Building Community
Building Community

When educators design and create new schools, and live next gen learning themselves, they take the lead in growing next gen learning across the nation. Other educators don’t simply follow and adopt; next gen learning depends on personal and community agency—the will to own the change, fueled by the desire to learn from and with others. Networks and policy play important roles in enabling grassroots approaches to change.

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An Opportunity

A couple of years ago, I realized that Utah (yes, Utah) had the potential to become a significant education innovation hub.

The state had two highly regarded instructional design/learning sciences graduate programs, a forward-leaning state superintendent who was in the process of replacing paper textbooks with digital materials statewide, the first open high school which used Open Educational Resources (OER) exclusively for its core curriculum, several educational technology companies that were getting national buzz (and have since garnered millions of dollars in investments), a network of researchers interested in studying innovative school models, and an exploding tech sector that earned the area the nickname “Silicon Slopes.”

Yet despite these assets, Utah wasn’t really on anyone’s map. Every time I would name a company or a leading ed tech thought leader from Utah, people would say, “Really? In Utah? I had no idea.” Worse, even within the area, I found that entrepreneurs, schools, researchers, and funders were only vaguely aware of each other.

Diving In

A few of us decided to change that. Taking advantage of the U.S. Department of Education’s annual bus tour, which came through Utah that year, we spent our nights and weekends putting together the first “Accelerating Learning Innovation” conference in Salt Lake City.  We had only six weeks to plan it and had no idea if anyone would come. To our delight, it was by all accounts a success: over 200 people participated.

And they were the right people. They were the very entrepreneurs, funders, state and local school leaders, teachers, and university researchers that we had hoped would attend. We had amazing discussions. New connections were made between people who lived within 30 miles of each other and had never met. Powerful ideas were disseminated. Most of all, people said we had to do this again.

Losing Steam

But the effort stalled there. Those of us who had planned the conference needed to shift focus back to other priorities (like our day jobs!) We had some leftover funds from the event, but no structure or plan for how to use them to move forward.

Most of all, we didn’t have the answer to this question:

How do you motivate people with mutual interest in education innovation but divergent missions and incentives to work together when the exact benefits of doing so are unknown?

We didn’t even know what to call what we were doing. And it wasn’t like there was an instruction manual to tell us what to do next.

All of that is changing!

New Resources Coming

I now know that what we were trying to create was an education innovation cluster and that similarly-minded people have started them in cities throughout the country—some very successfully, some still picking up momentum, all further along than our valiant initial attempt.

An education innovation cluster is a geographic concentration of interconnected organizations that work collaboratively to develop and nurture education technologies and breakthrough learning practices.

At a recent gathering in Pittsburgh hosted by Digital Promise in partnership with The Sprout Fund, an amazing group of innovators gathered to launch a national movement around the idea of education innovation clusters. They came from all over the country, representing communities as diverse as Nashville and New York City, New Orleans and Chicago, San Mateo, and Providence. Among them were several nonprofit leaders whose organizations were selected by Next Generation Learning Challenges to serve as innovation hubs in its Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools initiative.

It appeared that each of the attendees had been trying to do very similar things, but with limited awareness and support of others outside of their geographic area.

We agreed to collaborate on an education innovation cluster ‘cookbook’ that would draw from the experience of more established clusters to help those just getting started as well as those who are more advanced and growing. (The cookbook is on track to become available later this year—stay tuned for details!)

In the meantime, you can learn more on the Innovation Clusters page on the OET website.

A Few Tips for Beginners

While we wait for the cookbook to fully bake, I wanted to highlight a few tips that were shared at the convening. These insights would’ve been really helpful to me when I was in Utah and might be helpful to anyone considering launching an education innovation cluster:

  • Start small. Many of the clusters started with informal lunch or dinner meetings where like-minded people would regularly gather to share experiences and needs. Over time, these grew organically into larger gatherings and cross-collaborations.
  • Create a directory. It can be surprisingly difficult to discover which organizations are working toward similar ends. A simple web-accessible directory can help people find each other and stimulate additional networking. See the Pittsburgh Kids + Creativity Network directory for inspiration.
  • Focus on local needs. While your organization may have a mission with regional or national focus, you are most likely to get traction with other non-profits, researchers, educational institutions, and entrepreneurs when you are solving a problem that affects you all, and those tend to be local issues. Use proximity of purpose as a glue to bring disparate organizations together.
  • Go in together on a grant. Once you have discovered each other, built trust and found common ground and mutual interest, cement the relationship by working together on a grant proposal around an issue that you are all passionate about.  This will help to align and formalize your efforts and, if successful, increase both your visibility and your impact at the same time.

Next Steps

The U.S. Department of Education and Digital Promise have recently established a partnership to actively encourage and support a national cohort of local education innovation clusters. The first step will be releasing the Education Innovation Cluster Cookbook later this year. The next step will be creating a national directory of local education innovation clusters in order to speed up adoption of successful approaches, and to share ideas that scale. 

A series of national convenings will follow, where members of these clusters can gather to inform each other’s work, and contribute to additional online materials to help clusters everywhere take the next steps on their journey. If you would like more information about how to become involved in this movement, please send a note to

We look forward to a future where many more innovation clusters start, grow, and thrive. I personally will be keeping my eye out for Utah.

Joseph South headshot

Joseph South

Deputy Director, U.S. Department of Education

Joseph South is the deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology.