Q&A from Collaborative Learning and Technology in Network Improvement Communities Webinar

This question and answer section references questions posed during the Carnegie Foundation’s October 2021 webinar on Collaborative Learning and Technology in NICs.

General: Where and how will the webinar recording be made available?

A recording of the Technology and Collective Learning in Networks webinar will be made available via email in the first week of November.

J.Y.: Do people use NILS in addition to their CRM platforms?

Yes. NILS is a social learning platform; NICs frequently use other platforms for purposes beyond social learning. NILS administrators can import the membership of their CRM into NILS, and some integration between NILS and CRM platforms is possible, including single-sign-on (SSO).

J.A.: Is there a cost for using NILS?

The NILS platform pricing structure is based upon an initial set up cost and an annual license cost per user, dependent upon the size of a network. Additional support services are also available for an additional fee. Please contact support@carnegienetworks.org for more information.

R.M.: How many groups are currently using NILS?

17 organizations (NICs) are currently using the NILS platform, based across the U.S. in California, Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, and West Virginia.

J.L.: Are there any tools for tracking metrics about improvement activities documented in NILS? E.g., the  aggregate number of PDSA cycles a group engages in and the outcomes of those cycles?

Yes. Aggregated PDSA information (filterable by group, PDSA “Act” decision, status, etc.) can be viewed and/or exported from the system as CSVs for additional manipulation.

D.: Are there any structures in place that are geared/or ideal for students to use? For example a group of students completing a project(s), but may not have time to collaborate or have any awareness of others working on similar projects?

NILS is a platform designed to support the initiation and development of networked improvement communities. If students are participating in a NIC on NILS, they will have access to asynchronous groups of peers working on similar aspects of a problem.

A.R.: How do we access NILS? Is it shareable with team members?

Any individual/group of individuals can request access to a sample instance of the NILS platform at nils.carnegienetworks.org. NICs that elect to conduct their work on NILS have access to a customized instance of the platform that is specific to their network; network leaders can then invite members of that network to join NILS.

B.S.: Curious if you have gained insights on how districts create infrastructure and routines for this work. The platform helps, but it is not itself an organizational structure or routine.

Great question and one that really merits a much longer conversation than can be conveyed succinctly here. Your question points toward a major organizational transformation in the traditional (largely command and control mechanisms) deployed by districts in their relationships to individual schools and school-based staff. So yes, new meeting structures and communication routines needed to be invented to align with and support the rapid cycles of learning characteristic of NICs. District leaders also point to advancing a major normative/cultural shift from “this is what we want you to implement” to one “where we are partnering together in learning together” how to solve some persistent problem. NILS as a platform is designed to support such a social learning environment, but it is not by itself the whole of the organization. It falls to leaders to create the organization. For some further thoughts about how district leaders support such work, I suggest the CF paper on Executive Leadership Frameworks.

J.Y.: Does a whole NIC need to be involved or can individual members join NILS?

A NIC’s customized instance of NILS may include all members in the network, or a subset of members in the network, depending on the network’s needs.

R.O.: Is there a role for family members/voice in the Chartering process? For example, how is family experience captured on a journey map?

In general, who is engaged and how they are engaged depends on the nature of the specific problem one is trying to solve. In many instances, both parents and the students may offer key perspectives deepening an improvement group’s framing of a problem and in illuminating possible change ideas. For example, one improvement network that I visited was focused on improving teacher feedback to students on their written work. They actually brought students onto the improvement team to assist in these regards. In the Tennessee example that I mentioned where they were developing journey maps of individual students’ progress through the primary grades, it was more a matter of including a question for each teacher about her relationship to that child’s parents and also a brief interview protocol with the student as well. In short, there are numerous different ways (and degrees) to expand the set of voices shaping the problem analysis and exploration of possible solutions. There is no one uniform best practice. In my mind, it is more a matter of first realizing that it is important that you engage these voices, and then thinking a bit about how to best to do it given your problem context.

J.L.: How broad can a topic or problem statement be? For example, implementing a Whole Child Education initiative in a district/schools to be shared within the district schools across elementary, middle, and high schools, and ultimately with other districts?

Another great question. Typically as network initiation teams form, their framings of the problem to solve are very broad. Such statements are actually more of an expression of some valued aspiration than some specific problem to solve (i.e., the first improvement principle). At this level it is just too expansive to be framed as improvement research.

It is also interesting that your question is framed as “implementing a Whole Child Education Initiative.” In a purely technical sense if it was a district-wide initiative to be implemented (versus designed, tested, and iteratively refined as the initiative scales out across diverse contexts), it would mean that we already know a great deal about the necessary tools, materials and processes required to make this go; we would also know how people can come to learn to use these well; and we would have an ample cadre of individuals who have succeeded in this work (in contexts “just like mine”) who can now teach others to do the same. I suspect that at least some, if not most of these conditions do not. More typically, we have a compelling idea, but we don’t yet know exactly how to make it work, and we have few, if any, who have already succeeded at this work and from whom we can learn. So this is the kind of learning to improve problem that improvement science organized through networks is intended to support.

In addition, as already noted the grain-size to this problem is very large. It would seem to encompass all grade levels, all subject matters, and the work of numerous different professional role groups as well as key actors external to schools. An attempt to operationalize this would entail a huge driver diagram. You have to break something like this down into a more manageable starting point. For example, we might try to bring a “Whole Child Educative Perspective” to how we transition students into high school. (This is just illustrative. Many possible places one could start). And assuming there are multiple high schools in a district, I might encourage starting this work in a subset of schools where the principal and a school leadership team are especially keen to engage this problem. These are your co-developers in trying to figure out how to make this initiative work—so recruit them carefully. What they learn and the agency that they develop through the work becomes a key resource as you subsequently seek to expand out the work. These are some of the core mechanisms in learning to implement well.

S.K.: Is there somewhere we can see a number of examples of communities using NILS?

For privacy reasons, the Carnegie Foundation is unable to provide private NIC data for example purposes. However, we would be happy to put you in contact with the leadership of various NICs on NILS, who may be willing to share additional information about their networks.