Risk-takers Needed: Scaling Innovation For Equity in Education

Special Focus : Innovating for Equity in Education
World of Work February 14, 2017

The American computer scientist and Rear Admiral Grace Hopper apparently had a clock on her wall that she deliberately ran anti-clockwise. A pioneer programmer, Hopper has been probably misquoted as saying, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, “We’ve always done it this way.”‘

Hopper understood that nothing can progress or improve if it doesn’t change, and that applies to the education sector too. Of all the industries in the world, education is the one that’s changed the least over the past 100 years. Maybe it’s because of the fear of failure. The impact of getting it wrong, or making a mistake, would be so damaging – education touches real people, and real lives and most will only get one shot to get it right. The risks are high, but that doesn’t mean people in the education sphere should just keep on doing what our predecessors have done. If anything, it means that the education sector needs innovators, pioneers, and risk-takers more than ever before. 

By virtue of it breaking new ground, innovation is really hard. It can be expensive – both in the planning and implementation – and there’s the risk to your hard-fought reputation if your grand plans fall flat. Sometimes it can feel like you are stepping into the unknown with nothing but a great idea, the desire to make a positive impact and hours (upon hours!) of thinking, research and planning. 

Happily, there are some people who are ready to take a chance and financially back education innovation. It’s become a buzzword in development, and donors all over the world are building it into new funding opportunities, like USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures and the Global Innovation Fund, which actively look to fund innovation in education projects. 

In Ghana, the UK’s Department for International Development, through the Girls’ Education Challenge, is one of those willing to back innovation, by funding the continent’s first live, synchronous, interactive distance-learning project. This pilot project, Making Ghanaian Girls Great! (MGCubed) is run by Varkey Foundation. The project aims to address the challenges of teacher quality, teacher absenteeism, and poor student learning by equipping two classrooms in every school with solar-powered computers and projectors through which real-time two-way interactive distance lessons can take place, broadcast from highly trained teachers from teaching studios in the capital, Accra.

And the brilliant news is, it’s working. Our evaluation for MGCubed has shown that it’s had a statistically significant impact on literacy and numeracy outcomes and is set to impact nearly 13,000 marginalised students between the ages of 9 and 14. 

Owing to the initial success of the innovation, an additional teacher training project, Train for Tomorrow, is already changing teacher practices to impact students. Funded by Dubai Cares, who are also willing to take a risk in order to have huge impact, this US $2 million project trains school leaders to become Instructional Leaders first through face-to-face training, and then through a distance-learning cascade, made possible by a satellite link and solar-powered infrastructure.

None of this would have been possible without donor support. And that donor decision, to fund or not to fund, is tough. Of course, projects in this sector need to be rigorously piloted, tested and measured for impact but at the same time funders have to be willing to take a leap of faith into unchartered territories. So now we’ve got education innovators with great ideas and pilots that are going brilliantly.  But what next? Well, here’s the really tricky bit. Unless we can start scaling these projects, the impact of the whole venture will never have the effect that was intended. 

In theory, investing in education innovation is no different from investing in any other start-up, but investment in innovation in other sectors comes with an expectation of financial return, which is not usually the case in education, particularly in education development. What donors need to examine is: what returns are they looking for from their investment? If it were a business venture, the answer is obvious, but with education, the variety of returns are much broader; spanning things like social impact, policy influence or learning outcomes. 

Once investors have established what returns they want, and found the innovation in education projects that deliver them, then that’s when things can get really exciting. The possibilities that come with scale-up are huge. The bigger the project, the more that governments can buy into a long-term, improved education system. The change that comes with that is long-lasting, systemic and, truly, innovative.