We often say Every Learner Everywhere is a collaborative network of 12 partner organizations working together to improve student outcomes for Black, Latino, Indigenous, and poverty-affected students. But in practice, what does being a collaborative network mean in higher education? And how does a network benefit the universities and community colleges we partner with?
A social impact network is a self-organized group of collaborators who address a common goal by combining expertise, resources, and perspectives to accomplish more than one organization could do on its own. As Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, and John Cleveland write in Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact, “Networks have unique capabilities for achieving social impact that distinguish them from other forms of social organizing, and generative social -impact networks are particularly suited for addressing complex problems.”
For Laura DaVinci, Every Learner Everywhere’s Associate Director, bringing together a group of like-minded organizations creates synergy. “When you look at what the network can produce in terms of products or services, it’s usually a higher quality than what one specific organization could do,” she says. “Because more points of view are incorporated, it’s deeper and broader. That’s what we call the network advantage.”
The network advantage of Every Learner Everywhere provides valuable benefits to university and community college partners who are collaborating to identify and reduce equity gaps.
Collaborative networks in action
Since 2019, Every Learner Everywhere has worked with 13 pilot colleges and universities it calls Lighthouse institutions that are producing insight and data about implementing digital technologies to achieve equity.
The Lighthouse institutions generally have a main point of contact with one of the Every Learner network partners. They take advantage of that contact’s deep domain knowledge, and when they have specific questions outside that organization’s expertise, the institution and the partner reach out to the rest of the network for solutions.
“It’s much faster than having to go through multiple organizations,” says DaVinci. “Since we’re already together on the same mission, and have already had conversations about how to help these institutions, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
She recalls two recent examples of the network drawing in peers to offer insight on immediate concerns. During a monthly progress call with The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), representatives from one large multi-campus university brought up concerns about project management while implementing adaptive learning. They wanted to know if there were any models they could learn from. The consultants from APLU set up a meeting with the Program Manager at University of Louisville, who talked candidly about issues like faculty buy-in and adjusting pedagogy.
In another instance APLU connected biology and chemistry faculty who were new to adaptive learning with their peers at the University of Mississippi to learn about their domain-specific experiences. The peers also discussed changes to pedagogy and how to promote adaptive learning to students so they understand and engage with it. (The science faculty also connected with peers in other disciplines to learn strategies that can apply across multiple courses or departments.)
Another example of the network effect is a growing library of high-quality studies, toolkits, and other resources that the Every Learner network is producing.
Getting the most out of working with a network
Collaborative social impact networks are at their most effective when used to solve complex problems, where multiple competencies and points of view can be brought to bear. “There’s never one silver bullet that will solve everything,” says DaVinci. “When universities and community colleges reach out with multiple related questions, that’s when you get the biggest network effect, because we can pull knowledge from multiple partners.”
For example, many of the institutions that implemented adaptive learning wanted to know more about understanding how to measure the impact of the adaptive learning pilot. APLU is one network partner with a lot of experience with this, because they previously implemented adaptive technologies successfully at eight institutions and could compile lessons learned from those institutions.
But APLU also brought Digital Promise into the discussion to collect baseline and pilot data, and they co-designed supports for each institution. Digital Promise explained processes for data collection and analysis, were available to answer questions, and provided technical resources created in collaboration with other network partners. They even helped institutions work with their Institutional Research Boards if they planned to publish data later.
Each network partner has deep expertise in specific fields, and when questions arise about online learning, strategic planning in digital learning, policy, or broader teaching and learning strategies, there is always a partner to provide deep content expertise.
Related resource — Improving Critical Courses Using Digital Learning & Evidence-based Pedagogy
Harnessing the network advantage at your institution
When universities and colleges focus on collaborating with internal stakeholders, they can do more than take advantage of an external network. They start to see the benefits of the network advantage internally, too.
Individual departments tend to operate independently at most universities and colleges. But when institutions start to use the network approach across multiple departments, they can leverage the network advantage internally to tackle complex, institution-wide problems.
“It’s great for building community because the way networks are, you have to know what the other groups are doing,” says DaVinci. “You start to see the bigger picture of how all the specific functions are working together for the common good.”
For example, it was common at site visits with Lighthouse institutions to include the faculty involved in the project, along with:
- The Chief Academic Officer
- Department Chairs
- The Instructional Design team
- Directors of Teaching and Learning Centers, Tutoring Centers, Writing Centers, The Institutional Research Office, The Instructional Technology Office
Liaising directly on project teams clarified roles and sustained progress on tight timelines. These teams maintained the communication and collaboration between site visits and had a solid understanding of how their project was going.
This approach can be used even when not working with a collaborative network like Every Learner Everywhere, and the same principles can apply directly to an institution. Open communication, active listening, and an understanding that each department contributes to student success can create strong cross-institutional collaboration that produces significant change.
Each department brings different experiences and perspectives, and with the network approach, they build upon each other. There can be one coordinator, but it is important that each department has equal input. Networks improve cooperation within Academic Affairs or Student Affairs and also build bridges between these parts of the university.
Building a cross-functional team to support an adaptive learning initiative can be incredibly effective. Faculty, administrators, instructional designers, and student support staff all working together can have a much bigger impact than a single group working alone. Departments that act as a network can also collaborate to create more robust, holistic resources and avoid duplicating work.
An effective network approach starts with the overall mission of the university or college, says DaVinci. Then, departments can work together to understand how they can help themselves — and other departments — achieve that mission. “That’s the gold star of how strategic planning should happen.”
Learn more about the advantage of collaborative networks
Every Learner Everywhere was founded specifically using the principles of social generative networks put forward by Plastrik, Taylor, and Cleveland in Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact:
- Always seek out opportunities for collaboration within the network, rather than working alone.
- Leverage network members’ joint assets: connections, knowledge, competencies, and resources.
- Focus on strategies that generate value for members, both individually and collectively.
- Build trust by being open and transparent about decision making and information.
- Keep plans flexible and adapt as you go.
To learn more about how we do this in our work with our partners and to explore how we might collaborate with your institution to promote equitable learning outcomes, we invite you to be in touch.
Originally published July 2020. Updated August 2021 with additional information and references.