Case study: Educational innovation in Maine

Case study: Developing a statewide community of best practices
By Jay Collier, founder and executive director, The Compass LLC
Digital strategy consultant for the Maine Department of Education

Maine DOEThe state of Maine has been an innovator in networked learning for over 15 years.

As early as 1996, a consortium to provide Internet access to schools and libraries was established; the Maine School and Library Network now serves almost 1,000 schools and libraries across the state.

Then, inspired by the pioneering work of MIT educator and computer scientist Seymour Papert, the Maine Learning Technology Endowment was established in Maine law in 2001. Now called MLTI, the program provides laptops to every 7th and 8th grader in the state, while school districts provide laptops to an additional 50% of high school students.

With these network connections and personal devices in place, Maine educators have been innovating with, and integrating technology into, their classrooms for many years.

In February, 2011, Stephen Bowen — an education policy researcher and author, former state legislator, and social studies teacher in Maine and Virginia — was appointed Commissioner of Education. Soon after, he began travelling around the state to listen to the challenges and opportunities that our current education systems present to educators, students, and administrators in Maine.

In parallel with that listening tour, a team of DOE staff and consultants began conducting an online media needs analysis, first focusing on the publication of official news, procedures, and legislation and then, with the Commissioner’s support, envisioning a statewide professional community of practice for educators and administrators. Our team reported conclusions and recommendations to a statewide conference of superintendents in June.

The Commissioner then charged us with digging more deeply into the development of a strategic, sustainable online community. What was already being done? Were there existing policies and laws to be considered? What would be the challenges and the costs for a phased approach? What needed to be done first?

We reported our findings in August and received the go-ahead to build a demonstration site to show decision-makers and potential funders what would be possible. Several teams of early adopters explored the space and provided feedback on usability, which we incorporated into a second release.

The next hurdle to overcome was the lack of applicable policy at the state government level. Most current policies address the publication, ownership, and delivery of official content; none applied to user-generated content platforms. Senior administration officials charged us with drafting such a policy, and we completed two rounds of revisions in October.

During the same period, through the summer and fall, senior DOE leaders worked to translate insights from the listening tour — and from a variety of leading approaches to 21st-century learning — into a clear vision for the transformation of public education in Maine.

Most recently, the Commissioner published a strategic vision paper, “Challenging times, and a path forward,” clarifying the current context and core priorities to catalyze transformation, including project-based learning, standards-based outcomes, individualized assessment systems, proficiency-based advancement, and the transparent integration of multiple systems of administration and accountability from early learning through adult education.

Under priority 2, “Great teachers and leaders,” the Commissioner wrote:

One of the initiatives we’re working on, for instance, is developing an online community of practice where teachers, school leaders, curriculum coordinators and others can share best practices – share lesson plans, rubrics, curriculum materials and professional development opportunities.

The research is clear that great teachers and leaders are the key to high-performing educational systems. This has to be a top priority for us.

In identifying the many ways an online knowledge exchange could benefit our educators and students, it was also clear that sustaining a community of practice is only partly about the facilitating technology. Clear purpose, effective stewardship, and measurements of success require a continuity of strong leadership.

To reinforce that approach, we have been closely monitoring the work being done by the Connected Online Communities of Practice (COCP) project funded by the U.S. Department of Education, especially its benchmarks for measuring success.

Currently, the Department is seeking ways to fund a sustaining, long-term initiative that helps our local schools and districts share their wealth of knowledge. We are at an inflection point, preparing to make a jump to the next level of online support for educators and learners in Maine.

With network infrastructure and personal devices in place, a statewide community of best learning practices can help advance Maine into a new era of educational success. Alan Lishness, chief innovation officer for the Gulf of Maine institute put it this way in a TEDxDirigo talk in September.

Picture your children, your grandchildren. They’ve applied for a job they really, really want, and they’ve made it to the finalist pool.

Just imagine the interview committee, sitting around a table. Instead of saying “I think we should hire her because she has a degree in Information Technology,” just imagine if they said, “I think we should hire her because she’s from Maine.”

This case study was funded by the British Columbia Educational Resources Acquisition Consortium.

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