(This is part three of a three part series.)

Imagine that it is the year 2025. The setting is a disrupted suburb in which poverty is on the rise. Many families have left, tax revenues have declined, retailers have closed, and jobs in the immediate neighborhood have become scarce. In response, local school districts and industries from the broader region have partnered with social services, mental health, and juvenile justice agencies to create a regional consortium focused on helping students develop academically and manage the challenges in their lives while also preparing for possible careers.

Now students pursue customized learning pathways that combine academic courses with career credits and real-world experience; teachers complete curriculum design internships at regional employers, museums and science centers; and educators and social services professionals provide relevant and integrated whole-child support. The community came together around a transformative vision for learning in order to turn the tide of its downward economic spiral.

This story from the future suggests just one way in which new kinds of learning ecosystems might emerge in response to local needs. It is informed by KnowledgeWorks’ ongoing exploration of the future of learning, which takes into account how trends emerging today could impact learning in 10 years. Persistent trends suggest that learning is diversifying, with new ways of organizing teaching and learning emerging and with learning ecosystems becoming more diverse and more personalized. Interest in supporting and incenting new approaches to education is spreading. Approaches to education funding, policy, and quality assurance are gradually broadening even as community ownership of learning and public will for change grow.

In order to create future learning ecosystems that can prepare all learners for a rapidly changing world, we must build upon such trends to create systemic structures that support vibrant learning ecosystems for all young people.

Innovation Pathways toward Vibrant Learning Ecosystems

To help education stakeholders pursue large-scale systemic transformation in support of better opportunities for all young people, KnowledgeWorks developed a framework of 10 innovation pathways that promise to bring about the best of future possibilities. I provided an overview of that framework in my first article in this series, “Transforming Learning for All Young People.”

In the fall edition of this magazine, I explored how the five innovation pathways focused on transforming the core of learning promise to open new possibilities for the ways in which education stakeholders design learning environments. This article highlights how we must also transform supporting systemic structures in order to make learner-centered approaches to education sustainable and widespread.

For each pathway, I share signals of change, along with developments to watch, and suggest strategies for moving forward.

Establish Equitable Funding Structures

Equitable, flexible-funding structures would enable learners to access the right learning experiences and supports. They would facilitate movement across boundaries and would support people both in accessing necessary equipment and other resources and in meeting non-academic needs – such as food, social and mental health supports, and nursing care – that impact learning.

  • Signal of change: A signal of change is a current example that points the way toward future possibilities. Strategic foresight practitioners use signals of change as one basis for forecasting how change might unfold. In regard to this innovation pathway, Nevada’s controversial State Bill 302 allows for parents of students who have been enrolled in public school for at least 100 days to apply for an education savings account, which will enable them to use approximately $5,000 to pay participating educational providers.
  • Developments to watch: Developments to watch reflect trends shaping the future of learning that could extend opportunities to pursue an innovation pathway. In this case, look for states to continue exploring new funding formulas and mechanisms even as systemically motivated education pioneers appeal to funding sources not typically seen in public education, such as venture capital, social impact bonds, educational savings accounts and micro bonds.
  • Strategies for moving forward: Begin providing schools and districts with greater flexibility about how they allocate funding and redirect some education funding to support education stakeholders in carrying out transformational visions for learning. In addition, provide learners and their families with more options for funding the learning experiences that work best for them and consider how to develop or establish systems to extend public funding for community-based learning experiences.

Establish New Quality Assurance Frameworks

Quality assurance frameworks appropriate to diverse learning environments would help ensure the quality of learning agents and experiences, monitor the distribution of resources for equity, and integrate all levels of the learning ecosystem.

  • Signal of change: In March 2015, the U.S. Department of Education approved a pilot project in New Hampshire that allows districts to design their own student assessments to accompany state and federally mandated tests. Students will take the Smarter Balanced assessment only three times in grades K-12 — as opposed to the seven times normally required — and will complete district-designed assessments the other years. The goals of the pilot are to test a performance-based assessment system and to explore alternative accountability measures.
  • Developments to watch: Expect educators to focus increased attention on creating assessments that measure applied mastery, real-world impact, and social-emotional development, and for those assessments to extend the breadth of state and federal accountability systems. Watch too for regional learning ecosystem networks to pay increasing attention to the distribution of resources and the quality of learning experiences across communities and providers.
  • Strategies for moving forward: Start by focusing current accountability systems on a broader view of student outcomes and teacher performance and working to shift their focus from inputs to outputs. Then begin extending them to help ensure quality across a more distributed learning ecosystem while also developing new mechanisms for understanding learners’ experiences and providers’ performance.

