7 Roles of a Next-Gen Learning Ecosystem

Sarah Luchs

Partnerships can spur the growth of next-gen learning in a community and allow it to flourish. Local collaborative learning networks, incubating hubs, and next-gen learning ecosystems are built on partnerships. These networks attract educators, entrepreneurs, funders, and community leaders. Some network models (innovation clusters, smart cities, hive networks) are loosely coordinated, inclusive, and far reaching while others (regional funds partners, emerging harbormasters) utilize a tighter coordination focused on narrowly defined innovations. Whether you start with a classroom, a school or a learning network, partnerships help you think about the key strategies that give your effort its unique character and defining focus.

The partner organizations for the six NGLC Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools sites serve as coordinating entities for a network focused on next-gen, personalized learning school models. They are the bridge builders that bring stakeholders together and facilitate a set of ‘backbone functions’ necessary to collaborative work. At NGLC, we have observed seven roles that provide these functions and move the Regional Funds networks forward. Look for ways that these roles can be fulfilled in your community to jump-start your own learning network, or if you’re already part of one, to take it to the next level.

1. Funder

Partner organizations raise funds for investment, shape new opportunities based on need, seek national, regional and local matching funds and help sustain positive changes over time. Rogers Family Foundation and CityBridge Foundation are themselves local private foundations and have long-standing commitments to education in their community. Foundations still rely on partnerships; for example, CityBridge receives targeted support from Microsoft and New Schools Venture Fund.

2. Lead Entrepreneur

Our schools have to be more fluid and proactive in meeting the changing needs of society and of the students they serve. That’s a new notion and a different expectation for most schools. Regional partner organizations have fewer regulations and greater flexibility in spending than districts and charter organizations. They also have a diverse network to tap ideas, resources and talent. This positioning makes them a nexus for R&D in next-gen learning. NGLC Regional Funds partners serve as champions for an innovation mindset. Their efforts have successfully connected local educators to entrepreneurs, and infused national expertise and ideas into the local ecosystem. New Schools for New Orleans and partner 4.0 Schools exemplify this best.

3. Talent Scout

Before any funds were distributed, the Regional Funds partners spent a good deal of time identifying, recruiting, and welcoming educators in their midst who are curious, forward-leaning, and willing to try something new to better help their students. For example, LEAP Innovations worked with the Chicago Public Education Fund, the district, and afterschool networks to identify educators citywide that may be interested in next-gen learning. CityBridge Foundation started the Education Innovation Fellowship to create a pipeline of next gen teaching talent. Sometimes it’s been a surprise to district and charter organization leaders to see who steps forward. 

4. Next-Gen Professional Learning Provider

Regional Funds partners offer professional learning to educators which mirrors personalized, blended, and competency-based strategies; where educators exercise choice and become agents of change; and, with a flexible design that enables educators to shape and direct their own learning. 

5. School Incubator

With a focus on increasing the number of students who are prepared for college, career and lifelong learning, each partner is catalyzing support for new and redesigned school models. Most Regional Funds sites support school teams with multiple specialty providers; whereas New England Secondary School Consortium is itself a direct technical assistance provider. The technical support addresses a range of needs as teams move through a process of imagining, planning and implementing a next-gen school. Design thinking is one foundational topic shared in all sites.

6. Policy Shaper

Regional Funds partners are in a unique position to reflect on, question, and identify policy conditions that enable and restrict next gen learning practices. The New England Secondary School Consortium helps inform and support conversations among state and local leaders that have led to changes in state policy. For example, proficiency-based graduation is now required in ME, NH, and VT and encouraged and enabled in CT and RI. The Colorado Education Initiative, and LEAP Innovations are working to identify a set of flexible and robust success metrics. Regional Partners keep a pulse on the quality and conditions of learning for students and educators. They may be involved in vision setting and progress monitoring across multiple indicators and often employ help from an outside research entity.

7. Ecosystem Builder

Leveraging deep local knowledge and roots, Regional Funds Partners are master connectors and networkers. They arrange school visits, host convenings, and promote community dialog and learning events. They tell the story across their local networks, support professional connections, and champion new developments in practices and tools. As each site is a nascent hub of rapidly developing new learning models, they provide inspiration, create opportunities for celebration, and help manage growth and change. Building trusting partnerships is job #1; and, the quality and diversity of these relationships make or break the network.

Finding these roles in your community

Regional partnerships, consortia, and intermediaries are not new. What’s new is choosing to see the world from the view of the learner, tapping into collaborative tools for greater impact, recognizing the need for R&D to support equity and excellence at scale, and growing interest in being connected, purposeful and resourceful about our work and learning. The seven roles show up in the NGLC Regional Funds work specifically and in other ecosystem models and learning networks more generally—sometimes with different names or labels. For example, the seven roles can be easily cross-walked with the five key strategies mentioned in the  Remake Learning Playbook even though the network models are not the same.

Others are doing the work too. Boston’s Center for Collaborative Education is just one of 10 organizations in the Emerging Harbormasters Network, and is now working to establish a Massachusetts Personalized Learning Network. But you don’t need to be part of a formal initiative. Central Pennsylvania’s Capital Area Intermediate Unit regional, school design grant challenge is an example of a “D.I.Y.” self-starter, building an ecosystem without external funds or external technical assistance.

With the seven roles in mind, you can start thinking about what role you and your organization play, who you are connected to, and what’s still missing in your learning network or ecosystem. The idea is to build mutually-beneficial partnerships around the strengths of organizations, to combine and share resources toward common goals, and to extend and share learning in ways that promote new synergies or create constructive cross-pollinating effects.

So, what will you do? How can you help build a stronger ecosystem in your community that supports next gen learning?


This blog is brought to you by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) as part of a series on the Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools, an NGLC initiative with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and local funders in several of the sites. For more, stay tuned in September for the final published project, Getting Smart on Regional Next-Gen School Design, and check out related work:


Sarah Luchs web
Sarah Luchs is K-12 Program Officer at Next Generation Learning Challenges. Follow her on Twitter, @sarahluchs1 and @NextGenLC.

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1 Comment

Jasleen Kaur

Thank you so much for sharing role of next generation ecosystem.

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