Flagship Initiative, Collaboration: Open Innovation Web Portal

Aligned to goal:
  • 3.1: Enhance collaboration with other federal and non-federal agencies, the public, and non-profit and private entities.

The American education system is not what it could be. In cities and towns around the country, there are schools where students are as likely to leave high school with no credential as they are to leave with a diploma, to say nothing of the postsecondary education they increasingly will need to secure meaningful and lasting employment. Recognizing this, and tired of tolerating mediocre schools for thousands of the neediest and most at-risk students, President Obama and Secretary Duncan have made education a centerpiece of the Obama administration's domestic policy agenda.

Such fundamental change in American education, from a global laggard to a global leader, will require acknowledgement of problems for which there are existing solutions and those that have remained stubbornly intractable. For the latter type of challenge, an education sector that embraces and supports educational innovation is essential. To meet the challenge, there needs to be commitment, vision, and creativity from stakeholders across the education sector—from experienced educators who work with students every day, from entrepreneurs who may have never worked in a classroom but may have the next great idea for education, and from education funders that have both contributed some of the most important reforms in education and undermined the scaling of effective innovations. Moreover, all of these stakeholders must be communicating and collaborating with each other.

The Department of Education is taking the lead in supporting such a collaborative environment by launching an online community, the Open Innovation Portal, where education stakeholders of all types can spotlight areas of need, propose and suggest improvements to solutions, and fund, implement, and improve these solutions in and outside of the classroom. Through this effort, the Department seeks to create an infrastructure that will support widespread, transformative innovations and the focused, incremental improvements that will be required to ensure that every American child has the opportunities that a world-leading education system should provide.

In October 2009, Secretary Duncan announced the proposed priorities for the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, a $650 million grant program that will provide seed funding for promising new ideas, support the development of robust evidence for solutions that have shown significant early accomplishments, and scale up proven solutions so that many more students across the country can benefit. Secretary Duncan called i3 "an unprecedented investment in cutting-edge ideas that will produce the next generation of school reforms," yet it is only the beginning of the Department of Education's efforts to create an innovation pipeline for education.

As of March 29, 2010, the Open Innovation Portal had 2,851 members. A total of 76 ideas had been submitted, with 88 percent of them having received at least one question, answer, or comment. An active network is developing, with 716 network requests, 455 private messages, 254 idea questions, and 74 idea comments. The Department is encouraged by the early success of this innovative collaboration tool.

Open Innovation Portal Details

The Invest in Innovation (i3) Fund represents the Department of Education's most substantial direct investment in innovation to date, yet the Department recognizes that creating and sustaining innovation in the field will require not only successful grant competitions but also the reshaping and retooling of how innovation happens in the education sector. As Assistant Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton put it, "Successful ideas fail to scale, and the education sector lacks effective venues where good ideas can be identified, refined, and scaled as part of an ongoing innovation cycle that both introduces new ideas and improves on the ones that already exist."

As a result, key innovation stakeholders—foundations, innovators, and practitioners (e.g., teachers, school administrators, and parents) —share these similar challenges in collaboration and communication: foundations need a system for identifying new, grassroots ideas and sharing new knowledge; innovators need a process for identifying practitioner needs and for gaining greater access to investors; and practitioners require a venue to express their needs or access proven innovative ideas to strengthen education. All these stakeholders need mechanisms for quickly identifying practices and programs that are working and scaling them up to reach more students. There is also another, underutilized stakeholder in the education sector—the public—that is not traditionally viewed as a meaningful participant in the development of innovation and is often left out of conversations about needs and solutions.

With its role as both a convener and facilitator, the Department of Education can play a unique part in helping stakeholders to overcome these practical challenges. The Department intends to facilitate innovation by structuring a public exchange, one where practitioners define challenges in the field, innovators introduce and refine solutions, and funders support ideas from all parts of the education community.

The Open Innovation Portal, an online platform, will facilitate educational innovation by bridging the communication and coordination challenges in the education community. This is the first national forum where entrepreneurs, education stakeholders of all types, and funders can partner to develop and fund innovative ideas in the education sector. Through this portal, the Department will serve as a facilitator of partnerships and a convener of like-minded individuals to accelerate the development, identification, and broad use of innovative products, practices, and processes to improve education in schools.

How the Open Innovation Community Works

The Open Innovation Web Portal is a Web 2.0 innovation ecosystem that combines features of both a community and a marketplace. As a community, the portal creates a social network that strengthens relationships, facilitates connections, and promotes collaboration. As a marketplace, the portal creates an innovation process that taps the wisdom of the community to identify and provide resources for the most promising ideas in education.

Portal users will register for the site and create online profiles with their background and basic contact information. All registered users, whether teachers, administrators, or members of the general public, are invited to be innovators and post their solutions on the portal. Solutions are posted to categories of educational challenges of interest to the community, the Department, and potential funders. Initial challenges will be aligned with i3 priorities, such as supporting effective teachers and school leaders and serving schools in rural LEAs.

An online form captures detailed information about the proposed solution, including the nature of the problem, the merits of the approach, the scalability of the idea, and the resources required to succeed. Users can upload supporting materials, including videos and Web links. Once posted, members of the community can collaborate on solutions. They can also rate, rank, comment on, and ask questions about solutions, as well as offer resources to support the proposed solutions. Through this collaborative process, the best ideas rise to the top, and weaker ideas either improve or are filtered out.

Looking to the Future

There is immediacy around the development of this online community. The Department of Education wants it to be an asset for prospective applicants to i3, but the functionality of the community will improve over time in a process mirroring that of the ideas on the website. New features will be added in response to emerging needs of the community and improvements in technological capacity. More important, the power of an online community—particularly one driven by the collective creativity, knowledge, and experience of its users—increases as the number of users grows.

Moreover, the need for an online community of this type, and its relevance to education innovation, will continue beyond the first round of i3. In the proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget for the Department of Education, President Obama and Secretary Duncan are requesting $500 million for a second innovation-focused competitive grant competition. Solutions that did not receive funding in the first i3 competition will have time to improve, potentially by incorporating the resources of the online community, and new ideas will emerge in the interim (along with new needs).

This moment represents a unique opportunity to make radical and lasting change in American education. The Department of Education sees the need to bring together some of the nation's most successful and innovative leaders in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to capitalize on this moment, while adding new voices from previously unrepresented stakeholders.

The development and management of the portal are themselves manifestations of the collaboration needed to move educational innovation to a new level. The Office of Innovation and Improvement is partnering with Spencer Trask Collaborative Innovations (STCI), which is known for building innovation ecosystems for organizations. "The Department of Education understands the need to bring together some of the nation's most successful and innovative leaders in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to capitalize on this moment," according to Michael J. Turillo, vice-chairman of STCI.

The Open Innovation Portal will be a significant step forward in the Department's commitment to become an engine of innovation for American education.

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