be a greater barrier for some than any potential technological limits.