Bullish on Blended-Learning Clusters

By 01/21/2016

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An increasing number of regions are trying to create concentrated groups of blended-learning schools alongside education technology companies, which may be key to advancing the blended-learning field and increasing its odds of personalizing learning at scale to allow every child to be successful.

There is a theoretical underpinning for being bullish on the value these clusters could lend to the sector. These early attempts at building regional clusters mirror in many ways the clusters that Harvard professor Michael Porter has written about as having a powerful impact on the success of certain industries in certain geographies. Porter defines a cluster as a geographic concentration of interconnected companies and institutions in a particular field.

“Clusters promote both competition and cooperation,” Porter wrote in his classic Harvard Business Review article on the topic, “Clusters and the New Economics of Competition.” He goes on to note that vigorous competition is critical for a cluster to succeed, but that there must be lots of cooperation as well—“much of it vertical, involving companies in related industries and local institutions.”

The benefit of being geographically based, he writes, is that the proximity of the players and the repeated exchanges among them “fosters better coordination and trust.” The strength comes from the knowledge, relationships, and motivation that build up, which are local in nature. Indeed, new suppliers are likely to emerge within a cluster, he writes, because the “concentrated customer base” makes it easier for them to spot new market opportunities or challenges that players need help solving.

From wine and technology in California to the leather fashion industry in Italy and pharmaceuticals in New Jersey and Philadelphia, clusters have endured and been instrumental in advancing sectors even in a world where technology has reduced the importance of geography.

As Clayton Christensen has observed, clusters may be particularly important in more nascent fields—like blended learning—in which the ecosystem is still immature, performance has yet to overshoot its users’ performance demands, and how the different parts of the ecosystem fit together are still not well understood, and thus the ecosystem is highly interdependent, even as proprietary, vertically integrated firms do not—or in the case of education, often cannot—stretch across the entire value network. In this circumstance, having a cluster with organizations so close together competing and working together may be critical.

Perhaps the most promising blended-learning cluster is blossoming somewhat organically in Silicon Valley, where Silicon Schools Fund (where I’m a board member), the Rogers Family Foundation, and Startup Education are helping fund the creation of a critical mass of blended-learning schools and traditional venture capitalists alongside funders like Reach Capital, Owl Ventures, GSV, and Learn Capital and accelerators like ImagineK12 are helping seed an equally critical mass of education technology companies.

The NGLC Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools, one of the supporters of the Rogers Family Foundation’s efforts in California, has funded similar regional efforts in New Orleans with New Schools for New Orleans; Washington, DC, with CityBridge Foundation; Colorado with the Colorado Education Initiative; Chicago with Leap Innovations; and New England with the New England Secondary School Consortium.

In Chicago in particular, Leap Innovations is trying to spur the creation of a cluster by not just working on building breakthrough schools, but also on supporting education technology companies by helping them pilot their tools in its schools and collect research.

New York City was also an early site of a potential cluster, with its iZone InnovateNYCSchools initiative that focused on both the emergence of blended-learning schools and their interactions with education technology companies. As Steven Hodas, the former director of that effort, has written, Digital Promise and the U.S. Department of Education have also collaborated to support emerging “education innovation” clusters throughout the country.

One question is which, if any, of these emerging potential blended-learning clusters will succeed. Perhaps they will all take root successfully, but there are reasons to wonder. Porter’s theory posits that for a cluster to thrive, there must be a healthy ecosystem of suppliers and buyers; a robust labor market; and competition and cooperation that allows for exchanges and development of knowledge, skills, relationships, and motivation.

In the emerging geographic concentrations of blended-learning schools, not all of these conditions exist. More broadly, because of the way public education functions in this country, there are arguably no places in the United States where all these conditions exist. As a result, it may not be enough to seed the creation of blended-learning schools and corresponding education technology companies.

Funders may need to be more deliberate by creating a robust entity that has the sole job of coordinating across the entire geographic cluster to make sure that system leaders, principals and other school leaders, blended learning directors, teachers, and education technology companies have frequent opportunities to network and spend time with each other learning and building in a deliberate way on each other’s successes and setbacks. An emerging success story from Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network that has played just this role may bolster the case, as it appears to be one of the few clusters that has greatly accelerated innovation in education along a variety of metrics—and helped unearth emergent, critical gaps in the ecosystem for new organizations to fill.

Either way, to peer into the future of what blended learning across the country might look like in the pursuit of personalized learning, keep an eye on the emerging clusters.

– Michael Horn

This first appeared on Forbes.com

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