Designing a Personalized Ecosystem to Build capacity

Cat Alexander, the Executive Director of the CA Group, leads a finalist workshop for district team's applying for the Raising Blended Learners demonstration initiative.

One of the most common questions we receive from other regions and states is around how we designed the Raising Blended Learners (RBL) year 1 ecosystem of support and which Technical Assistance (TA) Providers were involved.

We can say without a doubt that the supports provided to sites during the pre-selection phase and year 1 implementation have been  invaluable — in most cases equally as important as the grant capital. In fact, while the five demonstration sites received grant capital and ecosystem support, the 15 additional Pilot Network sites kicked off pilots in year 1 with no grant capital, supported only by the TA ecosystem. Furthermore, in year two, nine of these 15 pilot sites are scaling to additional campuses, some even districtwide, with no grant funds, relying only on the TA ecosystem to support growth. We hope this paper can inspire regions and states to design support systems based on the authentic needs of the districts involved. Rather than simply replicating the ecosystem we created with RBL, we highly encourage all stakeholders interested in supporting teachers, school leaders and district staff embarking on this essential work to ensure that they set up a unique network of support for sites that meets each of their personalized needs.

Creating the Raising Blended Learners Ecosystem

In parallel to selecting the Demonstration and Pilot Network Sites, we spent much of 2015-2016 building an ecosystem of TA Providers. From successful pioneering funds before us, we knew the sites would need grant capital and support from targeted experts as they began the work of shifting the core DNA of their school systems and staff in order to implement and sustain personalized blended learning.

We also believed that an ecosystem would need to be a flexible (we underestimated how flexible), “living” system that would be both designed and refined based on our increasing understanding of and reflection on RBL team needs. We also realized that to achieve the scale and impact we hoped to see across the state and beyond, the ecosystem and associated supports needed to be designed and delivered with consistent intentionality towards building internal capacity in the district and charter network teams,, while maximizing the accessibility of and ability to share content beyond the RBL teams.

Through the 10-month consideration process, we spent time “getting to know” the applicant teams. Based on our evolving understanding of RBL team needs we developed the year 1 ecosystem of in-person support including the following TA Providers: 

  • CA Group manages the overall initiative, and offers direct support on student experience design, pilot implementation, and district capacity building.
  • Afton Partners provides school finance support, both for the grant funds and to help districts shift their long-term budgets to sustain blended learning.
  • TNTP supports teacher professional development, and has particularly focused on rigor and high quality instruction.
  • Texas Tech University created a blended learning graduate certificate program, enrolling 15 RBL teachers in Year 1, and has developed a video case study library of blended and personalized learning classrooms.
  • EdSurge advised districts on technology selection and supported districts as questions arose.
  • YouthTruth Student Survey conducts rigorous student surveys to understand how students are experiencing the initiative.
  • FSG is the evaluation and learning partner

The intent was to provide a comprehensive set of services, free of charge, for the winning sites and seed a market of high-quality organizations in Texas who could hopefully scale their blended learning supports to the rest of the state’s districts in the future. All TA Providers went into the year 1 engagement with a set of clear objectives and even clearer readiness and willingness to be as flexible as possible to provide highly personalized services to the diverse sites. We created the RBL public resource portal early on to centralize resources, including those developed by RBL TA Providers and other high quality experts in the field, knowing that we would revisit this curated content both as a part of our own ongoing research and design and in support of our teams throughout their design and implementation work. In addition to the providers (listed above) giving direct support to the winning sites, RBL has drawn on the expertise of organizations including The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Christensen Institute, Competency Works, Educause, The Friday Institute, iNACOL, KnowledgeWorks, The Learning Accelerator, The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Rand, SRI, WestEd, and many more for thought partnership and resource development.

Implementation and how TA providers worked with sites

Despite clear and achievable objectives based on what we perceived to be the needs of each site as demonstrated in their application and early design deliverables, within the first three months of implementation support every TA Provider was faced with the need to rethink and redesign the way they were going to provide support to the sites. This was primarily due to the fact that the business plan alone did not provide enough information about the full needs of a district, especially when implementing something as transformational as student-centered blended learning. It became necessary to spend time rapid prototyping with teams to more fully understand their needs. The ability for TA providers to meet sites where they were and comfortably change from their original contract objectives was due in large part to the role of a CA Group Implementation Manager working with each site. Implementation Managers were able to connect the needs of the districts to the services TA providers supplied and vice versa, helping to best fit these services at the appropriate time.

