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Prizes, literacy and innovations in education

Michael Trucano's picture
an innovation supporting a revolution?
an innovation supporting a revolution?

"Innovation!"

The buzz around this buzzword in education (the need for it, the celebrations of it, the challenges in catalyzing it) continues to get louder and louder, and the word itself seems to get invoked with increasing (almost de facto) frequency as part of discussions about the need for change.

Indeed:

How are we to meet and overcome many of the pressing, endemic, and sometimes seemingly intractable challenges facing learners, educators, education policymakers and education systems around the world if we aren't being innovative in how we define (and redefine) our problems -- and in how we propose to go about solving them?

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There are many groups, events and activities that seek to document, share knowledge about, analyze and assess various 'innovations in education' around the world. The annual World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Qatar, for example, focuses explicitly on this theme. R4D's Center for Education Innovations does as well, in partnership with many international groups, including UNICEF (which has a special initiative on 'innovations in education' and whose much-lauded Innovations unit is for many of us a model for excellence within the international donor and aid community). The OECD's widely-read report last year on Measuring Innovations in Education seeks to offer "new perspectives to address th[e] need for measurement in educational innovation through a comparison of innovation in education to innovation in other sectors, identification of specific innovations across educational systems, and construction of metrics to examine the relationship between educational innovation and changes in educational outcomes."

Some observers may feel that this explicit focus on 'innovation in education' is overblown. We don't fund a lot of things sufficiently that we already know work, why don't we first concentrate on that stuff? Others may note that some 'innovations' in education promoted today have actually been around for decades, and thus perhaps no longer really qualify as 'innovations'. Sometimes the only 'innovation' in a particular 'new' approach is to utilize some new technology to do pretty much exactly what was done before, but now 'digitally', and in a way requiring a power cable or batteries. (I am not too sure that many of these things are really all that 'innovative', but many people who keep sending me related proposals seem to be convinced that they are.) Still others detect in many discussions around the need for 'innovation in education' the guiding hand of 'corporate education reformers' and/or of technology vendors with products to sell, and, as a result of past experiences, ideological leanings, an inherent tendency towards skepticism or a satisfaction with the status quo, and/or political calculus, reflexively push back (if not indeed recoil).

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'Innovations in education' are about much more than just technology use, of course -- but there is also no denying that new information and communications technologies (ICTs) of various sorts continue to enable and catalyze many of the innovations that are being explored in the sector, whether they relate to e.g. teacher training; assessment; data collection and management; payment mechanisms; stakeholder engagement and transparency; or changes in the teaching and learning processes themselves; and whether they originate in the public, non-profit or corporate sectors (or even, as for example is the case of distributed communities of people working together to help build new software or educational content in ways that are 'free' or 'open', out of no traditional or easily definable 'sector' at all).

Sometimes the ICTs are hard to miss (as is the case with Uruguay’s pioneering Plan Ceibal), and sometimes they are behind the scenes (innovative low cost private schooling schemes like those pioneered by groups like Bridge Academies, for example, depend heavily on the use of ICTs to promote efficiency and cut costs), but increasingly they are there. Many traditional groups active in advocating for funding efforts to help end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity (the twin goals of the World Bank) are increasingly challenged to identify, make sense of and support the diffusion of 'innovations in education' in ways that are useful and efficient and cost-effective – and potentially, from time to time, even transformative.

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However one feels about the need for 'innovations in education', few would argue with the assertion that literacy is fundamental to one's success in school -- and in life. Despite great advances made in helping people learn to read and write over the past decades, however, UNESCO estimates that nearly 900 million people around the world cannot read or write a simple sentence. As part of its related efforts to help put a dent in these shameful figures, USAID (together with the Australian government and World Vision) recently announced the 14 winners of a competition to identify and celebrate "the most promising, creative and impactful solutions in literacy innovations". From innovative approaches to promoting mother tongue education using mobile phones (in Mali) and e-readers (in Cambodia) to fostering family and community engagement using radio (in Afghanistan) and working with children with special educational needs using software to create sign language graphics (in Morocco), new grantees under the All Children Reading 'Grand Challenge for Development' are tangible examples of the inventive ways that new technologies are helping with the acquisition of literacy skills among diverse populations around the world.

