Dynamic Networks Focus on Learning Quickly

There’s not just one version of Facebook. “At any point in time there are probably 10,000 versions,” said CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “Any engineer can test something with 10,000 or 50,000 people, whatever is necessary to get a good test. Then, they get a read out of all of metrics we care about: how are people connecting and sharing, do people have more friends, does it improve efficiency?”

If it worked, the engineer takes the idea to a manager to incorporate into the base code. If not, they add it to the documentation of failed trials. As it approaches 2 billion users, Facebook remains a dynamic network where Zuckerberg says the goal is to “Learn as quickly as possible what our community wants us to do.”

Three things enable Facebook’s strategy of learn and go as fast as you can: a culture that encourages people to try things; infrastructure that allows people to do that (i.e., run 10,000 versions simultaneously); and a testing framework that helps determine how well the trial worked.

Most school networks don’t share those three characteristics. For example, Job Corps is an education and job training program of the Department of Labor that serves 60,000 youth ages 16-24 in 125 centers across the country (about 70 percent of the centers are managed by contractors).

This well intentioned $1.7B program costs over $25,000 per student. It claims to be “a holistic career development training approach” but the sites we’ve seen are depressing places where congressional regulations stifle innovations–the opposite of an adaptive, emergent and dynamic network. There are thousands of great teachers in Job Corp, but they are trapped in a compliance oriented system lacking the culture, infrastructure and data dashboard that drives Facebook forward.

Despite the fact that the Common Core Standards movement “sucked a lot of the innovation oxygen over last few years,” as one leading impact investor put it, in the last few years leading school networks have moved forward with many new projects. Technology startups by are, by nature, more dynamic than the more regulated public education, and for good reason: safety, privacy and equity are all important considerations. However, despite some limitations, there are a growing number of school networks trying to operate more like Facebook than Job Corp. They provide four lessons about dynamic networks.

1. Dynamic networks learn bottom up. Learning Assembly is a network of seven school support organizations. The network shares methods and infrastructure for piloting innovative teaching practices and tools. A network toolkit allows classroom teachers to support pilots from pilot planning to supporting implementation to reporting results. Through the 2016-17 school year, the network has applied and tested 100 tools in 195 schools.

Curtis Ogden, Interaction Institute, described dynamic networks as adaptable, where pushing responsibility out to the edges helps networks thrive. He suggests dynamic networks value contribution before credentials. “Seniority can serve as a bottleneck in many organizations where ego gets in the way of excellence,” he said.

2. Learn outside in. Smart networks take every opportunity to learn from developments outside the network. Harmony Public Schools, a big Texas school network, used a big federal grant to add project-based learning to their personalized learning model with a STEM theme.  

In Milwaukee, Carmen Schools of Science and Technology added career and technical education to their college preparation program.

In the lowly portable below, Da Vinci Schools piloted the blended and personalized learning model serving transient and foster kids in Los Angeles that won an XQ grant.

3. Update infrastructure. IDEA, a large Texas school network added blended learning to its high performing model.

After waves of local innovations in personalized learning, the national KIPP network is encouraging the use of a digital platform to extend the benefits of a core curriculum and character development resources. KIPP also connects with and supports graduates as the enroll, attend and complete college. (Three KIPP innovators made our list of 85 K-8 schools worth visiting.)

New Tech Network updated Echo, their project-based learning platform, to allow teachers to share project-based lessons, classroom resources and more professional learning experiences (listen to the podcast with art teacher Mauricio Olague, feature image).

4. Share generously. Dynamic networks encourage and reward contribution inside and outside the network. New Tech Network teachers contribute projects to the shared library.

Success Academies built a big school network that helped low-income New York City students outperform kids from the suburbs and then shared the formula with the world.

Summit Learning is an initiative of Summit Public Schools in an effort to share their platform and training with teacher teams around the country.

Curtis Ogden has a passion for regenerative networks, a subject he studies with Dr. Sally Goerner at the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics. For lessons, they study healthy living systems–from agriculture to social systems–to understand resilient systems that renew themselves.

Ogden and Goerner found that regenerative networks: build connections (#1 above), they are transparent and vulnerable (#2 open to outside influence) and promote greater abundance by being generous and proactive about sharing lessons and capacity (#4). “Networks, or webs, are core to living systems,” said Ogden.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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