The EdReform Portals: Embodying a Vision of Responsive Dissemination

By Robert T. McLaughlin, Ph.D.
Executive Director
National Institute for Community Innovations
March 2004

The National Institute for Community Innovations (NICI) has undertaken a multifaceted, long-term initiative to foster responsive dissemination of practical information regarding best practices in K12 education, educator preparation and professional development. NICI's responsive dissemination model has been developed to address serious concerns regarding prevailing methods of dissemination in education.

The Noisiness of Conventional Dissemination in Education

The vast majority of the information that is transmitted to educators e.g., via web sites, listserves, reports, professional periodicals, and brochures regarding educational practices that research has identified as proven or promising is regarded by educators, we believe, as noise. Educators may regard information on an effective educational practice as noise if any one of the following conditions apply:

  • If the source of information is not one known to and trusted by the educator.
  • If the topic is not seen as relevant to the educator's current pressing concerns.
  • If the information is not delivered in a way that the educator regards as being responsive to his or her expressed priority needs.
  • If the vocabulary involved is too abstract or abstruse.
  • If the content does not have obvious practical value.
  • If the material is presented in a context in which the educator is being inundated by too much information.
  • If the information is not customized to the educator's needs.
  • If the information is not organized into a framework or categories viewed by the educator as sensible.

The "noisiness" of educational dissemination has led both to great waste - i.e., a very low rate of return on the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year by federal, state, and local governments, professional associations, publishers and others - and to the continuation of many longstanding educational practices that research has shown conclusively to be less than optimal.

To address these concerns, NICI has developed the EdReform portals, as a cornerstone of its Responsive Dissemination initiative. Responsive Dissemination, we believe, must strive both to eliminate noise and to improve the strategic value of content about educational reform practices. Through the EdReform portals, national and international expert communities in education are assisted by NICI to minimize noise as they disseminate information that is:

  1. Provided by organizations that are known and trusted by educators.
  2. Addressing issues of pressing concern to educators.
  3. Specifically in response both to the educator's previous inquiries and to needs identified by the educator through optional portal surveys.
  4. Using widely understood terms for portal channels, item titles, item descriptions, and searching.
  5. Describing practical strategies and resources which educators can employ to improve their students' learning results, learning opportunities, and/or learning climate.
  6. Highly selective, so that educators are presented with a high quality, as opposed to a great quantity, of information.
  7. Customized to the individual educator's needs and demands for information.
  8. Organized into a framework of categories widely regarded as familiar and sensible to educators.

Thus, to develop and institutionalize the EdReform portals, NICI partners with nationally and internationally recognized expert communities (the International Society for Technology in Education, the National Staff Development Council, and the Urban Network to Improve teacher Education, etc.) because these organizations are trusted and known by educators, and because their frameworks and vocabularies for describing effective practices are widely understood and respected by educators. Oftentimes, the vocabulary of terms and concepts these organizations use is based on national or international dialogues among their members, leading to the creation of professional standards. Thus, use of these terms to catalog content on best practice assures widespread understanding of these terms. Rather than seek to disseminate best practices under its own banner, NICI prefers and strives to embody the "ego-less" approach of assisting already highly respected partners to more easily, less expensively and more effectively disseminate effective practices under their own logos. This highly collaborative approach to dissemination significantly reduces the fragmentation and territoriality which currently characterizes the vast majority of education dissemination efforts, while also significantly reducing the noisiness of dissemination. By reducing the noise, we make it easier for educators to pick out "signals" that are meaningful and valuable to them as they endeavor to better serve their students.

Key Strategic Dimensions of Education Dissemination

As important as reducing noise, there are strategic dimensions which educational dissemination should address if it is to succeed in helping educators not just learn about but also successfully adopt proven educational practices. Effective educational dissemination also:

  1. Raises educators' awareness about practices which research has found to be proven or promising to improve students learning results, learning opportunities and/or learning climate.

  2. Points educators to resources (curricular or instructional materials, guidebooks, manuals, listserves, etc.) that help them implement these practices.

  3. Points educators to resource providers - i.e., individuals and organizations with proven skill in assisting educators to plan for and implement effective practices.

  4. Identifies model sites where educators have implemented the practices in exemplary ways, and provides information about the ways in which educators can learn from these model sites via site visits, observation, training of trainer conferences, video cases, etc.

  5. Highlights research and evaluation reports, where they exist, that validate the efficacy of the practices, resources, resource providers, and model sites, so that educators can trust the designation of practices, resources, service providers and model programs as truly "proven effective".

  6. Connects interested educators with mentors, wherever possible, that can skillfully provide customized technical assistance to help them move from awareness to experimenting to fully incorporating effective strategies and resources into their professional practice.

Thus, the EdReform portals seek to point educators to information about effective practices, resources, resource providers, model sites, research and evaluation studies, and mentors available to provide personalized assistance.

