Reimagining Schools in a Hyperconnected World

Special Focus : Learning to Live and Work Together
Higher Education October 17, 2017

Before March 2016, I would never have thought of myself as having any connection to the word ‘education’ in a professional sense. 

I was busy being a working mother, with three children and a decent career as a partner at McKinsey. I have no doubt that if somebody had told me that I would soon be founding a school and driving changes in the education ecosystem in China and across the world, I would think that this person was completely out of their mind.

As you have probably guessed, that is precisely what I did.

Something happened that spring. On the surface, it was triggered by my eldest son’s time to start primary school, and our family’s move from California to Beijing. However, these two pivotal moments awakened something in me, helping me to see the links between many of my random and seemingly irrelevant experiences with education and making them suddenly relevant. This random list of experiences includes my own memories as a student, ten years working at McKinsey, recruiting and training college graduates, supporting career development for youth, three years as a minor social influencer (my husband and I have a WeChat blog with 700K followers), receiving multiple inquiries from young people confused about the future and, of course, my experience as a mother.

Education had long been a major source of entanglement for me. Everyone around me, (both in China and the US), complain about the problems and challenges around today’s education. And yet, although their complaints all seem to make sense in some way, it is hard to derive anything concrete from them, let alone come up with concrete alternatives.  In that spring, these ‘connections’ that occurred to me seemed to have suddenly switched a light on, allowing me to see education in a clearer way.

Below are the ‘problems’ with education as I see them:

First, unprepared students
There is a big disconnect between the outlook of our educational institutions and the real needs of society. This gap has led many students to graduate from these institutions with deep confusion about the future and their direction in life. I have seen this time and time again when recruiting and supporting the youth.

Second, anxious parents
Nowadays there is more anxiety than ever among parents about selecting the best education for their kids, in order to give them the greatest chance of success in the future. I have felt that, in this arms race fueled by anxiety, the education industry’s exploitation of such anxiety to offer ‘solutions’ to resolve them has, in reality, only served to fuel them further.

Third, stressed teachers
According to a survey by Sohu, one of the largest internet portals in China, only around 10% of the more than 400,000 Chinese teachers surveyed in 2016 wanted their children to enter their profession. Teachers face constant pressure from both parents and school administrations in a unitary evaluation system. But this is not all: being a teacher is arguably the most complex job under the sun, but there is a massive lack of consistent, high quality and scalable professional development support for teachers.

Fourth, isolated schools
Schools are becoming increasingly isolated from the real world. This creates two problems: schools and their pupils are often far removed from real social issues; and schools are very much closed off ‘in silos’, preventing them from effectively connecting with social resources, such as high-quality learning projects outside the school system, latest research and findings in the education sector worldwide, and the potential for people from all walks of life to contribute their expertise to school education. 

Fifth, the big disconnect 
As the world becomes more connected at a global level, education is still lagging far behind. We talk about global citizens, but what does it take to raise them beyond learning a foreign language? How can we prepare our children for a hyperconnected world? How can education technology really change education at its roots, both in improving quality and in reducing inequality? 

These are not a list of complaints; rather, they demonstrate the systematic nature of the educational issues we face and thus, the need to tackle them from the roots. 

So, what can we do? 

If any conclusion can be drawn, it is that one needs to take a systemic view when looking for solutions. 

In March 2016, we founded ETU School out of a desire to test out a path, with a vision to build an operating system that would support new education and disrupt the existing education ecosystem by breaking down barriers.

ETU School opening ceremony

ETU School’s opening ceremony at the Forbidden City on Sep 1, 2017

ETU’s approach works on five levels:  

1. Personalized leaning for children by identifying and cultivating their intrinsic motivations.

2. Building a professional development system for teachers by leveraging the wealth of professional development know-how in the private sector. Today, ETU has started providing our teacher training curriculum to public school teachers. The first training program has been rolled out and will provide 1200 new teachers in Beijing with onboarding training as part of our agreement with Beijing Education Academy, which is responsible for training 200K public school teachers in Beijing.


ETU Model

3. Developing our online platform, ETU Open Community, that builds communities to drive both education innovation with nearly 10,000 members from 60+ cities worldwide and parent education through our Parent School community that has attracted nearly 7,000 subscribers from around the globe.

4. Building IT platforms and using them in a systemic way to support learning, teaching, assessment, and school operations.

5. Modeling ‘Truly Chinese, Truly Global’: cultivating the young as responsible citizens for a connected world, and supporting education groups outside of China to connect in.

ETU innovation

ETU innovation

Why the hassle? 

Instead of building a nice little school, we found ourselves on a seemingly expansive path. I hope that when one reviews the logic, one can clearly see the close interconnections between ETU’s multi-facet efforts around education innovation. Only when addressing the core elements in the education ecosystem does it become possible to test a way out. 

So in essence, what we need to build is not another school but a social innovation.

Barriers need to be broken down and connections need to be remade. What is needed is a functional system that can harness social will and capital to drive the evolution of the current education ecosystem.

We are still at the beginning, but we can see the tide turning. I hope that more will join this social innovation to collectively push for a system of hope. At the end of the day, education is not just an ‘industry’ but one of the most fundamental bases for most, if not all, social issues. 

For precisely this reason, education deserves attention from us all – to rethink our current system with a clear and critical mind and to build a new one that will enable us to be creators for a better future.