Since the portal opened in February, 4,000 people have already signed up.

Since the Open Innovation Portal opened in February, more than 4,000 people have signed up.

Education technology advocates hope that a new national online community will inspire entrepreneurs and educators to team up in developing and funding innovative solutions to some of education’s most persistent challenges.

The Open Innovation Portal, launched by the U.S. Education Department (ED) with help from IBM’s cloud-computing solutions and Spencer Trask Collaborative Innovations (STCI), aims to address educational challenges ranging from high school dropout rates to low reading, math, and science scores.

The initiative is part of a new White House effort to encourage innovative collaboration across all industry sectors. To do this, federal officials are turning to a process known as “crowdsourcing,” in which officials tap the collective wisdom of a large group of people through the power of the internet, to inspire new practices and creative solutions to systemic problems.

President Obama recently challenged cabinet officers to have every federal department be able to openly discuss innovative solutions with the public in the next 18 months.

“The national, state, and local governments are basically at a point where old ways of fixing problems are not working,” explained Mike Turillo, chief operating officer and vice chairman for STCI, an organization that helps bridge the private sector with local communities. “They’re saying, ‘I give up,’ and are now willing to embrace change and innovation, because that’s all that’s left. They’re embracing a paradigm shift to innovation and collaboration, because without collaboration across all sectors, nothing will get solved—and everyone’s starting to realize this.”

Gerry Mooney, general manager for global government and education at IBM, said the Open Innovation Portal was inspired by a transportation and traffic issue. Mooney, who is on the board of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, said a recent group project involved solving transportation congestion. IBM and STCI set up a collaborative environment to enable the public sharing of ideas, and more than 500 people joined.

Encouraged by that project, officials from IBM and STCI approached Aneesh Chopra, chief technology officer for the White House, about ways to apply that collaborative model to Obama’s innovation challenge.

Turillo said that when all government departments were asked to participate in the portal idea, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Jim Shelton, ED’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, were the first to jump on the opportunity.

The portal’s goal, explained Turillo, is to change how innovation occurs and to inspire a new model for education funding.

“Usually, federal money comes through grants,” he said. “What used to happen with grants is that teacher X from the second grade, who had an innovative idea, couldn’t find the funding mechanism, because it was either too intimidating or too time-consuming to accomplish. So then third-party grant writers write the grants. With the creation of the I3 program, the government is saying, ‘If you write a grant, make sure you include a specific teacher or source [of] innovation.’ Basically, find teacher X from the second grade. This portal is yet another way to break down those grant barriers by giving educators a chance to voice their ideas and find funding in an easy, transparent way.”

How it works

IBM’s cloud-computing services host the portal, which Mooney says is an easy, inexpensive way to have a sustainable area many people can visit at once.

If users sign up on the portal’s web site, they can create a profile and post any innovative ideas relating to education issues.

Users also can see others’ ideas and can review and rate those ideas based on need, impact, evidence, innovation, and scalability.

“You can post ideas, suggest improvements, and vote on ideas that resonate the strongest. The private sector will then take a look at these top ideas and discuss funding. The public sector can look into how to fund these innovations through grants as well,” said Turillo.

Organizations and businesses also can post “challenges.” For example, IBM is providing $500,000 in technical service grants through the Open Innovation Portal to support educational innovations that can bring measurable and sustainable improvements in K-12 student and school performance and teacher effectiveness. During 2010, IBM will offer five separate challenges on the portal to identify the best ideas for integrating advanced IBM education technologies within local education agencies (LEAs) to drive higher student achievement.