We’re at a turning point. Thirty years ago, Fritjof Capra, who paved the systems thinking pathway for Senge and Wheatley, warned that mankind always sees itself at a turning point. But this time it’s really true. Expanded access to broadband, cheap access to devices, and powerful application development platforms have enabled a ‘maker economy.’  In his Sunday December 13th column,Tom Friedman called it the Great Inflection.

Because it’s an inefficient sector, the inflection will be a long one in education.  However, it is well underway. Despite installing about 10 million computers in schools, we’ve never gained much learning, staffing or facilities productivity from early investments that layered technology on top of how we’ve always done things.

But that is going to change. The recession gives us good reason to rethink our public delivery systems. Federal stimulus grants will fund a new generation of edu-entrepreneurs.  Emerging economies are making massive investments in access without the limitations of legacy systems. Venture capitalists are ‘hacking education.’ Private equity firms are lining up to fund scaling efforts. There’s finally an opportunity to earn market returns and make a big impact.

Early evidence of the inflection includes the growth of online learning, the explosion of learning tools and platforms, and a few school models that blend online learning with onsite support in productive ways.

The Great Inflection has five philanthropic implications for 2010:

1. Philanthropy must be forward leaning, embracing new opportunities and addressing old problems in new ways. For example, teacher effectiveness is now an instructional effectiveness challenge that will be met, at least in part, by online learning.

2. Foundations should take more risks and leave room for innovation. On an exponential curve, there’s bound to be more change than you’ve accounted for in your theory of action. Put the other 95% (the balance sheet) to work with mission related investments.

3. Cherry picking a few promising ideas is a good idea, but the inflection will be enabled by a few ascendant platforms that combine social learning, adaptive content, and related services. They will require a mix of philanthropic and private capital. Pick one that looks like it has scaling potential-it may be the iPhone of education.

4. To ensure that we get forward leaning state and federal legislation and early market adoption, foundations need to support advocacy in a much bigger way.

5. Innovation is best developed and scaled by the private sector, but unlike every other public delivery system – transportation, energy, and medicine, among others – education routinely resists collaborative work with the private sector. Foundations can help change that by embracing entrepreneurship, partnering with private sector partners, and making mission related investments.

We’re concluding a difficult year for foundations and grantees. While endowments have recovered a bit, state budgets will be tight for several years offset for a few by giant federal grants. The next year is likely to be the most dynamic in history. Leave some room in your plans for the Inflection.

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