Institutionalizing EdReform Portals for Responsive Dissemination

Significantly, utilizing only very modest resources, NICI and its growing network of dedicated partners have successfully developed over a dozen major portals, pointing educators to over 1,500 highly selected full-text items. The responsive dissemination strategy above is efficient, inexpensive and sustainable, because of two key factors. First, the software application NICI and its software engineering partners at Green River Data Analysis have developed is open source, enabling interested software developers worldwide to use and contribute new functionalities to the EdReform portal toolset, thus lowering the cost of ongoing software enhancements. Second, NICI works only with educational organizations that not only are well-known and highly expert in a given educational reform dimension but also are deeply committed to addressing that reform dimension, so that their members are highly likely over the long term to donate the modest staff and volunteer time needed to maintain the currency and quality of their portals content. Thus, once NICI has created a portal customized to an expert community's framework and vocabulary, and then assisted leaders of the expert community to engage their members in contributing, screening and cataloguing portal content, that community assumes leadership of the portal.

The EdReform portals have not yet fully realized NICI's strategic vision. The portals do not yet point to many model sites, with information about their location, evidence of their success, and pointers to how one can learn more from their exemplary efforts. Nor do the portals yet associate each item about a practice, resource, resource provider and model site with a research or external evaluation report, where it exists, that attests to the efficacy of that item. These are enhancements which NICI will make in the portal software during the coming months. Meanwhile, NICI is seeking funding to demonstrate the value, feasibility and sustainability of giving portal users access to a network of mentors skilled in a given portals issues, practices and resources, to provide customized synchronous and asynchronous mentoring to educators via a portal mentor center.

NICI has created a growing international consortium that has enabled individual educators and students, schools, school districts, preparation programs, postsecondary institutions and professional associations to share in the cost of the NICI Virtual Library Co-op, whose mission has been to provide educators and students of all ages with lowest possible cost access to a vast array of high quality digital academic content across the K16 and graduate curriculum. The NICI Virtual Library Co-op (www.vlibrary.org) was launched in 1999 with seed funds from a U.S. Department of Education technology innovation challenge grant, and has now become a fully self-sustaining digital equity initiative, being used by tens of thousands of educators and learners worldwide. Based on the success of this model, NICI is seeking seed funding to develop a portal mentor center to provide customized assistance to interested individual educators and educational organizations which we expect to become eventually fully self-sustaining as those who benefit from its services share proportionately in the cost of maintaining it. The development of such portal mentor centers will represent the culmination of NICI's vision for responsive dissemination.

NICI also wants, finally, to develop customized gateways to the entire set of EdReform portals, so that interested school districts, state education agencies, professional associations, educational reform networks and others could identify which portals and specific portal channels are most relevant to their specific educational reform priorities, and be able to point educators and policy makers to those portals and portal channels.

Technical Considerations of the EdReform Portal Software

The portal software itself is as sophisticated and multifaceted as the approach to responsive dissemination it makes possible. The software has been designed to include a "stylesheet" that enables the customization of a given portal's logo and color scheme to suit the portals expert community. Also, each portal can be located within the given expert community's own web site, so that its members need never feel they are leaving that community's site in order to access portal contents which that community has developed.

Equally important, the software uses XML standards to organize and catalog portal content. Just as international agreement about HTML standards made the World Wide Web possible by enabling computers to easily share text, audio, and graphic materials, rapidly emerging international XML standards are making it possible for web content publishers to catalog contents in consistent ways, very much as though one were cataloguing the Web's materials using library classification terms. The EdReform portals use a growing dictionary of XML terms that align with nationally and internationally accepted XML vocabularies e.g., Dewey Classification, IEEE, Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, and the Gateway to Educational Materials. The use of widely recognized XML standards for cataloguing content has several benefits including increasing the visibility of portal contents to those conducting Web searches, and making it possible to use the EdReform portals in conjunction with other XML-based tools such as web-based surveys.

The interoperability of the EdReform portals with other XML tools like web-based surveys is going to prove increasingly invaluable since it makes it possible, for example, for an educator to complete a self-assessment of their practice relative to a given set of standards and then be automatically pointed to portal contents on resources that assist them in addressing aspects of their professional practice of greatest self-identified concern. Just as the development of global agreements about HTML made the Web possible, emerging XML standards will make possible powerful new ways of delivering content customized to a user's most pressing needs. NICI therefore regards incorporation of XML standards as central to its vision of a software application that supports responsive dissemination.

For More Information

For more information regarding NICI's responsive dissemination initiative or to explore the possibility of creating a new portal in collaboration with your expert community, please contact

Robert T. McLaughlin, Ph.D.
Executive Director
National Institute for Community Innovations
235 Main Street
Montpelier, Vermont 05602
Tel. (802) 229-1742
Cell (802) 249-1159
www.nici-mc2.org
www.thinkclick.org