Alex Inman is a school technology director who works at Whitfield School in St. Louis, Missouri, and as other places he’s worked, Alex loves it. “The kids keep me laughing and give my work purpose,” he says. Previously, Alex launched one of the earlier laptop programs in the country at a small school in Wisconsin (University Lake School) back in 1999. He’s since shared that experience with other schools and joined consulting teams to help others on various tech projects. Alex had been consulting with a large firm for a new 21st-century school; he saw more than subject matter experts, but real educators connecting with educators. “Schools are more than an industry,” says Alex, “They are a way of life.” He remained struck by the full-time educator to educator connection (vs. mere consultants to educators). He enjoyed the consulting work but couldn’t imagine giving up his job at Whitfield. “I enjoy it too much,” Alex says. He also enjoyed consulting and felt he could better help schools to a greater degree through consulting. In Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, he read about Jet Blue retirees working as reservation agents, booking flights from home in their spare time, and he came up with the idea of Educational Collaborators (EC).
Victor: How can you run a consultant group of over 70 people while working full-time for a school?
Alex: The answer is, I don’t. We have a full-time office manager, a VP of Business Development, who is also a partner in the company and some sales folks. I do a little consulting and spend most of my time reading the dashboard of our project management tool making sure that projects are getting done and learning about how things get adjusted to meet the needs of schools. Once the kids are in bed, I do a lot of reading but find it all inspiring for when I wake up the next morning and go to work at Whitfield to be with my teachers and my students at my school.
Victor: Alright, so backing it up to seeing the Jet Blue people and getting the idea for EC—how did Educational Collaborators unfold from there? How did your thinking go?
Alex: What if I found five or six other educators who also enjoyed helping other schools and we worked together in our spare time via an asynchronous web tool? Five or six of us would make one “uber-consultant” and allow us to keep the jobs we love. I found six colleagues from around the country and we got ourselves a gig designing a technology plan and designing a one-to-one tablet program. We were all amazed not only at how well it worked but at how much we all learned from one another. The client paid the same as they would have for one expert but ended up getting the best available from six people! The work we did was so grounded, so relevant, so nuanced with recent experience. It was wonderful and so fulfilling, not only for the client school but for the schools at which we were working! Thus, Educational Collaborators was born!
Victor: What is the mission of Educational Collaborators?
Alex: Educational Collaborators mission is to change the global education landscape to create generations of creative problem solvers. We will do this by meeting the needs of our clients’ teachers, students and parents to create sustainable environments of innovation and appropriate change while retaining their unique culture and timeless values.
Victor: What exactly do you do?
Alex: We seek to connect real educators with other real educators to solve real school issues. We knew that things were changing too quickly in the field of educational technology and meaningful change demands an understanding of the schools culture. The only way we could meet the demands of expertise and school culture was to work in collaborative groups. Thus, the time-slicing we were doing in order to leverage the content skills of current educators also gave us the flexibility to mix and match people to also ensure that consulting teams working with a small rural Catholic school had Collaborators currently working in a small rural Catholic school, consulting teams working with large suburban public schools had Collaborators currently working in large suburban public schools, etc.
We wanted to create a group that had that same level of client connection I experienced when working with the large consulting firm while still providing a higher level of relevant experience and perspective.
Victor: Has it grown much?
Alex: Educational Collaborators now has over 70 consultants. We call them Collaborators because we really seek to work with the client schools and make them part of the consulting team while we are working with them. We believe it is the only way to make sure things continue to thrive when we leave. A few of our Collaborators are actually retired educators, just like those at the big firm I mentioned. However, our model always heavily leverages our current educators. We have maintained a balance of no less than 85 percent of our Collaborators being full-time educators.
Victor: What does the name mean?
Alex: Kind of what is says, we are collaborators with schools and districts on educational issues. Most people would use the term consultant. We call our consultants Collaborators. To us, it is more than semantics, it is our approach. When we work with schools, we work together with them. The school is part of the team. We don’t “deliver” solutions, we “develop” them, collaboratively, with our client schools. They own the culture and we believe school culture is critical to developing sustainable solutions. Thus, we need them to work with us in order for meaningful progress to be made. Thus we are educational collaborators.
Victor: What is it? Who created it?
