Making high-quality education accessible to all

One of the earliest interactive course videos offered by MIT BLOSSOMS (Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies) looks at the physics of donkey carts — used frequently in the streets of Pakistan. The lesson, created by Naveed Malik ‘81, looks at Newton’s Third Law of Motion, teaching how gravity can affect how two objects interact through the very visual, real-world example of a donkey pulling a cart.

At the recent LINC 2019 conference, Professor Richard Larson, principal investigator of BLOSSOMS and founding director of LINC, provided this example from 2010 of teaching STEM concepts in an engaging and locally-relevant way. Both BLOSSOMS and LINC have grown substantially over the last decade, continuing to explore and expand on the ways that technology-enabled education can improve education access — particularly for developing countries and underserved populations.

Vijay Kumar, executive director of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) and associate dean for open learning at MIT, welcomed the very international LINC 2019 audience, comprising approximately 130 attendees representing 31 countries.

Kumar noted that the themes of the conference mirror the central mission of J-WEL, especially applying the innovation and research of MIT to catalyze change — with a particular focus on the developing world and emerging economies — “to address hard problems of education access and inequality.”

This year, LINC focused on “the new learning society,” trying to understand how best to address educational opportunities for diverse learners from around the world with different aspirations, motivations, and needs. Included in this group are many people who are displaced or face other financial or social obstacles to accessing a quality education. In addition to new types of learners, new tools and technologies have emerged. With the explosion of online education, digital learning has become central to the discourse on educational change.

“We are looking at questions of how technology might allow us to think more deeply about learning outcomes,” says Kumar. “How do you initiate change, how do you share resources, how do you create process to scale change, and how do you generate and maintain learning communities?”

“Leapfrogging” for bigger advances in education

Keynote speaker Rebecca Winthrop, director of the Center for Universal Education and senior fellow for global economy and development at the Brookings Institution, talked about innovations that aim to scale education to ensure that all young people across the globe develop the skills needed for a fast-changing world. Winthrop is the author of “Leapfrogging Inequality: Remaking Education to Help Young People Thrive,” published by the Brookings Institution in 2018.

Many young people throughout the world — for a variety of reasons — do not have access to quality education. The Brookings Institution has identified a “100-year gap” between levels of education in wealthy and developing countries — meaning that without substantial changes in current education systems, it will take 100 years for children in developing countries to reach the education levels of children in developed countries.

Compounding this challenge is the reality that this 100-year gap refers solely to current education — to the best practices of education today. With new technologies shifting the landscape of what work might look like in the future, education needs to evolve, as well.

“We need to shift to skills that will prepare students for the future,” said Winthrop. “Students need a broad set of competencies, as well as social and emotional skills.”

Winthrop noted that research indicates that, without any significant change in practices and policies, 884 million young people worldwide will not have basic secondary-level skills by 2030.

She discussed the potential of a “leapfrogging” approach to reforming education. Like the word implies, a “leapfrogging” approach to education focuses mostly on “rapid, non-linear progress.” This approach seeks to provide access, quality, and relevance all at once, rather than in stages or steps. There is an emphasis on more student-centered teaching and learning and individualized programs that are results-oriented.

Winthrop provided a variety of examples of specific efforts that in some way reflect this approach, including a satellite education program in Brazil that divides the teaching profession into lecturing and mentoring teachers to reach more students in rural communities; a tablet-based, distance-learning program based in Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, and Uganda; a literacy and numeracy game that started in Colombia; and tablets preloaded with localized educational content provided to small groups of students in India.

Winthrop emphasized the importance of designing for scale at the beginning, considering the cost per student and what is most important about the program.

“You need to know what is the essence of why the thing is successful, and you need to make sure that core element is preserved when moving to another context or scale,” she said.

Advancing education at MIT and beyond

A panel discussion on “Learning Everywhere” provided some examples of innovative approaches to expanding education access, including the Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) Certificate Program, which was launched during an MIT Solve competition at the Institute. The program seeks to provide pathways to education for refugees, who very rarely have access to higher education, and it includes in-person lectures, online classes, and a paid internship. Key elements of this program, and of many others discussed, are human interaction and community-building.

Another example of an innovative education program with some “leapfrogging” characteristics is the Program in Data Science, created by CoLAB, a hub of disruptive innovation organizations in Uruguay. CoLAB also supports up to 500 students over the next four years to participate in a blended learning program in data science offered through the Uruguay Technological University (UTEC). Developed through membership in J-WEL Higher Education, the Program in Data Science includes online courses from MITx and Uruguayan universities, online activities facilitated by J-WEL staff, and on-site workshops run by J-WEL and MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI).

Although a wide variety of creative and impactful efforts were highlighted at LINC 2019, many larger education systems have not yet undergone significant changes.

“Education is super innovative — it’s just largely at the margins and not at the center of systems,” says Winthrop. “It’s a problem of how we harness that for larger systemic change.”

The LINC 2019 participants and J-WEL, as a whole, aim to address this challenge.

“It’s tremendously exciting to see all the people who have come together to share their ideas and experiences,” says Kumar. “New technologies and approaches are enabling new, shared opportunities of increasing education equality. J-WEL supports and strengthens these efforts to enable substantive educational change.”