Back in 1997, World Links for Development began as a pilot program of the World Bank Institute exploring ways that information and communications technologies (ICTs) could be effectively used to help "prepare youth in developing countries to enter an information age". Most of the country programs (there were eventually 26 of them), especially those in Africa, represented the first organized attempt to provide schools with Internet connectivity and a suite of related teacher training and professional development support activities.
The national programs typically started quite small, with initial cohorts of 10-20 pilot schools, growing to a few hundred schools in some cases. A number of the programs were later absorbed into larger national educational technology efforts, and the global program itself gradually evaporated, its purpose to help kick start organized efforts to utilize educational technologies within participating countries no longer needed.
Over a decade later, many of the initial pilot schools remain leading examples in their countries of how schools, teachers and students are utilizing new technologies in various ways to help support teaching and learning. While many of the challenges related to the successful and effective introduction of technologies in schools remain (the exploration of these challenges is of course a common topic explored on the World Bank's EduTech blog), a number of things have changed quite a bit.
The once strong links between such schools (and between the teachers and students in them), and the sense that they were essentially working laboratories where new innovations could be introduced and tested before later being considered as components of larger rollouts of large scale educational technology projects, have for the most part disappeared in many places, as the use of ICTs in education has become more mainstream across an education system and the uniqueness of the individual schools -- at least related to the fact they had computers and were connected to the Internet -- has gradually eroded.
In other words, what were essentially national leagues of schools doing innovative things with new technologies, with school leaders, teachers and students networked together to share experiences and support collaborative teaching and learning activities, ceased to exist in many countries in dedicated, structured, organized ways.
What models exist today to help in establishing and maintaining
a national league of innovative schools?
Where such leagues exist, what value might there be
in them connecting them with each other across borders
so that students, teachers and school leaders can share experiences
and pursue collaborative learning activities and research?
In 2015, whether or not you consider technology use in schools to be, in and of itself, an 'innovation' depends in part on where in the world you are located. Whatever one's definition of 'innovation' in education might be, there can be little disagreement that the increased availability of personal computing devices in the hands of teachers, learners and school administrators, connected to each other and to the Internet, offers the opportunity for increased sharing of information about innovative practices that are emerging in classrooms, for people to connect with each other as they conceive of and pursue new, innovative activities in support of various teaching and learning goals, and for such efforts to be documented and studied by researchers so that they might be more widely shared.
Within the United States, a group called Digital Promise supports a League of Innovative Schools for just such purposes. According to the Digital Promise web site:
"The Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools is a national coalition of school district superintendents that fosters collaboration between education leaders and entrepreneurs, researchers, and thought partners.
League members represent more than 3.2 million students in 57 districts and 27 states. Their experiences reflect the diversity and shared challenges of public education in America.
A vibrant ecosystem of educators, entrepreneurs, researchers, and thought partners working together on shared priorities, the League leads to better decision-making and greater innovation in learning and leadership practices. The League also aims to accelerate the pace of change in public education nationwide."
Digital Promise itself is an independent NGO authorized by the U.S. Congress in 2008 as the 'National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies'. Because it was constituted to work within U.S. borders, last year a sister NGO, called Digital Promise Global was formed to help link this collection of innovative schools in the United States with networks of innovative schools in other countries. A disclaimer: I sit on the Digital Promise Global board as part of an effort to stay abreast of innovative practices in the U.S. that might be relevant to education systems in other countries. I also joined because I wondered about the potential to connect the League of Innovative Schools in the U.S. to similar networks in other countries -- and, where no such networks exist, or where such efforts are only in their infancy, to see where it might be possible to help build or strengthen organizational structures, activity models and efforts in other countries to network together teachers and students doing cool things with technology in ways that are useful and sustainable.
This is not meant to imply that, if you want to look for innovative activities in education using new technologies, you should first, or primarily, direct your gaze toward the United States. Far from it!
If you want to find a laboratory exploring the edge of what is possible with technology use in schools, connecting with and learning from experiences in a place like Uruguay, the first country where all students had their own free laptop and where schools have been connected (many of them via fiber) for a number of years, might be well worth considering, especially given the existence of Centro Ceibal, the new research center organized to help learn from many innovative efforts supported under Uruguay's pioneering Plan Ceibal.
Or how about a place like Korea, where the use of connected devices is near ubiquitous and where schools enjoy some of the fastest, most reliable Internet connectivity in the world? The concept of an 'innovative school' is actually a specific designation in Korea (not specifically linked to technology use). What opportunities might there be to link up such schools, or a subset of them, within a League of Innovative Korean Schools (perhaps supported by a group like KERIS, Korea's national ICT/education agency that has become a model guiding the development of similar agencies in a number of other countries), and possibly link them with counterpart organizations in places like Uruguay and the United States?
And not just those countries:
The European Schoolnet, a network of 31 ministries of education across Europe, has supported efforts to connect schools, teachers and students across the continent for purposes both mundane and cutting-edge, including through such efforts as eTwinning. Many large scale national efforts exist to roll out laptops, tablets and Internet connectivity to schools in various middle and low income countries -- might it be possible to set up leagues of innovative schools in those countries as well, in some cases building off and connecting with local institutions already supporting national educational technology projects? The Omar Dengo Foundation, for example, has been working to support innovative programs utilizing new technologies within Costa Rican schools for over two decades.
There are many worthwhile initiatives around the world supporting efforts to explore cross-border partnerships to promote and share 'innovative' practices in education, such as the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning project. Groups like iEARN have supported exchanges between teachers and students around the world using new technologies for over two decades. (Indeed: If you want to learn what works, and what doesn't, when it comes to supporting students and teachers as they seek to collaborate with each other across borders, the iEARN community represents possibly your richest source of practical insight.) Many vendors organize (and promote) collections of innovative schools and teachers who use their products and services. Some of these sorts of efforts last many years, others are more transitory.
To what extent might a national league of innovative schools help support schools which participate in such efforts over time, to liaise or negotiate with other groups which might be interested in supporting 'innovative' activities in education over time, and to learn from them systematically?
While models for such things will inevitably differ by country and context, the concept of a league of innovative schools is one of growing interest in numerous ministries of education around the world.
Note: The image used at the top of this post of a red eyed tree frog ("I look and do things a bit differently from what is 'normal', are there others out there like me?") comes from Wikimedia Commons and was released by its author into the public domain.