ImpactPHL Perspectives, Volume 9: Innovation Ecosystems - A Mechanism For Creating, Developing, And Scaling New Solutions For Education

About ImpactPHL Perspectives:

If you are curious about pursuing financial returns while influencing the positive growth of Greater Philadelphia and the world at large, then welcome to the conversation. ImpactPHL Perspectives is a multi-part series which explores the many facets of the impact economy in Greater Philadelphia from the perspectives of its doers, movers, shakers, and agents of change. Each volume is written directly by a leader in this space, to discuss best practices and share lessons learned, while challenging our assumptions about the returns - financial and societal - on engagement in the impact economy. For more of ImpactPHL Perspectives, check out the ImpactPHL Blog.

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By Dr. Barbara Kurshan & Dr. Rachel Ebby-Rosin Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education

To date, many innovative education technology products and services have not been adopted by schools or have failed to achieve scale.  One reason for this lack of adoption and implementation is the disconnect that often exists between educators and entrepreneurs. Practitioners often receive inadequate information about new tools and their capacity to enhance instruction, which further impedes implementation. In addition, the limited amount of time and resources that most practitioners encounter on a daily basis, including insufficient professional development on how to use new technologies, further impedes adoption rates.  

Because designing, adopting, and implementing new technologies in teaching and learning requires the participation and coordination of myriad constituents, successful solutions must include multiple stakeholders. For example, rather than working alone to devise solutions to the challenges mentioned above, entrepreneurs, teachers, and researchers need opportunities to collaborate in order to identify practice-oriented problems to which there may be entrepreneurial solutions.  Borrowing from the fields of ecology and management, we use the metaphor of an ecosystem to describe these burgeoning forms of stakeholder engagement that have the potential to yield innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems in education.

What is an innovation ecosystem?

An edtech innovation ecosystem refers to the collaborative efforts of key stakeholders to develop, adopt, and implement new products and services intended to improve teaching and learning. The individuals and organizations engaged in these joint efforts—including students, parents, practitioners, entrepreneurs, funders, and researchers—represent a variety of skill sets and priorities, and their roles are often fluid.  As a result, innovative ideas and new offerings are understood within the broader context of the education market rather than viewed in isolation.

"Borrowing from the fields of ecology and management, we use the metaphor of an ecosystem to describe these burgeoning forms of stakeholder engagement that have the potential to yield innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems in education." 

By definition, an innovation ecosystem cannot be a single organization; it is a network that transcends individual organizations and institutions and yet is constituted by the individuals in those institutions, their ties to one another, and the resources they exchange. Specific efficiency conditions (e.g., budget shortfalls and mandates such as the Common Core State Standards) facilitate the creation of edtech innovation ecosystems by forcing districts and state systems to achieve improved outcomes despite growing economic constraints. Ecosystems are also a response to a growing awareness that collaborations are both more effective and more efficient in tackling complex problems.

Key inputs of an innovation ecosystem include funding, human capital, and material goods such as hardware and software technology, and the creation of platforms that enable stakeholder interaction. An innovation ecosystem also requires an environment that rewards creativity, experimentation, and risk-taking. The use of research, broadly defined to include academic, market, and applied methods, is critical but also presents several challenges. For example, it can be difficult to measure the impact of a new technology on student achievement given the high number of mediating factors and contextual factors that come into play.

Most new ventures nurtured in the ecosystem seek to achieve some measure of stability, and in the case of for-profits, growth and profitability as well. In addition, these young companies also strive to create a positive impact on teaching and learning (i.e., a “double bottom line”). The ongoing, meaningful interactions among stakeholders who would otherwise be unlikely to interact with each other in the course of a typical business day is a less tangible but equally critical output of an ecosystem. By exposing stakeholders to novel ways of thinking and by giving them access to additional resources, this cross-pollination can generate greater value for participants than groups can create alone.

The boundaries of an ecosystem can be defined in multiple ways, including geographically, as in the case of a particular city or region, or based upon a mutual interest or joint enterprise, as in the case of a specific industry, in which case supply partners might come from across the globe. Boundaries are often defined by the actors in the network.  Because innovation ecosystems are both emergent and dynamic, determining their boundaries is challenging. Critics charge that when boundaries are difficult to define, everything becomes a part of the ecosystem, rendering the term not only meaningless but empirically unverifiable.

Innovation Ecosystems in Action

The Tech for Schools Summits, organized by EdSurge and held in a dozen major cities throughout the United States over the course of a year, serve as a prime example of how an ecosystem could function. At the meetings, hundreds of teachers and administrators gather to participate in workshops on edtech as well as to network, test products, and share their ideas about technology in the classroom. In addition, with the help of local educators who serve as judges, EdSurge selects 40 to 50 local edtech start-ups to demonstrate their products at the conference and to receive feedback. Using a variety of strategies, including its two weekly electronic newsletters (one aimed at educators, the other at entrepreneurs), Twitter, Facebook, and local workshops, EdSurge aims to foster dialogue and to continue participants’ engagement with one another beyond the end of the conference.

"Key inputs include funding, human capital, and material goods such as hardware and software technology, and the creation of platforms that enable stakeholder interaction. An innovation ecosystem also requires an environment that rewards creativity, experimentation, and risk-taking." 

In Philadelphia, education technology incubators such as the Education Design Studio (EDSi), which operates in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania, and DreamIt Ventures in collaboration with Penn State University, are two additional examples of ecosystems in action. By connecting early-stage companies with seed funding, mentorship from university researchers and established entrepreneurs, and networking and beta testing opportunities, both EDSi and DreamIt Ventures have nurtured numerous successful companies in the education space, including those based locally, such as Practice, a peer-to-peer learning platform, SmartTrack, a mobile platform that enables large, urban schools to manage inventory more efficiently, and Campus ESP, a mobile communication platform that helps colleges and universities build their digital parent engagement strategies in order to increase student success. These incubators promote economic growth in the larger Philadelphia impact ecosystem by directly supporting the efforts of current entrepreneurs and by indirectly supporting the technologies they develop, which will in turn help today’s students become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and workforce leaders.

In conclusion, the concept of an innovation ecosystem provides a useful construct for policymakers, funders, and educators when considering ways to promote dialogue and engagement among key stakeholders to transform innovative solutions from ideas to reality.

Dr. Barbara (Bobbi) Kurshan is a leader, researcher and expert in the fields of education technology, entrepreneurship and investment in education. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Academic Innovation and a Senior Fellow in Education at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, where she runs the Milken-GSE Business Plan Competition, chairs EDSi (Education Design Studio) and oversees the Masters in Education Entrepreneurship program. Previously, as the President of Educorp Consultants Corporation, she provided strategic consulting in the areas of education, technology and innovation; and as the Executive Vice President of WorldSage, a consortium of for-profit higher education institutions in the EU to address education for the 21st century she created a global network of tertiary institutions in the EU.  She received he MS in computer science and her EdD in Curriculum and Instruction from VA Tech.

Dr. Rachel Ebby-Rosin is a research-associate on the Academic Innovations team, at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, whose areas of expertise include qualitative methods and K-12 Education Policy.  She began her career in education as a charter corps member of TFA and taught bilingual elementary school in Los Angeles, New York City and Redwood City. She received her Ed.M. in education policy from Harvard and her Ph.D. in education from Stanford.  Her research interests include community organizing for school reform, student voice, and entrepreneurship in education.


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