The fact that every TA Provider was willing and able to ebb, flow and personalize their supports for each district speaks to the expertise, maturity and pure willingness to do whatever it took to support these sites in building internal capacity. Every TA Provider has told us that this was challenging and only feasible because the scale of the cohort allowed them to continue to maintain a somewhat constant allocation of resources on their end as projected to the RBL project, albeit in a completely different way per site than they may have ever imagined going into the project. TA Providers supported sites through this first year despite deviation from their original “plan” based on the actual needs of the sites. Thanks to this professionalism, flexibility and grit, the TA Providers made real, measurable progress with sites and created scalable resources to use in future engagements and honed in on a set of services they could provide to other districts beginning blended learning implementation.

Looking ahead

Above all else, we believe an ecosystem well-matched to district needs is the best design; and in addition there are several lessons we have learned about ecosystem creation that we offer to other funders, state agencies and supporters with interest in replicating what has produced success across the RBL sites.

  • Designate an implementation partner. The RBL Ecosystem was led by an implementation partner, CA Group, who aligned the services of TA providers with the needs of districts. Be realistic and start with one design and implementation partner that has the experience, expertise and flexibly to ride out the first year in alignment with each site no matter what twists and turns may be required – and give them the space, flexibility, authority and capacity necessary to do so. Be sure that this design and implementation expert has worked with all levels within a district before and can provide support in a way that is not only offering solutions when needed, but explicitly building capacity among the first wave of classroom, school, and district innovators so that they are prepared to internally lead the charge when TA supports are no longer provided. From a staffing perspective, the team or individual who manages the ecosystem of support must be experienced and highly flexible; know how to create a commonly owned vision and plan for success and welcome the fact that vision will get challenged regularly; have a high sense of urgency for change balanced with the patience of knowing what it takes for that change to be sustainable; and most importantly, build trusting internal and external partnerships that grow equally as strong when faced with both incredible success and productive struggle. Additionally, once subject matter expert TA Providers are onboarded, this implementation partner should play the role of connector between all the sites and the supports to ensure, just like the student experience in the classroom, the ecosystem support is rigorous, relevant, and highly personalized for each site based on current needs, readiness, and capacity.
  • Approach the ecosystem with a data-driven perspective. Ensure that, like your sites, you are living your ecosystem of support and the way you fund and support it, with a disciplined approach to data-driven decision making out of the best interest of the student in mind. Select TA Providers that understand this fidelity to data-driven decision making and are willing and able to meet the sites where they are. Allow them to openly and honestly say what they know and what they don’t know and if/when they are presented with a problem at a site that catches them by surprise, give them the space and process to raise that and solve it collaboratively. If the needs change so drastically, a TA Provider proves to be unable or the sites fundamentally are not benefitting from a support, don’t be afraid to let a TA Provider go and/or bring another on. Resist the urge to think you know better based on what you lived, what you read or what you have seen work elsewhere and let the data underneath your nose tell you what you need and when.
  • Strategic deployment of capital. Build in the willingness and capacity to bring on subject matter expert TA Providers once the site data and implementation manager agree it’s needed. This will ensure that the TA Provider is well equipped to provide the appropriately personalized support to a site that is ready and capable of capitalizing on that support. While the TA Provider may need to be flexible, it will be far more reasonable than if the expert was called to the ecosystem before the needs and readiness of each site was fully fleshed out once implementation commenced. Timing, readiness, and the personalized nature of the supports must be in equilibrium for there to be a completely successful relationship. This is most definitely possible, but it does require a new, more flexible and data-driven way to fund initiatives. Because of the way funding and grant making typically functions, this may mean that you need to raise a “ecosystem fund” of capital and then determine how best to deploy it efficiently and effectively on an as-needed basis.

As we embark on year 2 and set up our ecosystem of support with these lessons in mind, we look forward to working alongside other cities, regions, and states who also designed ecosystems so we may continue to learn from the best practices of others.

For those considering how best to support districts and charter network re-design in year 1, we hope the field spends time reading more about each site’s journey,  the evolution of the Year 1 RBL Ecosystem, and reflecting on the readiness, capacity, and desired outcomes in the design of ecosystem supports. 

Although we clearly experienced challenges and successes in our year 1 ecosystem of TA Providers, we are sharing our experiences in the hope the field can learn from RBL to create ecosystems that accurately represent the nature of a demonstration initiative –one that is authentically built on using data as frequently as a monthly basis to determine if, where, and how  supports need to change based on what sites need from service providers.