Alex: More on this can be found above but I will try to be far more concise here. We are a global consulting organization comprised of many of the best practitioners in the field of education with highly sought after collaborators with expertise, experience and some of the strongest technology programs in the country. Unlike most consultants who rarely see their ideas beyond the planning stages, our collaborators work in schools today and see their ideas through to their fullest extent. As a result, they see the unanticipated and have daily experience working through the associated challenges. They are uniquely qualified to collaborate with school leaders to help them develop plans and programs that prepare students for the 21st Century.
Engaging current educators allows us to deliver the most relevant skills available. In addition, our portal based approach to consulting means multiple perspectives are considered to provide input into your project. Our innovative model enables us to cost effectively deliver true “Best Practice” recommendations to our clients.
It was created by Alex Inman, Director of Technology at Whitfield School in St. Louis, Missouri. However, it is now run by Alex Inman and Mike Manning. Mike is a former executive in the Education division at IBM. Alex and Mike met at an IBM (now Lenovo) event offered to K-12 and Higher Ed schools that have one-to-one programs that utilize the ThinkPad brand. Mike realized that the best answers to questions regarding one-to-one programs came from other educators and he always pulled us together to learn from one another. He knew the network was where the power was and thus, he was a natural fit for Educational Collaborators and joined shortly after the group was established.
Victor: What does it do and what are the benefits?
Alex: EC assists in strategic planning for schools doing large scale technology and 21st Century curriculum projects. We also help with operational procedures such as assessment, budget planning, helpdesk work flow, database consolidation planning and more. Last (but certainly not least), we design and provide professional development for administrators, staff and teachers.
The benefit is that we will bring multiple minds to the table for what other groups will charge for one. Also, the Collaborators selected to work with a client school, district, or government entity are chosen for their skills and cultural experience. We are looking for fit as well as skill. Seldom does that perfect fit exist in one person. Thus, we build that “uber-consultant” by building a team of experts who collaborate together and with the school to get the job done. I don’t know of another educational consulting group that has over 70 consultants (and growing) available and eager to help other schools.
Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?
Alex: Other groups out there have comparable size or expertise. However, I don’t know of any that have both. Also, it is rare to find groups our size care so deeply about cultural fit and customization. We don’t have consulting “products” we have “approaches.” The ultimate product looks very different from school to school because we take the time to learn about where a school is first and build the solution around it.
Groups we occasionally run into include Knowledge Network Solutions and November Learning. They are both good groups and have wonderful people. Both of those groups also leverage some current educators in their work. However, most of their work is done by folks that may not have worked full-time in a school for more than ten years. The vast majority of our work is logged by full-time educators who are experiencing the nuanced challenges of this rapidly changing world. You see, there is a big difference between talking about the promise of a Web 2.0 technology in the classroom with 2 or 3 examples and knowing the challenges that come with integrating those tools into existing accounts, Internet filters and bandwidth requirements. Our folks can also present the promise of these new technologies but do so within the context of a reality they deal with daily. Educators pick up on that difference very, very quickly.
Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?
Alex: Most of that is covered in my massive digression in question number one! I guess one interesting thing is how we stumbled upon our logo:
When I was in Junior High school, I read a book called “Spaceship Earth.” It was a biography of Richard Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller. Bucky Fuller was a scientist, architect, philosopher who reached the peak of his popularity in the 1950s. He is known for several major contributions to science and architecture, most notably “bucky balls” in physics and biology and the “golf ball” at Epcot Center, a geodesic dome. The geodesic dome is a spectacular shape covering the greatest amount of space with the greatest strength and requiring the least amount of material. However, more amazing is the logic that helped him reach the conclusion. He realized, while looking at shapes that various combinations created strength that exceeded the sum of its parts. It was my first introduction to the concept of synergy. What a fascinating concept! The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To display this, he took a section of two different bridges and used a section similar to our logo to represent the combination of triangles yielding a support greater than the combination of each individually. To me, our collaborative power is just that, synergy!
Victor: Where did it originate and where can you get it now?
Alex: EC has always been a virtual company. We initially only worked in the U.S. But have now done work for clients in the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, India and Colombia. Currently, you can purchase our services directly or through partners like CDWG, Lenovo or DyKnow. We hope to expand our base of partners in the future.
