The sustainability and scalability of a grassroots technology-related multi-school technology-change initiative, in both urban and rural contexts

Beginning in 2013, a large group of organizations began a joint effort to improve educational experiences in their region, within the United States. These included urban and regional school districts, non-profit organizations, foundations, and educational entities who shared a common goal to help create and support innovative educational learning perspectives.

Operating within the broad aim to ‘Remake Learning,’ leaders specifically came together to promote the concept of ‘Spaces for Active Learning.’ The specific innovation was the creation of a network of educational and community organizations to support a combination of small grants, collaborative interactions, and top-down/bottom up structures, to support a broad set of innovations related to active learning. Each educational organization receiving funds was expected to identify and enact technology-related plans relevant to its population, educational needs, overarching goals, and individual contexts. The key underlying pedagogic approach was the integration of authentic, project-based activities into educational contexts, bringing together long promoted ideas that support learners creating, developing, and inventing (Hatch 2013). These concepts include Papert’s (1986) theory of constructionism, in which learning is facilitated through the construction and sharing of physical artefacts. A shared focus was on moving instruction from teacher driven to authentic, learner driven, and hands-on activities (Costa et al. 2017).

Within the larger Remake Learning innovation, individual projects employed a modified design-based research approach (McKenney and Reeves 2012) to understand their own progress, which was reviewed and modified throughout the life of each program. At times, projects included researchers conducting observations in authentic settings; other data were collected through leaders or educators’ self-reports and project meeting notes. An overarching mixed methods action research project was conducted to collect data across the Remake Learning initiative (see Freeman et al. 2017). This primarily took the form of a set of embedded cases, within a combined case study participatory design (Scholz and Tietje 2002; Cooper et al. 2015), and included multiple methods of data collection and dissemination across the different project implementations.

Each individual school and/or educational organization had the opportunity to design its own programs and was responsible to ensure its continuation and growth. In many cases this resulted in the development of makerspaces and integrating components of engineering, computational thinking, coding and robotics into curriculum. Innovations were locally designed, so there was a wide range of projects occurring across the network. Libraries, museums, and out of school programs were part of the program and could partner with schools on projects. These entities serve citizens of the region and all were intended to benefit by sharing best practices and lessons learned. Continuous robust professional development was required as part of every project, across the network, with educators treated as professionals who were encouraged to follow their personal interests.

Sustaining these activities required ongoing funding sources, which was supported by the Remake Learning initiative. The support and leadership of this overarching structure was precisely why the implementations were successful and have continued to evolve, grow and spread (e.g. Bellei et al. 2020). It also required strong support from leaders in each organization, and leaders networked to share experiences and best practice. Learner engagement also provided great insight into which projects have been the most successful and most likely to be sustained. Educators and families reported evidence of learners’ engagement when curriculum included choice, active learning, and participation related to time in the Spaces for Active Learning (Hohlfeld et al. 2017). Students, in and out of school, articulated the impact of the opportunities as influencing their options for careers or lifetime interests. For example, in one rural area, learners explained their year-long project on waste management led to creating recycling efforts that solved an authentic problem in their community, which led to the manufacturing of recycled materials into objects for use in new products. Students reported that this experience introduced them to future work and learning possibilities in engineering that they previously would not have considered.

Key positive impacts in the system that contributed to sustainability of the program, individual innovations and scalability of practices include: recognition of cultural and contextual identity, strong leadership, commitment to collaboration, and engagement with a broad range of community and regional organizations. The Remake Learning initiative began with a few small implementations in 2013 and expanded into an ongoing regional network of learning organizations. This is probably the strongest representation of a sustained initiative, which has continually scaled to incorporate additional educational organizations and projects. Collaboration with colleges, universities, businesses, museums, and other similar organizations were fostered within this project. Moreover, links were created with local business and industry leaders and they were encouraged to spend time in schools. Importantly, the sustainability of this initiative is not necessarily in the individual projects, but in the wider Remake Learning network. The growth of this network provides access to and support to apply for continuous funding from: the foundations, businesses, regional service centres, state priorities, and universities, which are all committed to funding local initiatives. Additionally, this builds capacity for individual projects to seek further funding from national or state sources.

The goal of the Remake Learning network was that organizations learned from each other and then designed projects that responded to their own contexts, while having the support of network experience and knowledge to be able to sustain any changes implemented. One small rural school began by its leaders and technology coordinator attending meetings with others already involved in implementing “spaces for active learning.” Drawing on network expertise and previous successful projects, they began small by creating a robotics club and then a shop class with an engineering curriculum. This was followed by adding a television and journalism program and a wide variety of other credit and elective courses. The success of each project encouraged the development of others. The school leaders began to help other schools rethink their programs and offer advice on best practices. Also, the network included ex-school leaders to mentor new educational organizations into the initiative and how to gain funding. These strategies were implemented in ways that focused on change and learning rather than fidelity to a particular project implementation, which is a more effective approach to scaling (see Hubers 2020).

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