Foster Community-Wide Ownership of Learning

Geographic and virtual communities would take ownership of learning in new ways, fostering rich learning landscapes and playing a key role in monitoring both learning agents’ contributions and learners’ success.

  • Signal of change: In 2014, Los Angeles Public Library became the first library in the country to offer accredited high school diplomas and career certificates through an online learning program accompanied by academic coaches and academic support instructors. The San Diego, Sacramento and San Francisco public libraries have since followed suit.
  • Developments to watch: Stay tuned for museums, libraries, science centers, and other community-based organizations to play an increasing role in learning as students increasingly customize their learning pathways and communities connect their assets across distributed learning ecosystems. Also watch for more communities to pursue collective impact approaches that bring together diverse P-16 providers to align resources and monitor progress toward shared outcomes.
  • Strategies for moving forward: Surface and map communities’ learning assets and connect learning resources across sectors and providers, considering new community-based platforms for learning along with new educator roles designed to support learning across community landscapes. Also grow the collective impact movement around current educational outcomes; then extend it to address a broader range of outcomes reflecting diverse learning environments.

Foster Courageous Leadership and Policymaking

Policymakers and other leaders would show courageous leadership in making bold decisions that open the world to children, creating flexible and nimble policies that supported ongoing change as the ecosystem continued to evolve.

  • Signal of change: Effective this school year, Vermont’s Flexible Pathways Initiative requires schools to create personalized learning plans for all seventh and ninth graders, with the goal of phasing in the plans for all seventh through 12th graders in coming years. The intent of the legislation is to enable students to access learning experiences that reflect their interests and goals both in and out of school.
  • Developments to watch: Watch for more policies to incent education innovation on a pilot basis or to provide flexibility in fulfilling mandates. Also look for coalitions of educators and other stakeholders to elevate concerns reflecting their perspectives and value sets, placing increasing pressure on public systems and challenging established approaches.
  • Strategies for moving forward: Support policymakers and other leaders in developing transformational visions for learning and in orienting education decision making around the needs of learners even when those decisions might challenge the roles of adults and the maintenance of institutions. Also work to connect policy across current educational silos and across the sectors that contribute to the learning ecosystem.

Cultivate Public Will and Understanding for Transformative Change

The national conversation around what education should aim to accomplish and what it might look like would coalesce around a transformational vision for an expanded learning ecosystem that enabled meaningful personalized learning for all students.

  • Signal of change: A 2014 survey commissioned by Education Post showed that parents and grandparents believe public schools need to change, challenging the adage that communities are unsatisfied with the school system as a whole but are happy with their local schools. Sixty percent of respondents indicated that schools in general need “some change,” and 33 percent said that they need a complete overhaul. Notably, 61 percent of respondents think that their own child’s school needs to improve.
  • Developments to watch: Watch for some groups to enlist broad community support in remodeling public education locally and for national coalitions to foster movements around transformative visions for learning. Also keep an eye out for rapid prototyping of new educational approaches that challenge fundamental assumptions about how school works today.
  • Strategies for moving forward: Develop and communicate clear visions for learning ecosystems that enable meaningful personalized learning for all students and work to engage broad stakeholder groups in pursuing and extending them. Also demonstrate the value of new approaches to learning while building momentum to spread effective approaches in culturally responsive ways.

Creating Vibrant Learning Ecosystems

These innovation pathways promise to help education stakeholders foster education transformation that is sustainable and widespread. To prepare learners for the world ahead, we need to develop approaches to funding, quality assurance, and education policy that support diverse learning ecosystems that can flex around and with the needs of learners. We also need to cultivate community ownership of learning and public will for creating truly vibrant learning ecosystems for all young people.

One of the United States’ foremost educational futurists, Katherine Prince leads KnowledgeWorks’ exploration of the future of learning. As senior director of strategic foresight, she speaks and writes about the trends shaping education over the next decade and helps education stakeholders strategize how to become active agents of change in pursuing their ideal visions for the future learning ecosystem.

Equitable, flexible-funding structures would enable learners to access the right learning experiences and supports.

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