This year, watch for education innovations that expand schools’ ability to innovate and improving relationships and resources for students.

5 education innovation trends worth watching in 2023

This year, watch for innovations that explicitly add new capacity and connections to the mix, expanding schools’ ability to innovate and improving relationships and resources for students

3. Scaling well-resourced conversations

One of the reasons the emerging career services models noted above are worth watching is that they are built to scale students’ access to well-resourced career conversations, not just generic career information. I’m stealing the phrase “well-resourced conversations” from Rebecca Kirstein Resch, a Canadian entrepreneur running inqli—an employee engagement platform that helps employees and students alike get answers to their career questions—that came out of beta late last year. 

Kirstein Resch’s phrase strikes me as a metric worth considering in the world of networking technologies and guidance more generally. There’s a tendency to assume young people are “more connected than ever,” as enterprise tools from Handshake to TikTok have rapidly gained Gen Z users. But accessing new connections is only half the battle: whether a given connection opens the door to new resources—like information, advice, support, or even job offers—is, arguably, the difference-maker for students. Understanding how young people experience conversations, what resources stick and which don’t, and unearthing best practices for seeding well-resourced conversations could unlock real value as more networked technology tools continue to emerge and scale. 

This year I’ll be watching tools and models that are anchored on sparking new and more conversations with learners and workers about their future possibilities, like the models described above—and others like Mentor Spaces and Candoor—and endeavoring to better understand what users deem a helpful conversation and why. 

4. Enlisting near peers for far reach

For many of the tutoring, mentoring, or career-coaching models described above, the current assumption is that someone much older and wiser ought to be delivering support and advice to students. But strong and growing research on the power of near-peer coaches and mentors challenges that assumption. 

Near peers are those who are close in age and experience to students. Students certainly benefit from expert faculty and professional staff with more experience; but they are also, in some cases, more likely to trust the advice of their peers as credible messengers with whom they can relate. 

Trust isn’t the only advantage near peers may have. They also offer a promising path to scale in a human capital-constrained system. 

Take COOP, a nonprofit helping underemployed, low-income, first-generation college graduates break into tech jobs. COOP hires recent program alumni who have successfully secured full-time employment as part-time paid coaches. COOP’s founder Kalani Leifer summed up the insight guiding its approach: “What’s exciting is how quickly someone can go from receiving to providing social capital.”.

Leifer’s sentiment could push schools to reflect on how the skills, knowledge, and resources students are gaining could be reinvested back into their institutions. In other words, what if students were appreciated as experts in whatever content or skill they just learned or experienced? How might they be given opportunities to share that expertise back with the students that come after them?

Unlocking the power of near peers could supercharge the reach of “high-touch” efforts that seem impervious to scale. In Leifer’s estimation, unlocking that value has been a game changer: “The only reason we’re combining incredibly high-touch support with lower costs is that alumni do everything for each other,” Leifer said. 

This year, I’ll be digging in on how exactly near-peer models work: how they determine readiness and support for those near peers, how near peers are compensated, and where traditional schools and colleges might adopt near-peer models themselves. My gut is that these models are growing much faster in the postsecondary space—where near peers are a known driver of retention—than in K-12 schools where age-based cohorts tend to keep students further apart. But I’ll be testing that hypothesis while also watching how schools and colleges are using tech tools—like NearPeer, MentorCollective, and Alumni Toolkit—to better coordinate and scale near-peer connections. 

5. Pairing cash and connections to drive upward mobility

More coaches, tutors, mentors, career conversations, and near-peer connections could all help schools better serve students, especially those on the wrong side of opportunity gaps. But after looking at research on economic mobility and racial wealth gaps, I’ve become increasingly convinced that efforts to increase mobility would get further faster by pairing connections with cash. (For more on why these “currencies” matter so much, check out Stephanie Malia Krauss’ great book Making it).

Investing in both relationships and resources has research in its favor. Earlier this year, Raj Chetty and his team at Opportunity Insights made headlines with a new study that revealed the significant role that cross-class connections appear to play in increasing economic mobility. The media’s blunt takeaway was effectively “befriend rich people to get ahead.” For me, however, the more powerful insight was that a well-resourced network supports mobility. 

Connecting young people from low-income households to wealthy peers and mentors is one way to foster well-resourced networks. Another might be building tight-knit networks and infusing them with resources at the same time. To that end, this year I’ll be looking more closely at models like Uptogether (formerly Family Independence Initiative), Union Capital Boston, and a newer startup, Backrs, that all provide their participants with financial resources at the same time they expand access to support and career networks.

Understanding what can arise at the intersection of building cash and connections is an exciting frontier in policies and practices aimed at helping young people from low-income households move up the income distribution ladder. There are many existing connection-only interventions, such as mentoring programs, and many cash-only interventions, such as scholarships and ESAs, as well. If these models could start supplementing their approaches with cash and connections respectively, existing efforts to address opportunity gaps might make more headway.

Looking ahead to 2023, education systems could remain stuck in a vortex of capacity constraints perpetuated by ongoing COVID concerns and a looming recession. Together, these five trends offer an alternative reality: opportunities for education systems to broaden their networks, capacity, and reach—and their ability to ensure that more learners thrive this year and beyond.

Predicting innovation trajectories in K-12 education
Only out-of-the-box solutions will fix the real problems in schools

This post originally appeared on the Christensen Institute’s blog and is reposted here with permission.

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