This is the second of three blogs, all inspired by the recent Skoll Forum and Global Philanthropy Forum, which will focus on the growing importance of global education as a philanthropic issue. My first blog, provoked by a session criticizing the ineffectiveness of development aid, was an appeal for philanthropy to take a long-term, generative approach on the delivery global public goods. Today, I’d like to focus on those who are doing this in education, both foundations and social entrepreneurs.
I attended the annual Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF) conference in California last week. As previously, it provided a good mix of policy debate and exploration of innovation. The main themes included education and employment, human trafficking, health, agriculture, big data and digital opportunities. Of these themes, I want to focus on education, and what I consider its striking growth in philanthropy and social enterprise.
Five years ago, neither philanthropy nor social enterprise were extensively involved in global basic education. In the US and in Europe, foundations have long been actively involved in debates and funding for education within their own borders. But unlike other development actors (bilaterals and multilaterals, international and local NGOs, national governments, and indeed households), they were not very active in the two-decade-long global effort on Education for All – though exceptions certainly existed, such as the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s long-time work in early childhood and the Aga Khan Foundation’s funding at all levels of education.
The Gates Foundation’s choices in this area have been instructive and important. Gates invests billions of dollars a year in global health, and hundreds of millions of dollars a year in domestic education, but has consistently decided not to make global education a funding priority. This seems to stem from a desire to focus Gates’ global work on a present-day push for health and agriculture gains rather than making longer-term investments in human capital. Gates probably also has a prudent reluctance to tackle constrained educational delivery systems in developing countries when the foundation’s work on US education has not yet produced convincing results. These two causes for hesitation – a focus on measurable shorter-term gains and a reluctance to tackle developing country education systems – probably underlie other foundations’ wariness as well. As GPF’s Jane Wales put it, ‘Education has been confounding, how do you crack that nut?’
Social entrepreneurs have until recently acted similarly, more comfortable working in areas such as microenterprise where individual initiative dominates, and institutions are smaller and more flexible. Education officials, for their part, have not seen the relevance of social enterprise to the problems they have to solve.
This is now beginning to change. Both philanthropy and social enterprise are starting to play a more active and influential role.
Though it did not choose to make education a programmatic priority, the Gates Foundation did make a $40 million investment in the Hewlett Foundation’s ‘Quality Education in Developing Countries’ (QEDC) programme, focused on measuring learning, improving instruction, and tracking resources and effectiveness. Hewlett has used this QEDC funding in very strategic ways to build up philanthropic investment, coordination and leverage. It has played an important role in introducing foundations to the Education For All movement, with a focus on creative thinking and data-based problem-solving. Hewlett and others have encouraged new foundations to enter the global education field, to the extent that the International Education Funders Group now counts 60 members and is growing rapidly. Private foundations have recently gained a seat (shared with the private sector) on the board of the Global Partnership for Education, which grants hundreds of millions of dollars each year to help developing country governments finance their push towards education for all. Philanthropy is starting to act strategically in global education.
The rise of social entrepreneurship within education is even more striking, epitomized at the GPF gathering by Salman Khan (pictured) of the Khan Academy, which has produced 4,100 short educational videos which have had more than 250 million views on YouTube. The Khan Academy characterizes itself as ‘a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere’. It has all the elements of the social entrepreneur ‘heroic narrative’ – a person armed with an idea, a prototype that expands to a surprising scale, and an unexpected improvement in a previously intractable problem. In this case the problem is the ‘factory-style delivery’ of basic education, and the piece of the solution on offer is not just videos but an opportunity to use technology to deliver basic information, freeing up teachers to help students with concept mastery and higher learning. Khan and others favour ‘blended learning’ which combines online delivery and human instruction, paced according to the needs of individual learners. The implications of this approach for schooling systems in the global South and its push towards quality education for all are only just being grasped.
Other innovations are also changing the way we look at education systems. The ‘massive open online courses’, or MOOCs, of Coursera and Udacity, which offer tens or hundreds of thousands of students courses offered by top-flight universities, are arguably more game-changing for higher education than the work of the Khan Academy. MOOCs may eventually fundamentally change the business model of the delivery of schooling, at least at its higher levels. This is not lost on human-centred design firms like IDEO, represented at Skoll by their education lead Sandy Speicher, which have started to move from a focus on designing physical spaces for schooling to the design of entire education systems.
Another education visionary at GPF was Patrick Awuah, who left Microsoft to found Ashesi University in Ghana, whom I interviewed for the third blog in this series.
In my first blog, I asserted that ‘Education for All’ was a 100-year effort, which began with African independence in the 1960s but still has another 50 or so years to go before we as a global society can provide a quality secondary education, linked to a livelihood, to all our children. As I review the rapid changes happening in education today, I am thinking that the second 50 years may only take 30 or 20 years – and that the ‘quality education’ of the future may be delivered in a very different way than in the past.
I find this fitting. For decades, we have held that education is the key to learning, creativity and change, yet the school itself has been one of the most standardized and immutable of institutions, both across countries and over time. This is likely to change over the coming decades. I expect to see an explosion of creativity and possibility which will be featured in years of philanthropic work to come. It’s time to revise our long-term visions, to overcome our hesitations about investing in global education, and to bring our assets and ideas into this promising arena.
Hats off to the pioneers who have brought philanthropy and social enterprise into this space – Hewlett, the Global Partnership for Education, Salman Khan, the creators of the MOOCs, IDEO, Ashesi, and many others. May they continue to expand opportunity.
Peter Laugharn is the executive director of the Firelight Foundation