Education reimagined


From community radio stations to ATM-style computers, there is no shortage of pioneering programmes changing the education landscape

Education offers potential for innovation through technology – both new and old – and in the developed and developing world. In the past decade we’ve already witnessed the trends that can change the way teaching is delivered and lessons learnt. Here’s a selection of some of the wide gambit of innovations that are setting new trends.

Free Third Level Education from MIT

In 2000, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) broke with convention by making available their educational resources on a web-based platform – all for free.

In launching MIT Open Courseware (OCW), they rewrote the book on education and created a template where instead of depending on the talents of local teachers to instil the latest knowledge in particular subjects or fields, students can take their tuition direct from the thought-leaders in a particular field.

Under the principles of open courseware, students get lectures and course material from the best, not simply the nearest geographically. Even for teachers, online courses mean they can now source theory and teachings from the best and re-interpret it locally for their students.

The take-up of MIT’s online resources to date has surpassed 100 million – both students and teachers – and their radical redefining of teaching and learning is heralded as among the boldest, bravest and most ground-breaking educational disruptions of the modern era. The opportunities in the developing world are enormous.

Hole in the Wall Education

On a different scale is the work of Prof Sugata Mitra, professor of education at Newcastle University.

About 12 years ago, Mitra decided to test this hypothesis that the internet, computers and children all share inherently similar cognitive processes. He took a computer, made an opening in a wall in a slum in New Delhi, pushed a computer into it and connected it to broadband. Upon returning after two months, he found an eight-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl playing a game on the computer. When they saw him, they said “we want a faster processor and a better mouse”.

Mitra’s subsequent declaration that “teachers are now no longer required to be repositories of knowledge” and that children can learn to teach themselves if equipped and empowered with the necessary technological tools, has turned much traditional thinking on its head.

The “Hole in the Wall” initiative has now installed more than 500 computers across India and Africa to enable poor children to learn without formal teachers. Over a million children now use the computers on a regular basis.

Smallholders Farmers Rural Radio Network

A simple yet innovative educational initiative that has made a profound impact on more than 250,000 small farmers in remotest Nigeria is the Smallholders Farmers Rural Radio. The prospect of listening to radio for 10 hours a day is unlikely to appeal to most of us, but with programmes on crop cultivation, livestock rearing, soil management, nutrition, HIV/Aids, flooding control and farm safety transmitted to an otherwise largely inaccessible region, this is a friend, teacher, nurse, career guidance counsellor and financial advisor all rolled into one.

Broadcast in the local Igbo Language, small-farmer listeners, most of whom are illiterate, improve their agricultural, environmental management and market access capacity. A question-and-answer service replies to questions relayed by farmers and allows them to share experiences with one another.

Benefits arising from the station’s positive influence are evident: the household income of 65 per cent of the station’s listeners has risen, and crop output has increased. Furthermore, the programmes have also been credited with helping to reduce soil degradation and to conserve wood resources. Public service broadcasting as it ought to be.

School as Employment Agency

After 30 years spent working in Peru, Father John Foley moved to Chicago and set up the first Cristo Rey school. The key innovation was to facilitate children working alongside their schooling. Cristo Rey’s mission is to provide children from poor, inner-city, usually ethnic-minority households with a pre-college education that will get them into a good university.

Many of the state-funded schools that serve such communities provide children with little hope of securing a college place, and private fee-paying schools are beyond the means of families living on the breadline.

The innovation at the heart of Cristo Rey is that each student works five or six days a month with a local employer, similar to transition year work experience here in Ireland. The school operates as an employment agency; it makes sure the student turns up for work and that they are paid the appropriate rate for their work and are not exploited.

The remainder of the school week is organized into four longer school days to make up time lost while working.

The children’s earnings go towards the cost of their education. By engaging in the world of work while continuing in education they learn how important qualifications are and build up a useful CV. The goal is that by the time they apply to go to college they will have worked with a number of employers and have developed a wide range of transferable skills.

Mother Child Education Programme

The key innovation at work in this programme is to extend formal education into the community. The Mother Child Education programme in Turkey, through a collaborative learning initiative among mothers, provides them with a step-by-step guide on how to support their children’s education.

It has trained more than 300,000 mothers to become the first educators of their children and prepare them for school. The children of mothers who go through this programme have a far higher progression to third level than the overall school-going population.

MOCEP is not a Turkish innovation; it was inspired by the home interaction programme, first developed in Israel, which has since spread to many countries. Dr Josephine Bleach of the National College of Ireland has done some innovative work with mothers in north inner-city Dublin to help them support their children when they begin formal schooling.