Innovation in Education: Beyond the Buzzword

Access and Inclusion April 03, 2020

It is globally acknowledged that innovating in education is critical to improve the quality of the education sector and increase the number of thriving learners. Innovation is at the core of WISE’s mission. Some of our programs either spot innovations or encourage Innovation.


What does innovation really mean?

One of the most relevant and encompassing definitions is the one offered by Barack Obama “Innovation is the creation of something that improves the way we live our lives.” He highlights that beyond adding a new idea, innovation needs to add value to the situation, be transformational and impactful.

In the world of education, innovation can take various forms in different locations. It can consist of, but not limited to: a new pedagogy, instructional tool, learning process, or institutional structure.

Regardless of its form or location, the goal remains the same: to improve learning processes and outcomes, as well as raise productivity and efficiency of learning for its beneficiaries, users, and society at large.

The different levels of innovation

 There are four levels of innovation irrespective of sector:

  • Incremental
  • Disruptive
  • Architectural
  • Radical

Although these levels are commonly used to illustrate the different approaches of companies when designing new products, based on my experience, this framework could also apply to the education sector, albeit with some adjustments.

Here are a few examples of some of the WISE Awards projects that exemplify these four levels of innovation:

Disruptive Innovation: Micro:bit

Clayton M. Christensen describes disruptive innovation as a transformation of an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complications and high costs are the status quo.

Micro:bit has radically changed the field of coding for students by ensuring equitable access to high-quality content and devices. Here’s why it’s a disruptive innovation. The product has simplified coding and has made coding more accessible. Its boards serve as a stepping-stone for entry-level devices that allow children to experiment with computing before moving on to more sophisticated tools. Overall, its technology is more advanced in comparison to other competitors. Also, Micro:bit’s accessibility is distinctive, with its low cost and extensive governmental and institutional partnerships enabling mass roll-outs. Finally, as far as digital-skilling programs across multiple geographies are concerned, Micro:bit is one of the few that are self-sustaining and with no distribution network.

Incremental Innovation: Family Business for Education (FBE)

Incremental innovations consist of improving existing methods. The degree of innovation is relatively low as only minor changes are made to existing products, processes or delivery models. The purpose is to improve the existing approach to achieve better learning outcomes with continuity. 

In the case of Family Business for Education, poverty alleviation through cash transfer, financial education, and micro-finance are not new and quite common in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

What makes FBE innovative, is its holistic and multi-layered approach, which focuses on quality education at a low cost, as well as high-touch monitoring and mentoring. FBE also provides a cash transfer with the condition that the family is accountable for the child’s sustained school enrollment.

FBE managed to improve the efficiency of similar existing projects by not only helping households out of poverty, but also by promoting agency while ensuring children remain enrolled in schools. In addition, FBE targets economic and social barriers to education access at a household level and scale. Cash transfer and social safety net programs often do not include such high levels of monitoring or mentoring, which are extremely important to achieve retention in education.

Contextual Innovation: Technology-based Deaf Education (TBDE)

Contextual innovation refers to leveraging existing products and methodologies worldwide by adapting them to a specific context. This product has demonstrated impact in a different environment, and is then tweaked for a different context. The innovation lies in the way the product is adjusted to the resources and operational restrictions of another context to reach new learners.

In Pakistan, integrated online and offline solutions that enhance access to educational resources for deaf children are scarce. By leveraging both existing resources and technology, TBDE manages to create a widespread and well-structured intervention. TBDE developed the first-ever Pakistan Sign Language (PSL) online dictionary with 7,000 words which is used nationwide, in addition to establishing schools for deaf children from kindergarten to grade 12 across six cities. It addresses a void in Pakistan and targets populations who would otherwise not have been reached successfully. Considering that local sign language resources were virtually non-existent, the creation and integration of digital resources in schools nationwide at no cost has proven transformative. In another context, this specific project may have been less innovative, but in Pakistan, given the environment, it is highly distinctive and successful.

The way forward

Ultimately, beyond agreeing on a definition of innovation, the main goal of education stakeholders should remain to create an environment where learners thrive. The needs of the communities should come first, and we should not lose sight of the end beneficiaries.

Instead of reinventing the wheel each time, actors in the field of education should reinforce their efforts to share best practices and effectiveness data to scale successful interventions and thus accelerate progress. I believe leapfrogging is a means to reach that end goal that all education enthusiasts are hopping about, which is quality education for all learners.