The objectives of prizes like those offered by All Children Reading are not only to provide some much needed additional funding to groups doing good work, but also to celebrate and highlight for others approaches that may be a bit out of the ordinary, shining light on what is possible in the hopes that others may be inspired to 'be innovative' in their work as well. The set of annual literacy prizes offered by the U.S. Library of Congress seeks to do something similar. (The nomination period for the 2015 Literacy Awards, including the flagship Rubenstein Prize and a special US$50,000 International Prize, will run until 31 March [pdf].)

Recognizing past innovations by making awards to the groups which have successfully implemented them, in the hope that doing so will help to spur others to think big, and perhaps 'out-of-the-box', is one way that groups are seeking to help promote innovation indirectly. Over the past decade a number of high profile 'prizes' related to education have sprung up around the world, some of them with rather eye-catching prize money attached to them. The first Global Teacher Prize, which colloquially refers to itself as the 'Nobel Prize for teachers', was awarded earlier this week, together with US$1 million, to a teacher at a ceremony in Dubai. The high-profile annual WISE Prize, administered by the Qatari Foundation, is also sometimes referred to as the 'Nobel Prize in education' (nominations for the 2015 WISE Prize are being accepted until 31 March). The nomination period for the latest UNESCO Hamdan Prize ("for outstanding practice and performance in enhancing the effectiveness of teachers") recently opened, one of a number of regular education-related prizes which UNESCO administers (including one related to ICT use in education).

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Another more direct and targeted approach to help spur innovations in education through the use of a prize of some sort is to set specific targets related to some larger developmental goal, and then to offer prizes to groups that are able to meet these targets in the future. As with global education prizes more generally, 'prizing competitions' of this sort have also mushroomed in recent years.

This approach is consistent with what All Children Reading is attempting to do with two of its other prizes: one focused on identifying innovative approaches to using Technology to Support Education in Crisis and Conflict Settings and another to help with Tracking & Tracing Books destined for early-grade classrooms and learning centers in low-income countries. (A full list of grants and prizes associated with the All Children Reading initiative is available on the All Children Reading web site.)

Perhaps the most audacious effort of this sort, however, is the US$15 million Global Learning XPRIZE, a "competition that challenges teams from around the world to develop open source scalable software solution that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within the 18 month competition field-testing period." Announced alongside the UN Global Assembly last September, this latest in a series of high-profile 'XPRIZEs' has engendered a fair amount of excitement ... more than a little confusion ... and, in some quarters, a fair amount of criticism as well (these things are not mutually exclusive, of course).

As per related press announcements and the xprize.org web site, "The Global Learning XPRIZE challenges teams from around the world to develop open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic, empowering them to take control of their own learning and ultimately their future". More concretely: "Teams will compete in a multi-stage competition that test for specific criteria: Ability to measurably increase the learning of children with limited access to schooling. Creation of a design that is easy to use and engaging for children, so they can operate it alone and/or in self-organized groups. Creation of open source software that makes marked improvements to existing technology."

Could a Global Learning XPRIZE help 'crowd in' some non-traditional actors -- especially those from the technology sector -- to help explore new approaches to meeting longstanding challenges related to literacy, in partnership with key groups with long experience and knowledge in working with some of the most difficult target groups, which traditionally are not considered in any prominent way as users of new technology products and services?

(How many robustly engineered, commercial-grade technology products and ICT-enabled services are explicitly designed to target the needs of low literate or illiterate users in poor, remote communities around the world? Traditionally, the answer to this question has been: Not many.)

If 'business as usual' isn't getting us where we need to go in many education systems around the world, for a variety of reasons, might an attempt to catalyze 'business unusual' be worth pursuing?

This is what the XPRIZE folks are keen to explore. A follow-on post will look at this effort in more detail.

 
You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:

 
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a bicycle with a modified front wheel ("an innovation supporting a revolution?") comes from Flickr user Andy Mitchell via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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