What Role Can Social Entrepreneurs Play in Education?

Special Focus : Can Social Enterprise Lead Innovation in Education?
Higher Education March 07, 2016

The world has changed, and continues to change, at unparalleled speeds. Education and skills requirements for the future will have completely new dimensions, and global education systems will need to adapt quickly to equip the worlds’ young people for the new demands. 

It is time to rethink education systems, the stakeholders and the foundational concepts. We must ask ourselves some critical questions.

What is education?

In an age where Information is already accessible at everyone’s fingertips, it is likely that we will have access to a level of technical knowledge that we cannot conceive. We will all have to learn to differentiate between information and knowledge. Subjects such as math, science, languages and more, while still forming the basic foundation, can no longer be the sole focal point for education. 

Education Systems will be required to produce the six “C”s:

  • Critical / Analytical Thinkers: As more and more information becomes available at the click of a button, the ability to analyse, connect unrelated areas, and apply technical information to complex problems will become increasingly important. 
  • Creative Thinkers: In the cut paste world, originality and creativity will become increasingly rare. It will be important for education systems to nurture creativity, originality and the creation of new knowledge.
  • Collaborators: Complex problems will require multidisciplinary, cross sectorial thinking and collaborative working approaches. Teaching and learning styles need to change to embed this into the education system as early as possible. 
  • Continual Learners: The requirements of increasingly practical, technical skills when entering the job market, increased demand for work/life balance by millennials, a rapidly aging workforce without those skills and longer life spans will all mean that learning will need to be a lifelong process.
  • Citizens of the World: An increasingly complex world will require global citizens who will be able to understand the “big picture” and establish the foundations for new governance structures as borders collapse and physical resources become increasingly scarce. 
  • Compassion /Tolerance/Peace  Keepers: The current violence in the world more than ever reflects the absolute need for compassion and peace to be embedded into all education systems. 

Are our current education systems equipped to deliver?

What does this mean for our current systems, not only in the “what” we teach, but “how” we teach and how we assess?

We know from experience that traditional government systems simply are not agile enough to address fast paced change, in any domain. This is especially true in education. Governments and donor agencies are risk averse, and all too often, good ideas with tremendous potential are sidelined simply because they do not fit the traditional boxes. Even if ideas are taken up, large systematic changes take time.

In developing countries, where existing education systems are often already broken, and basic literacy and numeracy are a challenge, the situation is even worse. The combination of broken systems and international donors with multiple priority areas, mean we continue to spend money trying to “fix the old systems” instead of creating new paradigm shifts that can solve problems and lay the foundations for the changes to adapt to the future needs. 

What role can social entrepreneurs play in education?

Systemic problems require systemic solutions that get at root causes, solutions that often are based on entrepreneurial thinking. The definition of “entrepreneurship” used at Harvard Business School is “the pursuit of opportunities, regardless of the resources one controls.” The definition of social entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunities to create pattern-breaking social change regardless of the resources one controls.” Many nonprofits focus on workarounds and short-term bandaids to make the pain of broken systems less painful. Social entrepreneurs intervene at the level of root causes to change the shape of a problem or abolish it altogether. In the context of education, social entrepreneurship models provide an opportunity to respond quickly, build long term sustainability and create avenues for collaborations between multiple sectors. These models create disruptive Innovation, build financial sustainability, and most often address critical areas where traditional methods have not worked.

There are already many education social enterprise models that have proven results, however, social enterprises like all other enterprises, require an ecosystem to support and nurture growth until they can create meaningful impact. Social Enterprise incubation is still in its infancy globally and is an area where much work is required, however, some lessons have already been learned, specifically for social enterprises working in education:

  1. Education problems are complex, and often the root causes are not clearly understood. Education problems need to be well articulated and disseminated much more widely in order to attract social entrepreneurs, who are often non-educationists, to work towards solutions.
  2. Education solutions require specialized domain knowledge in order to create strong evidence bases that will determine wider adoption. Most enterprise incubation ecosytems do not provide such extensive domain knowledge. By adding education sector expertise to enterprise incubator models, we can leverage existing ecosystems. 
  3. To realize the largest impact from new models, social enterprises, governments, private sector and others will have to work collaboratively to effectively achieve scale.

There is still quite a debate on funding for social enterprises. Social Enterprises do not fit neatly into the boxes of either donors with traditional grants or venture capitalists. Impact investment is gaining traction, however not all impact investors are in agreement on what impact investment really means. In a recent piece on the next billion blog, featuring the Ashoka Germany Director, Felix Oldenburg, Oldenburg says “Right now, social entrepreneurs are forced to be schizophrenic to cater to the divergent demands of donors and investors—no social entrepreneur can play that game. A viable core business is great, even noble, but scaling up often requires a mix of capital. Foundations and investors have to work together to creatively come up with better products in order to get the right investment proposition for the most innovative enterprises.” 

Others disagree that the system-changing enterprises need donations and that it is up to the funders to create mixed capital for scale. “You can grow quickly only if your business model works”.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that we need more social enterprises solving education problems, and working towards meeting the education needs of the future.