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Scholarship on the implications of digital culture for learning (Ito et al., 2010; Thomas & Brown, 2011) has often focused on out-of-school (OST) learning environments as spaces to experiment with new digital learning designs (Barron et al, 2014; Herr-Stephenson et al., 2011). This study investigates how OST organizations with an interest in digital media engage in inter-organizational collaborations as a means to spread and scale their work.
Drawing on organizational learning theory (March, 1991) and activity theory (Engeström, 1987), this study investigates Hive NYC Learning Network (Santo et al., 2014), a “city-wide laboratory” of 81 OST organizations focusing on designing experiences that support digital literacies (Jenkins et al., 2006). It focuses on (1) the role technologies play within inter-organizational collaborations aimed at scaling innovations, and (2) the ways that ‘working open’—a set of practices with roots in open source culture (Coleman, 2013) that emphasize rapid prototyping, public reflection, enabling broad community contribution and producing remixable work products—are enacted by OST organizations, serving as a mechanism for spreading innovations during the design process itself.
We analyze 55 funding proposals and 45 educator interviews to investigate inter-organizational collaborations, focusing on the mediating role technologies play in scaling strategies. Additionally, we analyze group discussions among network stakeholders regarding ‘working open’ practices, focusing on perceived opportunities and tensions.
We found four ways that technology plays a role in scaling within inter-organizational collaborations. First, it creates openly networked experiences by asynchronously connecting youth at adoption organizations with broader groups of educational professionals. Second, it coordinates pedagogical practices and builds capacity of educators in adopting organizations. Third, it acts as a distribution mechanism whereby organizations can circulate each other’s educational resources. Fourth, it generates formative data on the spread of innovations. These roles are exemplified by a STEM-focused organization’s use of an online portal as part of its strategy. The portal was simultaneously a place where youth at adopting organizations submitted projects commented on by scientists, where educators accessed design challenges for implementation, and where the host organization could view patterns of uptake at various implementation sites.
The study also finds that some participants perceive engagement in ‘working open’ practices as a means through which early-stage innovations can be strengthened for scaling-up at later stages. They see these practices as fostering communities of adopters consequential to broader spread. Others, however, saw the practices as risky with concerns about potential loss of intellectual property and reputational harm through increased visibility of in-progress work. Ultimately, we argue that ‘working open’ strategies require new ways of conceptualizing spread and scale as they run counter to traditional linear and unidirectional approaches to scaling.
This paper provides evidence that rather than playing a uniform role in supporting spread of learning innovations, digital technologies achieve a variety of functions in this realm. Further, it is not simply technologies themselves but also design practices associated with digital culture that increasingly mediate the ways educational organizations approach scaling.