Innovations in Education: Local Solutions for Global Problems

October 28, 2014Jo Bourne

This blog was originally published on the UNICEF Blog.  The blog post is co-authored by Jo Bourne, UNICEF's Global Chief of Education and Christopher Fabian UNICEF’s Senior Advisor on Innovation and co-Leader of the Innovation Unit.

When people talk about innovation, often they are looking for a button to press, a screen to swipe or an app to download. Then they sit back and wait for the world to change – for the better, of course. At UNICEF, when we talk about innovation, we mean simple, local remedies with the potential to tackle complex, global problems.

And rather than sitting back and waiting for a light-bulb-over-the-head moment, UNICEF continually seeks, nurtures and inspires innovative impulses in communities across the globe. UNICEF’s focus on innovation will be celebrated this year in its flagship report, The State of the World’s Children, which will be released 20 November.

However, one of the ways UNICEF pursues innovation is through its Innovation Unit, an inter-disciplinary team that identifies promising ideas, creates prototypes, and scales technologies to improve the lives of children.

UNICEF Innovation includes teams in New York, Nairobi, Copenhagen and San Francisco and a network of 14 Innovation Labs around the world. In education, UNICEF seeks innovations focused on improving learning outcomes for the most marginalized children. As part of this effort, UNICEF recently launched the Innovations in Education initiative to scan, test, and share knowledge about promising education interventions that are being designed or are underway worldwide.

A few good ideas

Recently, UNICEF worked with the Center for Education Innovations at the Results for Development Institute (R4D) to convene a panel of a dozen experts to examine 14 innovative education initiatives. Each of the 14 innovations presented a local solution to a problem that occurs globally. By the end of the day-long event, the experts had chosen projects that will receive support so they can be developed and further evaluated.

The projects tackled topics including how to reduce illiteracy, reach out to children in poor communities and monitor education systems.

The details of the projects are outlined here:

  • Brazil: Improving Literacy Levels through Assessment and Monitoring
  • Moldova: Vouchers and Community Engagement or Retention and Learning 
  • Ethiopia: Accelerated School Readiness Program  
  • Ghana: Community Run Play Schemes
  • Cross Country Initiative: Strengthening Equity in Education through Real Time Monitoring 

What is innovation?
A quick click on the project descriptions above shows that the experts were not necessarily interested in innovations that involved digital technology. Indeed, much of the conversation that day focused on the challenge of identifying innovation when talking about education and children. There were many opinions on the panel.

However, many of us in on the discussion agreed that innovation in education was not really about coming up with the next big thing. Instead, it was about building on efforts that had worked before, replicating them and scaling up their impact. It was about taking vetted solutions and turning them into interventions with the potential to disrupt the status quo.
Throughout the discussion, we were also mindful that the point was children and that innovations in education had to be about changing children’s daily learning experiences.
For UNICEF, innovation in education can come from technology. But it can also be found in processes, services, programmes and partnerships.

To qualify as an innovation in education, UNICEF looks for these criteria:

  • Effectiveness: Does the innovation improve educational opportunities for children most often left behind?
  • Traction: Does it solve a problem; is it easy to use; and does it appeal to users and donors?
  • Scale: Can it be calibrated for use in multiple contexts while remaining cost effective?

But the panel also talked about the principles at the foundation of the Innovation Unit’s work. The principles emphasize the importance of designing with users not just for them, working in open collaboration and learning from failures.

This drawing, created during the discussion, illustrates some of the unit’s principles:

Next steps

The gathering in New York was just the start. It was a chance to have experts put values and methods into practice and decide on a first round of innovations that offer promise for children.

As [this] map indicates, UNICEF is keeping its eye on a number of education innovations that are percolating in different stages. The dots provide a little more information on the projects underway around the globe.

The projects chosen by our panel will receive support so the innovators can improve and measure the results of their efforts. The yardstick for success will be whether the innovation increases children’s chances of getting a quality education. The results will be shared so the global community can profit from the successes – and failures. And hopefully, with measured and tested results, we will be better able to put innovations in education to work for all children, everywhere.

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