Supporting Districts as the Learning Ecosystem Expands

Topics: Future of Learning

Like it or not, the learning ecosystem is expanding.  As education goes through a time of disintermediation, learners and their families will have many options for deciding what learning experiences they consume, in what ways and in what combinations.  Not everyone will decide that they need traditional school districts to the extent that we need them today or in the same ways that we need them today.

People’s relationship with them has already been changing: witness the trends we’ve been seeing for some time toward the expansion of charters and other alternative school structures; the proliferation of online and blended learning platforms and supports; and the steady increase homeschooling, freeschooling, unschooling, and other forms of self-organized learning.  We’ve also been seeing the rise of new mechanisms (for example, Kentucky’s Districts of Innovation program) aiming to enable traditional districts to innovate within the current regulatory climate.

At the same time, our new normal is one of constrained resources in which districts, as participants at a workshop on the future of learning that I facilitated leading up to the Ohio ESC Association’s (OESCA’s) spring conference reminded me, have cut so deeply that it can be a challenge to find any time to identify potential innovations, much less pursue them.  Even as school districts need to operate differently, often with less, in a changing world, the roles that they play in communities beyond educating children can make it hard for their communities to accept change.  Think of how some communities coalesce around their sports teams, for a relatively simple starting point.  Not to mention districts’ role in providing relatively stable middle-class jobs and the correlation between district performance and property values.

As a society, we have a lot invested in the way things are even as we ask school districts to do more with an increasingly diverse population in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.  So how might educational service centers, intermediate units, and other regional organizations whose roles are to support districts and supplement their services help districts transition effectively toward acting as vibrant nodes in the expanding learning ecosystem?

In exploring that question, OESCA workshop participants imagined:

  • Advocating to change the regulatory climate to allow greater room for communities and families to lead education (in concert with and informed by business partners and economic needs) and to encourage collaboration rather than competition
  • Educating parents about new approaches to learning in order to build public will for change
  • Helping to facilitate the creation of regional learning academies that could offer a wide range of offerings for learners, regardless of their home school district
  • Organizing regional mastery-based learning collaboratives that drew heavily upon virtual supports and blended learning
  • Helping to reinvent schools as skill academies
  • Encouraging universal access to high-quality preschool as a foundation for success.

These are just a few possibilities.  We need to identify and explore many avenues for innovation.  Not for innovation’s sake.  But because our current structures aren’t able to educate all children in the ways that children need to learn.  Because the fundamental design of our system needs to shift to one that is appropriate for this new world we inhabit.

The pressure is mounting for public school districts, with a plausible future scenario being “No Child Left” and with another being “A Fractured Landscape” in which only some children have access to radically personalized learning.  What strategies do you see as having the potential to avert these negative scenarios and to create instead a diverse learning ecosystem that is vibrant for all learners?