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Alex: Because every engagement is customized to meet the needs of client schools, it is tough to say. We are competitive with other groups in the field.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Alex: We have worked with schools as small as 30 students and with districts as large as 400,000 students. One of the more interesting projects we did involved 7 school districts in a county in Iowa. Each was looking into launching a 1:1 program where every student has a laptop. The districts worked together as a consortium and we helped all of them work together to create a common set of goals and a common assessment tool to measure desired student outcomes. We also assessed each district to determine what changes were required in their infrastructure, staffing and professional development to make their program a success. Now, we do work like this for schools and districts all the time. What made this interesting is that working with 7 nearby districts at the same time, we are working with them to build an ecosystem of support. Putting them all on the same page allows them to better leverage their buying power, streamline professional development and build a common language so they can help each other more.
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Alex: This is a good question! I like to think we have a little something for everyone. I even hired Educational Collaborators to work with the school where I serve as Director of Technology. EC had talent and experience in Social Media that I didn’t have and we needed. They did an assessment of our online presence and gave our Admission and Communication offices step by step directions to build our social media strategy. It was very powerful! They also got a pretty good deal!
Different schools have different needs for us though. Schools that are more risk averse seem to have a bigger need. They want the comfort of working with people who have “done it before” at a similar school. Schools that like to cut new trails aren’t looking for help on their journey. In those kinds of projects, we would play a supporting role, if any part at all. That’s ok though! We like learning from folks cutting new ground as well. Often the leaders of those projects eventually become members of Educational Collaborators!
Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days and what sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Educational Collaborators?
Alex: I think education is a beautiful science and art. Though it is one of human’s oldest fields I believe we are really just beginning to learn the nature of our craft. Brain-based learning research is still only finding a place in nooks and crannies and we are still early in our understanding of the power of empathy in human connection and learning. I believe that education research has been limited because we struggle to broaden case study research and dismiss quantitative data as being unrepeatable because environments vary so much from place to place and person to person.
I know this is not a unique thought but I believe the magic is somewhere in between the science and the art. An understanding of differentiated learning starts to get us there. Different people have different physiology and thus, different learning styles. When we begin to address these physiological differences, not only are we approaching learning from a better science, we are connecting better with people; and that is the art. When we feel understood and cared about, we listen better, work harder and care more. When it really works, it goes both ways. Addressing the science of learning addresses the individual and enhances learning. Addressing the art of connecting with individuals addresses the role of listening and the students need to be heard. An artful teacher hears what the student needs and is now armed with the scientific prerequisites to achieve good learning.
This is why Educational Collaborators places such a heavy emphasis on culture. We have an engagement called Creating a Culture for Change. Effectively, we work with school leaders to establish initial goals for a major project. We then facilitate focus groups and listen to people. We want to know what they think success looks like so we get a common and clear criteria. We also want to know people’s aspirations and concerns about the project. We then build an assessment that measures the goals as well as the concerns and aspirations so we can deal with people’s attitudes surrounding the project. A lot of times, people do this engagement so they can get the assessment and have data to make decisions. Sure, that is valuable, but once they go through the process, they realize the real benefit was the listening. The data gives them what they need to succeed but the process gave them the connections to get good data and the trust to move their project forward.
Victor: How does Educational Collaborators address some of your concerns about education?
Alex: I think some of the best ideas in education come from successful educators. We help schools not only learn from those educators but take the the time to adapt those lessons to work within the context of their unique school.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Alex: You know, for all the negative talk about our schools and the need for reform, I’m pretty positive. Though I think schools struggle with the demanding challenges placed on them by their students, parents, governments (and sometimes themselves), I think our schools have an enormous amount of untapped talent right in their own buildings! It amazes me how isolated we are, as an industry. Historically, we haven’t listened to one another. However, this is beginning to change. I wasn’t able to attend EduCon at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia but I followed the Tweets again. Amazing sharing is taking place there! Some schools are able to take that and run with it. Some need a little help translating that into their own organizations but the sharing and the listening is really opening up new doors and moving us forward. I wasn’t always so positive but that was before I spent as much time listening to other schools. I’m not saying we don’t need reform. To the reformers out there with the national spotlight, I encourage you to keep the energy and keep on fighting, however, please take more time to listen. I promise you will be more productive.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Educational Collaborators?
Alex: Just today I was talking to a school in Colorado about their professional development plan. I suggested they cut out a day of workshops with their trainers and replace it with time spent in online collaboration sessions with our folks to help them design their sessions for when they train their teachers. I also suggested that instead of paying us to do another workshop for their teachers, they should have us observe their folks doing the training and give them feedback when they were done. Don’t spend your money so we can give you a fish, let us teach you how to fish. Isn’t this why we went into education in the first place?
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com