Education Innovations from Singularity University's European Summit

In Budapest, during late 2013, CODE Principal Nathaniel Calhoun joined the faculty of Singularity University for their first European Summit on exponential technologies. CEO’s, policy makers and innovators from around Europe gathered to spend two days absorbing and discussing the breakthroughs that will shape the face of markets and humanitarian work alike. Participants witnessed the world’s first 3D printed exoskeleton in action, discussed Artificial Intelligence with Ray Kurzweil and surveyed the most recent advances in everything from nanotechnology and alternative energy to cyber security and personalized home genomics.

Calhoun’s contribution to the summit focused on the technologies and strategies most relevant to large scale education initiatives, with an emphasis on low income and resource-poor settings. While many companies are focused on services for the tech-savvy natives of wealthy countries, it’s harder to find tech interventions that produce results where infrastructure is unreliable and where the support apparatus struggles to reach those in need. Singularity’s commitment to “impact programming” ensures that faculty (and participants) scour the playing field for those ideas and innovations that can make an immediate and tangible difference to hundreds of millions of people.

Often the discussion of what technology can contribute to education focuses on replacing teachers and creating alternatives to school systems and formal education. Praise of famous drop outs and anecdotes about illiterate children hacking donated tablets are offered as sufficient justification for entirely by-passing the education-delivery mechanisms that are already in place globally. However, there are compelling reasons for leveraging the goodwill, capability and systems already focused on creating educational experiences.

Below, we highlight a series of innovations that, in different ways, derive benefit simultaneously from new technologies and from more traditional approaches.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been prominent in the news over the last several years, riding through a bit of a hype cycle. In the frothy first year of their rapid growth, MOOCs were touted as the ideal vehicles for bringing education of all types to learners everywhere in the world. Since then, MOOCs have struggled with well-publicized drop-out rates that seem to demonstrate that many learners are simply not ready to undertake the challenge of educating themselves without the personal touch of educators. Even prominent leaders and advocates of MOOCs have come out in the last year to acknowledge the challenges that they face.

Meanwhile, rather quietly, Kepler University in Rwanda has found a superior system for getting the most out of MOOC content while generating employment and creating meaningful networking opportunities for course participants. They’ve created a lightweight, low cost physical university to oversee the delivery of MOOC content. They hire educators and facilitators to help move students through the challenging section of MOOC courses and they ensure that peer learning opportunities are not lost. Their students have massively higher completion rates and the university is expanding into other countries in East Africa, which means that the value and reach of the professional network available to these young learners is expanding as well.

Others innovating in the arena of creating educational institutions are Bridge International Academies, (also headquartered in East Africa) and the UK based NGO, Teach a Man to Fish. Bridge Academies are thriving in Kenya, where they enable capable entrepreneurs to tap into a supportive coaching framework while actually opening and operating elementary schools. The organization loads low cost hardware with high quality content and mentors teachers through the process of delivering learning experiences in all sorts of contexts. The hardware prompts teachers to gather large amounts of data that is analyzed remotely by Bridge Academy specialists and used to help tailor the learning experience for young people.

Teach a Man to Fish helps subscribing schools to become financially self-sufficient. The program is geared especially towards remote rural schools where students may need to participate in agricultural pursuits. These schools typically create one or two small businesses relating to local food products or handicrafts and then provide students with a hands-on business education. Students and faculty operate these businesses in such a way that their educational expenses are entirely covered, which eliminates a powerful barrier to education while increasing the business savvy of people who were previously vulnerable to financial exploitation.

The field of financial and business education has seen some new and improved strategies also in Ethiopia. Instruction around financial education and finance has often been handed over to institutions with a vested interest in indebting their students and profiting from the interest that they must pay—a system that prevents the full benefits of financial education from staying within the community that needs it. Tearfund Ethiopia has seen incredible results with its Self Help Group Program, but more about that particular project in the future...