July 1, 2019 | Comment

The Power of Learning Communities: Three Things I Learned from a Research-Practice Partnership

Categories: Digital Learning, Educational Practice, Featured, Research

How do we best equip the rising generation to thrive in a rapidly changing, connected world? At Susan Crown Exchange (SCE) we are explicitly focused on this question. One thing we know for sure is that building partnerships with top practitioners, policymakers, researchers and youth creates the optimal environment for solving hard problems and creating sustainable change.

Two years ago we launched a Digital Learning Challenge to explore important questions about what it means to be a 21st century citizen. We partnered with a research team of experts from the University of California, Irvine and New York University along with leaders of eight youth-serving organizations with exceptional digital learning programs serving teens. We aspired to gain and share knowledge about how digital tools and practices can promote the development of skills for the workforce and positive community participation.

We are thrilled to release Reclaiming Digital Futures, one output of that collective work. This free toolkit offers a range of approaches in five strategic areas where youth-serving organizations should focus decision making to achieve meaningful and impactful success in digital learning, including pedagogy, skills, technology, community and capacity. For each strategic area, the toolkit offers guiding perspectives along with how-to’s and case examples of organizational approaches and staff practices.

The second, and perhaps most transformational outcome, is what we as funders have learned about how to support our partners and about our role in investing in research-practice partnerships. We hope that Reclaiming Digital Futures demonstrates to policy makers and funders the importance of learning communities, and specifically elevating the voice of practitioners when making investments and decisions that impact youth-serving organizations and youth. Additionally, this work aspires to showcase the importance of having afterschool organizations at the table for important conversations and decisions related to workforce readiness, civic participation, education and learning.

Here are three things I learned from participating in this learning community that I believe can be pertinent to both funders and educators:

1. Always ask the experts.
During this 18-month learning community process, the research team interviewed educators and staff members at each organization, gathering information about pedagogy, organizational practices and professional development. We analyzed and synthesized all of this data and made sense of it together through three in-person convenings and monthly virtual calls.

This process affirms a belief that we move closer to solutions by discovering, analyzing and elevating outstanding field work. Truly effective strategic philanthropy involves spending time getting up to speed, asking the right questions and partnering with frontline experts to pursue the answers. Our partners inform our strategy. By creating learning communities of researchers, organization leaders and frontline staff members, giving them both time and support, we create the possibility for their synergy to produce outputs that are always more remarkable than what one could produce independently.

2. Keep youth front and center when designing learning communities (and programming!).
Reclaiming Digital Futures includes resources that relay knowledge and best practices in achieving real success in youth-centered digital learning. We purposely include “youth-centered” in our description of digital learning. We carefully selected partner organizations that intentionally seek, value and honor the expertise and leadership of youth. We also screened for organizations that focus on youth power, creativity and agency instead of sole attention on technology or media. This kind of digital learning involves making and creating, amplifying youth voice on issues that matter, balancing technical and social and emotional skills, enhancing connections to culture and community and directly linking youth to future opportunity.

One lesson learned is that going forward we need to find creative ways to more directly include youth in this type of process. “Channeling” youth through adults, though well intentioned, doesn’t fully capture youth voice. We are putting this learning into practice as we prepare to launch a new program area focused on well-being in the digital age, helping youth to develop a purposeful and productive relationship with technology in order to live a healthy life both online and off.

3. Recognize when you are wrong. Learn from it and be prepared to change course.
At SCE we continually ask challenging questions about what skills will be most valued in the digital age. We entered this learning community with more questions than answers. Our assumptions were challenged and we were pushed to recalibrate based on our learnings. As an example, initially we intended to include technology developers in this process but quickly learned from our partners that it doesn’t necessarily matter what type of technology or tool you use in a program, it’s about the practices and purpose. This type of learning, transparency and subsequent course correction ultimately makes us better funders and partners to our grantees and larger community.

We thank our partners for teaching and inspiring us and invite you to share your feedback on this collective work here.


Susan Crown Exchange (SCE) is a Chicago-based foundation invested in shaping an ecosystem of anytime, anywhere learning to prepare youth to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing and highly connected world. Through grantmaking programs in digital learning and social and emotional learning, SCE helps to identify, codify and promote high-quality opportunities for young people to learn and grow in out-of-school time. Learn more at www.scefdn.org.