Solving the Innovation Alignment Challenge With an Ecosystem Approach

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A New York City school student and parent, with the help of a software developer, view data on high school choice available through the School Choice Design Challenge. (Photo courtesy of Innovate NYC Schools)

“The lack of innovation in education is not due to a lack of creativity, but the misalignment of student and educator need to the market supply of innovations.” That’s the guiding premise of Innovate NYC Schools, a 2011 i3 Development grantee that is using technology to increase the degree of alignment and making students and teachers integral to the change process. The project is furthering the development and evaluation of the “Education Innovation Ecosystem,” a network of NYC schools, partner districts, solution developers, and investors that is helping to meet the STEM-related learning challenges of middle and high school students.

Two dynamics in school system bureaucracies combine to stymie innovation: On the one hand, changes in policy only get you so far; they “don’t lead to durable improvements in practice,” contends Steven Hodas, Innovate NYC Schools’ executive director. Moreover, this fact, he says, often causes the most innovative companies on the outside of the school bureaucracy to take a pass on responding to school systems’ RFPs to develop new products or services.

So many high schools to choose from and so little time

“Disruption is irrelevant in bureaucracy,” Hodas notes in his recent presentation at the Lean Startup Conference. Undaunted by that observation, Innovate NYC Schools is working to validate a different approach to achieve innovative answers to longstanding needs of students and teachers. Take this one for example: Annually 80,000 NYC 8th-graders must choose the high school they want to attend. With 700 schools to choose from and the information about them spread out among websites and hard-copy publications, it’s an important and challenging decision process for families, according to Hodas.

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Choosing from among 700 high schools is still challenging for NYC 8th-graders, but less so now thanks to the School Choice Design Challenge. (Graphic courtesy of Innovate NYC Schools)

But what if you were to use an API, or “application program interface,” which permits multiple software programs to communicate with one another? And what if instead of soliciting proposals for a specified product, you invited a cadre of qualified software developers to a design charrette — one that brings the developers together with current high school students? That’s what Innovate NYC Schools did with the “School Choice Design Challenge” last year. In the course of eight weeks, the collaboration resulted in six different apps now available to the city’s 8th-graders.

The app considered most helpful by the students involved in the charrette, according to a recent Education Week article, efficiently organized more than 1,300 pieces of information about each high school — from college entrance scores to results of student and parent surveys — combined that with lists of colleges and universities that high schools’ graduates might apply to, and made comparisons among the schools a manageable task. The added bonus, according to Hodas, is that the participating software developers liked the process and found it beneficial. It upped their game, according to Allen Kim of FindTheBest, creator of one of the six apps, who said it is “the best comparison we’ve ever built.”

Getting “lead users” into the game

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New York City middle schools teachers become the “lead users” of new products and services for their classrooms, as they prepare to prototype games and apps designed to enhance math learning and engagement. (Photo courtesy of Innovate NYC Schools)

In another undertaking for Innovate NYC Schools last year, the challenge was to develop apps and games to enhance math learning and engagement for middle school students. As Hodas notes in his Lean Startup Conference presentation, they invited developers to work directly with teachers and students to develop prototypes — another design-inspired, iterative process of refining ideas in order to end up with products that truly meet classroom needs. Surprisingly, nearly 200 software developers responded to the challenge, from which 39 were chosen to work with teachers and students who volunteered to be part of the product-development, prototyping process.

It is radically different from the typical procurement process in school systems, notes Hodas, and energizes potential “lead users” of new products and services in the schools — the teachers who volunteered their classrooms — to come “off the sidelines“ to contribute their ideas and be a part of developing the answers to their own needs. It gives them the “context and cover,” Hodas contends, to get involved and invested as opposed to staying outside the solution-finding process and assuming that whatever eventually arrives will be of minimal or no use to them.

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NYC teachers get “off the sidelines” and onto the streets to practice getting user feedback that will help them with the prototype-development process in their classrooms. (Photo courtesy of Innovate NYC Schools)

Hodas sees the Innovate NYC Schools challenges as accomplishing the two actions — increase alignment and decrease fear — that entrepreneur Seth Godin says must happen to innovate. The effort is proving that a “lean methodology” can create catalytic models for how people can do things and think differently in a bureaucracy, thus increasing the alignment between user needs and market responses to them. And “the challenges are great bait” for the lead users in the bureaucracy, with the second- and third-order effects reducing the fear that typically keeps user buy-in from occurring.

i3 support for an innovation ecosystem approach

Correcting the misalignment of classroom needs to innovative solutions from the marketplace is at the heart of Innovate NYC Schools’ i3 Development grant project: An Innovation Ecosystem for Urban School Districts. Like many other i3 projects, it involves a range of local and national partners to: help identify critical STEM learning challenges (the College Board); convey them to the community of developers and solicit their solutions (e.g., STARTL, EdTech Entrepreneurs Lab); evaluate and choose the submissions to pilot (NY Hall of Science and IDEO); and evaluate and assess what the project calls the ecosystem’s Academic Return on Investment (Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Research Alliance for NYC Schools).

And the potential for scaling up an ecosystem approach that better aligns classroom needs with innovative solutions holds great promise for other urban school systems. As noted in the introduction of the recent Innovate NYC Schools’ presentation, “If Lean Startup can make it there, it can make it anywhere!”

Doug Herbert is a special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement and editor of the OII home page.