In my last post, I wrote that the Empirical Educator Project (EEP) is e-Literate's way of putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak, regarding our own theory of change for improving student success and closing achievement gaps. What is that theory? I articulated it in some detail last February, before our inaugural summit.
But it was just a theory then. After one day at the summit, we asked participants to volunteer their own views about what EEP is and why it might be valuable. We created a four-part interview series, which can be found here. But I want to highlight a few points from the interviews that have convinced us that we are onto something.
Let me start by articulating that theory as simply as I can:
Many, many educators are already working hard on meeting student success challenges, but they are often doing it in isolation. If we can introduce the right people to each other and get them talking to each other about the student success challenges they are working on, then good stuff will happen.
That's it. That's the whole enchilada.
Here it is in a little more detail:
- Many educators at many institutions—including both universities and the companies that serve them—feel personally responsible for improving student success and are actively testing ideas and learning lessons about how to do so.
- Social barriers often prevent these lessons learned from being shared, tested, and built upon.
- One of the biggest barriers is the difficulty of finding collaborators who are motivated to work on the same problem and have complementary capabilities for doing so.
- One major reason that potential collaborators don't find each other is because they live in different peer networks and don't naturally cross paths.
- If we can make it easier for those people to find each other, then they will do great things together, even without a lot of external funding or organizational support.
- Once people from different peer networks collaborate on a project, the results will tend to propagate in all of the participants' respective networks.
- If we do this enough, then lasting bridges will begin to form among currently isolated networks and the pace of sector-wide progress will accelerate.
Here's how we are testing the idea in EEP's first year:
- We made a list of people across the higher education sector who we know are doing great work and are good collaborators.
- We trimmed the list down to a manageably small group that was spread across different peer networks. (Most of the summit participants told us they knew fewer than half of the other attendees.)
- We raised enough money to get the group into the same room for a day and a half, and to provide some light follow-up.
- We spent our time together at the summit encouraging folks to get to know each other, share what they are working on, and look for project collaborators.
- Post-summit, we are watching to see whether collaborative projects happen and are lightly facilitating where we can.
From the beginning, we viewed this very much as an experiment and honestly didn't know how much we would be able to accomplish with a group of strangers in less than two days. We were absolutely blown away by what happened.
Do yourself a favor. Take a little under eight minutes and listen to what these participants had to say about our theory of change after just one day of talking to each other:
It's fairly easy to get a group of smart people together in a room and have them walk away feeling like they had a good, satisfying intellectual conversation about what might or could be done. It's a lot harder to get them excited about a common, complex goal, with grand ambitions and a sense of how those ambitions might be met. If you didn't watch the whole video above, then just listen to this bit from Duke University's Bridgette Martin Hard about what she described as "one of the biggest, loftiest goals that I see being possible [for EEP]:
Culture change. For the entire sector. There it is. The whole enchilada. After one day of discussion.
OK, discussion, is nice, but is anything actually going to happen? Well, here is a sampling of participants talking about some of the project ideas that emerged from the summit—again, after just one day of being together:
Every person in that room said they had at least one collaborative project idea they had seriously discussed and thought had a realistic chance of actively happening. Some had as many as three projects.
That was after one day. What about now, three months later? I am in the process of compiling the first project update for the group. (We'll keep these updates private to the group until each group of collaborators decides they have made enough collective progress to share their work more broadly. So far, I have about a dozen substantive updates from project teams, and I know for a fact that I have not received updates from all the groups that have engaged in post-summit work on their projects. This all sprung out of one brief gathering with about fifty people who largely didn't know each other and have decided to move ahead with collaborative work despite the fact that they are getting zero grant money for the projects. The problem isn't lack of motivation for change; it's the barriers. In a variety of ways that I'll explore in future posts, the match-making that is happening in EEP lowers various barriers—yes, the social barrier I talked about up front, but resource barriers as well. (There are hints of this in the videos above.)
There is no longer any question for us about whether we will continue EEP after this first year. We believe that some of these projects will be ready to come out of stealth mode by the fall, with more going public by the end of the calendar year. We are slowly and carefully adding new members to the cohort and expect to expand it more substantially in the spring of 2019, when we have our next summit. We are also exploring ideas for broader outreach, along the lines of Bridgette's thinking above. We'll have more to say about this in the fall.