The three critical factors for education-innovation success: context, context and context

Life can be hard if you are an education innovator. On the one hand, there is the excitement of seeing amazing innovations and innovators breaking new ground; on the other, are the myriads of examples of the seemingly compelling initiatives that failed when translating from paper to real impact. From classrooms-of-the-future, personalized learning to MOOCs, the road to education innovations nirvana is littered with thousands of programs, initiatives and projects that promised much but somehow failed to translate that into tangible impact. What then distinguishes a program or initiative that works, to one that bombs spectacularly. In three words – context, context and context.

Let me return to an example that I have written about before to illustrate my point – the Knowledge Network announced by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago and a number of partners including the University of Trinidad and Tobago and Coursera – one of the largest providers of Massive Open Online Courses. The partnership combined coursework, on-site support, certification, proctored exams and internships to create an all-encompassing package that addressed a specific need for the country. Let us peel that apart a little more.

The reality that birthed the Knowledge Network looks like this:

  1. Rich Country: The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is a High Income Economy, with a GDP per Capita (nominal) of approx. $22,000.
  2. Small Population, Geographically Concentrated: It has a population of 1.3M people. The total area of the country is about 2000 square miles, which means there are about 700 people per square mile.
  3. Widespread and Affordable Internet Access: According to the ITU, 63% of the population has access to the Internet, with 15% of the households with fixed broadband services. As a reference, in 2010, 28% of households in Japan had fixed broadband, and 34.5% in Germany. Most importantly, the yearly cost of fixed broadband – when expressed as per capita GNI, (a measure of the affordability of broadband) is less than 1%, suggesting broadband access is fairly affordable.
  4. Functional Primary Education Sector: The government has placed a huge focus on its education sector. The primary school enrolment in the country has been 97%+ for the last 20 years. Equally, if not more importantly, the primary completion rate (measured as a percentage of relevant age group) has been above 90% for the last 10 years.
  5. Functional Secondary Education Sector: The progression to secondary schools metric for 2007 was 90%, meaning 90% of students who completed primary went on to enroll into secondary school. Equally importantly, the lower secondary completion rate for the same year was 90%.
  6. Misfiring Higher Education Sector: It is the tertiary education segment of the overall education system that seems to be misfiring. In 2007, labor force with tertiary education stood at 10%, one of the lowest for a High Income Economy. In the same year, the percentage of labor force whose highest education was primary stood at 27%, while the remaining 63% of the workforce had a secondary school certificate. For comparison, the percentage of the labor force with a tertiary education in the US is 93%, and in the UK is 61%.
  7. Financial Incentives Alone Haven’t Worked: The government provides tuition assistance via GATE (The Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses) to all students studying at accredited local and regional universities.
  8. Strong Link Between Tertiary Education and Employment Opportunities: It is important to note that less than 2% of the unemployed youth had a tertiary degree, i.e. a tertiary education certificate almost guarantees employment for someone in T&T.

It is in this context, that the Knowledge Network was put in place. Simply put, it was the unique combination of all of these factors that created an environment that was rich for an education innovation like the Knowledge Network. If even one element has been out of place, it would have been difficult to see this approach works. If, as an example, the cost of fixed broadband were too high, it is unlikely that the target population for this intervention (people with a secondary school certificate but without a tertiary degree) would have been able to afford high-speed internet access.

Secondly, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago had a very clear idea of the problem it wanted to solve, as it set out to remedy a specific problem with its workforce. A high percentage of students are dropping out of the education system right after completing their secondary education, not making the transition to tertiary education. With a clear idea about the problem that it wanted to solve, it was able to assemble a coalition to create a customized solution that responds to that particular need.

The Knowledge Network that it has put together to respond to this need is comprehensive and well thought-out initiative, surrounding the learner with a number of supporting elements and support services.

Students will have access to learning materials (provided by Coursera, Khan Academy and others) that they can access online, or physically at the University of Trinidad and Tobago campuses – in a blended learning environment. Students will have teaching assistance provided by in-person assistants (as opposed to the remote course assistants that are associated with traditional MOOCs). Student will be required to come in physically at specific points in the courses, so that their attendance – and achievement – can be verified. Finally, 400 recent graduates of the courses will be placed within local businesses, allowing them to complement their education with real-world experience.

In short, there are a number of factors that make the Knowledge Network a realistic and comprehensive solution to a well-articulated problem, with a solution that is customized to this specific context; with its combination of access, recognition and incentives, a holistic model has been put in place to address a specific, pinpointed problem. Such clarity enabled the sponsors of the initiative to create a responsive model, and design appropriate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms that can be used to fine-tune the program over time.

Of course, it is still early days, and we will need to wait to see the tangible results coming out of this program, but it seems safe to say that the program has all the elements that a contextually-sensitive education innovation should have in place to maximize its success probabilities.

Education innovators across the world will be looking at this initiative, looking for lessons they can learn as they create place-specific innovations better suited to their own environments.



Thank you for reading my post. I write on the topics of education innovation, technology and innovation. Please feel free to followme on Twitter, or on LinkedIn to stay updated.

About: Rizwan Tufail is the Founder of Innovonomics, a niche consulting firm focused on consulting, policy-input, programs and ventures that leverage innovation for economic and social transformation. He was a Mason Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and was previously the Regional Director for Africa for Microsoft, having also led Microsoft’s education efforts in the Middle East and Africa prior to that. You can follow him on twitter at @rtufail and on LinkedIn