It’s a constant challenge: How do you get all the right people—working in their separate silos—to talk with one another to build a better mousetrap?

In education, technology is inspiring kids in new ways. But ed-tech developers struggle to make the app or new tool work in a real classroom, with its time pressures, technology barriers, and district bureaucracy. Teachers know what may work best, but they rarely have the opportunity to collaborate with tech developers.

Meanwhile, both teachers and developers could benefit from smart research about how kids learn, but it’s too often buried in academic journals and never reaches the classroom or the design lab. And more broadly, how do you spur new education technology ventures locally, while ensuring they have a positive impact on kids, not just bottom lines of tech companies?

What’s needed is a system that joins the new ideas with the professional expertise of teachers and administrators, sprinkled liberally with evidence from research on what works and why.

Until recently, no such system existed.

But now, that’s changing. Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Education Technology at the US Department of Education, has been leading the charge in building such a system—what he calls an “innovation ecosystem” or innovation cluster in education.

The idea is to encourage, promote, and actively support innovation by identifying approaches that have worked to accelerate innovation in other industries—like biotech or open data initiatives—and applying them to education.

Teachers and principals serve as a reality check for ideas that appear promising in theory but may be impractical to implement.

“Although the domain may be very different, the underlying approaches often can still be very effective,” Culatta wrote in an article in Educause. Key to accelerating the pace of innovation will be to coordinate the efforts of many independent projects. That coordination is at the heart of the innovation ecosystem.

In Culatta’s vision of this innovation ecosystem, education, research, and commercial partners collaborate closely. As he wrote in Educause, the education partners “provide an environment where emerging learning technologies can be tested and new solutions can be developed with input from students and instructors.”

Researchers “conduct basic and applied research related to advancing the field of learning science” and “streamline the collection of data and outcomes to conduct ongoing evaluations of the products and approaches developed in the cluster.” Further, commercial partners “provide investment capital” and “bring to market applied research.” The loop is completed when the teachers and principals “serve as a reality check for ideas that appear promising in theory but may be impractical to implement.”

When these groups work together, Culatta told us in an interview, “both the products and quality of the educational experience and the validity of the research are improved.”

Culatta cited Pittsburgh as an example of a city or region with a thriving education innovation cluster. Partnerships between local foundations and Carnegie Mellon University, among other organizations, have resulted in grants and business incubators that drive learning innovation. The Kids+Creativity and Hive Pittsburgh join together museums, educators, scientists, and artists to work together in new and specific ways.

In early August, a group of newly formed and more mature education innovation clusters came together for a two-day meeting in Pittsburgh. Hosted by Digital Promise in partnership with The Sprout Fund, the conference offered participants an opportunity to share best practices, strategize, and learn more about the model Pittsburgh is building for education innovation.

“There is so much good stuff happening in Pittsburgh—good connections between community, researchers, developers, and the school districts,” said Sara Schapiro, director of the League of Innovative Schools at Digital Promise. “It seemed like a natural place to have this convening and launch this work.” Schapiro believes the US Department of Education and Digital Promise could serve as the anchors and “help organize the disparate clusters all over the country.”

EdInnovationConveningAccording to Culatta, the centrality of a shared vision was one of the most important ideas to emerge from the gathering. Each stakeholder may be working on different parts of the challenge, he said, but when as a region they have shared goals for what they’re trying to accomplish, “all of a sudden they’re not just working on similar coexisting problems, they’re actually collaborating and supporting each other’s work.”

Representatives of Rhode Island’s nascent education innovation cluster attended the August convening to help them identify goals and next steps, one of which is fostering cross-district communication.

“We have a great organic system here, where many educators and administrators have begun integrating technology and working with universities, but we haven’t created a structure to coordinate that,” explained Paula Dillon, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment at Barrington Public Schools.

She identified a program at the Highlander Institute as one representing the kind of collaboration she’d like to encourage in her region. At Highlander, teachers and other district representative receive training in integrating technology into the classroom.

Dillon said Pittsburgh’s mix of businesses and universities reminded her of Rhode Island, and she hopes her region can emulate and benefit from some of the best practices already in place there.

The Baltimore region’s education innovation cluster is a bit further along than Rhode Island’s, but the former focuses more on the technology and commercial aspects. EdTech Maryland, a consortium of 17 tech incubators, is in the process of attaining nonprofit status and becoming a formal organization.

The group hopes to become a broker for ed tech companies and districts. Districts working on a specific app or tool would be able to partner with schools for pilot programs, and schools looking for specific tools would be connected with appropriate research or development teams.

Allovue, a web-based integrated financial data system for schools, is an example of the kind of ed tech innovator that EdTech Maryland hopes to support in the region. The Baltimore Business Journal reported that the company secured $600,000 in seed funding in 2013. Allovue also completed a pilot program in five Baltimore public schools last year, with help from EdTech Maryland.

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Richard Culatta/ Photo: Ben Filio

Katrina Stevens of EdTech Maryland, who also attended the Pittsburgh gathering, explained that her area is ripe for this kind of organization. “We’re small enough that we can get to know all the players and collaborate,” she said. “It really does influence how you can get things done.”

Despite the cluster’s focus on business development, Stevens stressed that EdTech Maryland wants to nurture companies that “really get what happens in the classroom” and that are seeking a “double bottom line,” profit and social good.

“I spent my first 20 years in schools, first as a teacher and then as a principal,” Stevens said. “My perspective is deeply rooted in what’s good for schools and kids. For me it’s crucial that, however the pilot turns out for the company, it has to be positive for the school.”

Part of that, Culatta says, is ensuring that research gets into the loop. “There’s really good educational research happening, but it’s not getting into the hands of teachers, students, and parents in ways that allow them to make a difference,” Culatta said.

To Culatta, the power of education innovation clusters is that they can ensure that the innovations actually move the needle on school improvement by bringing disparate groups together that currently are working independently. “If you have research showing that this is not working or people saying, ‘We’re using this, and it doesn’t help solve this problem,’ you know that before anything gets out of the gate.” The process results in “a higher level of reliability of the tools and services that are coming out of a region.”