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Feds turn to ‘crowdsourcing’ for educational innovation

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.

These five challenges are:

1. Reading Companion, a web-based literacy program that uses innovative speech-recognition technology to help children and adults learn how to read.

2. Reinventing Education Change Toolkit, which provides diagnostic and assessment tools, practical strategies, and other resources developed in collaboration with Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Arbuckle Professor at the Harvard Business School, to help LEAs make school reform efforts more efficient and successful.

3. KidSmart Early Learning Program, an early learning initiative that integrates new interactive teaching and learning activities using the latest technology into the pre-kindergarten curricula.

4. ¡TradúceloAhora!, a program that provides automatic translations from English to Spanish, as well as bidirectional eMail translations (English-Spanish), to enhance communications between teachers and Spanish-speaking parents.

5. TryScience, an online global science and technology center, featuring interactive exhibits, multimedia adventures, live “field trips,” and hands-on science projects.

The Open Innovation Portal community will rate the ideas submitted for each challenge, and winners will be selected from among the best ideas. The first IBM challenges—Reading Companion and Reinventing Education Change Toolkit—are underway now and will be offered until June 2010. IBM will award up to three $50,000 technical service grants for each challenge.

“By helping students and the future workforce be able to innovate, economic productivity will increase,” Mooney said. “IBM also has a vested interest in education, because we need people at our company who are innovative and have been incubated in that culture. Helping with this portal is really a win-win for us.”

ED also is offering multiple challenges; for example, “Developing and Evaluating Teachers and Leaders” asks the portal community to think of practices, strategies, or programs that increase the percentages of highly effective teachers or principals, or reduce the percentages of ineffective teacher or principals—especially for high-need students—by identifying, recruiting, developing, placing, rewarding, and retaining highly effective teachers or principals (or removing them).

Portal users also can blog, create a network of contacts within the portal, post and look for classified ads in education, and send and compose eMails within the portal.

“Our goal is to spur conversation beyond just talking, to action,” said Mooney. “By listing challenges, hosting job or project opportunities, and then bringing people in who can support change either through simple connections or by funding, talk will move to action. Also, by identifying specific challenges, you’re able to create definitive solutions—we just needed an environment to do this. It’s more than a suggestion box; it’s a mechanism for change.”

“We like the idea that solutions can come from a collaboration of all different types of disciplines. This has been happening already in tech and science fields and the private sector,” said Turillo. “Imagine if the health and human services industry starts collaborating with the education industry, and all of this can happen in real time.”

Because the portal just opened, Turillo said, no themes have been developed; however, the portal soon will feature different themes in terms of challenges and suggestions for innovation.

For example, most educational problems typically have centered on curriculum issues, different approaches to instruction, and how to reinforce and spread what works in the classroom, said Turillo, and while those are all problems worth thinking about, the portal will stimulate different types of questions and solutions.

“One example of an outside-the-box issue is the city of Boston’s large inner-city problem with dropout rates, violence, and performance,” he explained. “We all know that a well-educated child will most likely find success later in life and be happier—but how do we get the child interested and in class?” Fixing delinquency problems, community issues, and students’ self-esteem are important parts of that solution, he added.

Since the portal opened in February, 4,000 people have signed up, and the site features more than 80 new ideas, as well as many challenges.

IBM, STCI, and ED say they hope the portal will be sustainable in the years to come and will adapt to changing technologies of the future.

“Every legacy institution is failing us, from financial to educational,” said Turillo. “Thankfully, technology has advanced to the point where we can now have a global brain, meaning that people can come together to collaborate and solve problems. The more people you put together to solve something, the better the chances at reaching a solution. We’re really on the cusp of exciting times.”


Open Innovation Portal



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