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Going Further Together: A Framework for Innovation-Focused Collaborations in Informal Learning Organizations

Sat, April 29, 2:45 to 4:15pm, Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, Floor: Meeting Room Level, Room 221 D


In recent years, out-of-school networks that focus on inter-organizational collaboration have emerged as an important sites of educational innovation and experimentation (Akiva, Kehoe & Schunn, in press; Sprout Fund, 2016; Santo, Ching, Peppler & Hoadley, 2016) However, existing literature aimed at understanding how informals engage in organizational collaboration is striking: collaboration is largely conceptualized as happening between informal actors and schools (see Blank, Melaville & Shah, 2003; Bodilly, Augustine & Zakaras, 2008; Elliott, 2012; James Irvine Foundation, 2005). This scholarship outlines important roles for informals in relation to schools, but also suggests that within these contexts informals often end up focusing on the priorities of the formal schooling sector and are subject to the institutional norms found within them in ways that can be counter to their existing goals (Russell, Knutson & Crowley, 2012). This study aims to understand how informals collaborate with one another, outside the institutional logics of the formal education system, as a means of designing, testing and spreading new models and tools of pedagogy.
The study’s context of investigation is the Hive NYC Learning Network, a collective of over 80 informal learning organizations in New York City focused on advancing models of Connected Learning (Ito et al., 2013). As a context that privileges open experimentation and collaborative learning (Santo, Ching, Peppler & Hoadley, 2016), investigating the Hive network can provide new insights into inter-organizational collaboration in informals. Using the theoretic framework of Expansive Learning (Engeström & Sannino, 2010), which focuses on learning processes where groups must collaboratively develop new solutions to problems where no actor “knows the answer”, we analyze 94 collaborative projects between Hive member organizations in which they aimed to develop new pedagogical initiatives.
The findings provide a common framework for understanding OST collaborations that focus on the development, implementation and spread of learning innovations (e.g., program models, technologies and curricular toolkits). First we outline the common mediating actions and roles taken by OST actors within collaborations, finding that collaborating organizations leverage expertise, networks and resources to support Expansive Learning activities. Second, we outline six archetypes of innovation focused collaborations in OST organizations that were present in the data: collaborative design and implementation partnerships, implementation site partnerships, design partnerships, technical assistance partnerships, distribution partnerships, and program spread & refinement partnerships. Finally, we offer insights into the role that these different types of partnerships play within the context of longer term organizational learning processes, finding that ‘low-level’ partnerships play a critical role in safely exploring both potential partners as well as new ideas.
Findings have implications for scholars attempting to better empirically understand the relationship between organizational learning and collaboration, as well as for OST leaders and policymakers that look to collaborations as a means to achieve specific types of impact. For researchers, it provides conceptual tools that can be used to understand the design practices of informal learning organizations. For OST leaders, it can support internal deliberation about what kind of collaborative roles and forms of partnership can help achieve strategic goals.