The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The W. T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.
This blog, based on an interview between the Forum for Youth Investment and eMINTS leadership, focuses on what the eMINTS National Center has learned about scaling a technology intervention in the sometimes low-tech environment of schools. eMINTS provides professional development for K-12 educators using interactive group sessions and in-classroom coaching/mentoring to help teachers integrate technology into their teaching. Their i3 validation grant focuses on expanding an intensive professional development model for teachers in rural middle schools.
Plan for success. Thinking about scale and sustainability starts long before a funding stream is coming to an end. As Lorie Kaplan, Executive Director of the eMINTS National Center notes, “Even in the very early stages of developing and testing your innovation, it is important to ask yourself – if we are successful, is this innovation scalable?” Even prior to receiving the i3 award, eMINTS leadership began considering the options for expanding their work to all 50 states. Five years ago, they went through Joel Barker’s Implications Wheel process – a software-enhanced group process for discovering and mapping the implications of change. They have goals to expand both nationally and internationally. The process required them to look at emerging trends, their strategic objectives, innovations they could make, and changes to policy and practice required for change.
Expand with fidelity and flexibility. Even as they envisioned a program that reached across the country and internationally (they currently have a partnership with a school in New South Wales Australia), eMINTS staff were aware of the broad implications of scaling. They knew that trying to grow too fast without a support structure would be devastating to the fidelity of the program. “It is critical to identify which parts of the program must be held constant from one implementation to the next in order to maintain quality, while also maintaining flexibility to adapt successfully to each new context,” said Christie Terry, eMINTS Associate Director. Building in local support strategies has allowed the program to scale effectively. These supports vary depending on the locale. In Utah, where they have had more requests for training than they had the capacity to offer, for example, they began to approve local experts to train trainers. Hoping to build on that success, they are exploring establishing regional hubs and have tried to secure additional funding to support that process. Kaplan notes that although they didn’t receive a second i3 grant to develop regional hubs in school districts in Utah, Delaware and Alabama, the three districts are committed to the concept and hope to push on to develop regional hubs even without the funding.
Make the case for value early and often. Many initiatives with sound evidence and great materials bump up against shrinking school budgets. In some cases, the funding stream that seeds a project is no longer available two or three years down the road. In other cases, schools silo interventions and miss opportunities to fund programs through alternative sources. eMINTS faced both problems as they began to scale their intervention. They found that schools didn’t have a dedicated funding stream to support the model, especially after a key federal technology funding stream was defunded by the Department of Education. To cope, they had to work with schools to understand the multi-faceted value of the program and find resources that connect to the goals of eMINTS. For example, they have had to demonstrate how technology impacts instruction in a variety of ways – from increasing student motivation and achievement, to developing 21st century skills, to supporting common core implementation. Similarly, they have had to work with schools to understand the full intervention. “We had to convince schools that eMINTS isn’t just about hardware and equipment,” says Kaplan. “The professional development components of the model are as critical as the technology going into the classrooms. Unless you have the essential supports for how to use the technology well, you aren’t going to get anything out of it.” Once they were able to make the leap from equipment to the broader initiative, schools began to see beyond technology-only funding streams and are more supportive of the program overall.
Be high tech and high touch. Educators need personal attention to succeed in trying and implementing new program – even when they are high tech. One major component of the eMINTS professional development program is the in-classroom coaching that teachers receive on a regular basis. This one-on-one time with their trainer allows teachers to have support as they implement the new technologies and teaching strategies into their own context. The eMINTS staff use a wide variety of free, online collaboration tools, such as Skype, Moodle, Google Apps, and Edmodo, to do more personalized, just-in-time coaching and mentoring with teachers. According to Terry, “It’s important to be available to teachers as they encounter challenges to help them move past barriers and sustain their enthusiasm. Using these types of tools gives teachers concrete ways to build and sustain their personal learning networks.”