Rhode Island Makes Its Pitch to Ed-Tech Developers As Lab for Innovation

Associate Editor

Providence, R.I.

The governor of Rhode Island says the smallest state’s “big achievement gap” keeps her up at night, and she wants to change that by opening the doors to more ed-tech innovation.

Gov. Gina Raimondo told a national audience of about 130 people gathered here Thursday for the Digital Promise Education Innovation Clusters meeting that her state’s size and demographics make it a perfect fit for testing educational technology. Attending the event are ed-tech entrepreneurs, policymakers, nonprofit funders, K-12 officials and others who are interested in education.

“When I reached out to Microsoft [about launching an initiative there,] they said, ‘We don’t do states, we do cities,’” said Raimondo, a Democrat. So she told the company to think of Rhode Island as “a city-state,” and company officials agreed to work there.

“Think of Rhode Island as a lab, the perfect place to pilot and expand new innovation,” Raimondo told the meeting of researchers, ed-tech investors, educators, and nonprofits.

“We’re small, and we have a very densely populated urban core where most of our achievement gap issues are,” she said. “We can bring things to scale quickly.”

Competition in establishing regional ed-tech hubs appears to be on the rise. In recent years, civic and business groups in Boston, Baltimore, and other communities have sought to entice and support digital providers and entrepreneurs, and to pitch their communities as well-positioned to nurture innovation.

Richard Culatta, the state’s new chief innovation officer who served for the past four years as the director of the U.S. Office of Educational Technology, added his perspective in welcoming the audience to Rhode Island.

“The thing that slows education down is not having pre-existing relationships of trust,” he said. “If you build relationships of trust you can move things through more quickly.”

Culatta explained the he has seen the governor “take anyone to task on this issue, to make sure every roadblock or obstacle is being moved out of the way.”

EduvateRI is the new website rolled out for the Rhode Island efforts to attract ed-tech interest. Its , purpose is to “seed, inspire, and scale education innovation,” according to the site. Among its immediate goals is working on a personalized learning initiative for the state.

“We believe our geography is an asset,” said Dana Borrelli-Murray, executive director of The Highlander Institute, a Rhode Island nonprofit focused on education that co-hosted the meeting. Located on I-95 between New York and Boston, Rhode Island is home to 66 districts. “You can get to all of our leaders in one day in 20 minutes,” she said. “Drive five minutes on any of the main arteries out of this city and you’re in a very different community.”

On Wednesday, the institute took about 50 visitors on a bus tour to see students engaged in blended learning in Providence schools. This weekend there will be a “startup” activity for ed-tech developers and entrepreneurs.

This is the fifth year Digital Promise and the U.S. Department of Education co-sponsored an education cluster meeting to share best practices about how to support and scale what they call “learning ecosystems” by better working together, seeding entrepreneurship, scaling innovation in a sustainable way, and measuring results.

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