Even though 90% of the current budgetary allocation for education is spent on improving and sustaining education within Pakistan, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the traditional methods are failing. There is a dire need for out-of-the-box alternatives to be sought and “innovation” is the most commonly used buzzword when talking about addressing the problems of the Pakistani education ecosystem. The great news is that our industry has proven to be in sync with the need of innovative interventions and significant efforts are being made to upgrade the system. However, an important trend to note is that the focus of such efforts has mainly remained concentrated on the education delivery end.
Most of the remaining education budget is spent on incentivizing students, improving teacher-student interactions, upgrading school and computer facilities etc. While these areas do deserve attention and spending on them impacts the education system for the better, it usually comes at the cost of certain back-end infrastructure factors being neglected. Thus for practitioners and organizations committing to the task of education innovation, it is important to avoid moving directly to the brainstorming and implementing ideas phase. The first step of the innovation process is considering the context and the infrastructure within which these strategies operate.
Naturally it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to come up with an exhaustive list of factors to be considered when thinking of education in innovation but nonetheless essential to establish a starting point. Here we are going to talk about what we believe to be the “Three Golden Rules” of building an innovation friendly environment, these three are: a) Abandoning Predetermined Solutions b) Establishing Shared Objective Benchmarks and c) Proper Dissemination of Research and Knowledge.
Abandoning Predetermined Solutions
Education, as is the case with many other large scale social issues, faces an environment of complexity due to multiple stakeholder involvement with often competing and contradicting goals. This makes it nearly impossible for “predetermined solutions” (solutions that have been known to work before and are assumed to have predictable benefits) to work in every scenario. However, Innovation, as used in the education sector, is often confused to have exactly such predetermined solutions. In the absence of complete conceptual clarity around the concept people conflate innovation with the use of technology. To complicate matters further technology in turn is often conflated with the use of digital and computerized mediums.
The reality of the matter is that there is no singular solution or process to innovation within education. The use of digital and computerized technology is not necessarily a prerequisite and in many cases innovating could in fact mean simply developing new localized pedagogies of teaching, such as delivering lessons through story telling. Conversely, in areas where the populace has been a stranger to digital and computerized technology, the introduction of computers or tablets as a method of service delivery can be a great innovation. A good example is 2013 Ted Prize winner, Sugata Mitra’s latest TEDTalk where he talks about setting-up Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) by leveraging latest computer technology in India. For strategies to work in such complex environments it is important that projects clearly define the ‘specific needs’ of a particular project; the scope of the interventions and the problems that they are intervening in to bring forth change.
However, this clarity in conceptualization amongst individual stakeholders is not enough to drive the desired social impact. Impact studies of initiatives and projects throughout the world have exhibited this dearth of desired impact even when studying strong, well-funded actors. The answer to unlocking full potential of stakeholders and hence greater impact lies in what Charles Leadbeater, leading innovation consultant, terms “Creative Collaboration”. The concept also features prominently in multiple Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) publications under the name “Collective Impact”.
Both of these concepts, in their own unique way, challenge the existence of predetermined solutions and the highlight the greater social impact made possible through collaborative and collective efforts of stakeholders. The Stanford Review highlights the need for building a “common agenda”, which is mission centric rather than organization centric. Hence, the problems arising from lack of conceptual clarity of innovation and lack of singular definitions can be addressed through identification of a ‘shared vision for change’; building common understanding of the problem and a resulting joint approach to solving these problems.
Establishing Shared Objective Benchmarks
Currently the multiple stakeholders, practitioners and champions in the education sector work in isolation. There are no industry-wide benchmarks or performance indicators and hence no common education goals, which is a recipe for failure when it comes to talking about impact of innovative strategies. The lack of collaboration between various actors often translates into either limiting the scope of effective strategies or the duplication of efforts. The concept of innovation being “a one-man job”, where said individual has an epiphany that holds revolutionary potential, is a myth. In reality, the process is much more complex and successful only once multiple inputs interact to become a final coherent product. Innovation cannot happen in a vacuum; hence, collaboration across sectors and stakeholders is one of its fundamental prerequisites.
Another symptom of this problem is the prevalent trend in the funding environment that seems to be prone towards allocating small amounts of money to as many diverse set-ups as possible instead of making performance driver decisions. For innovation to truly work it is important that investments are made in experimentations that demonstrate higher performance and goal attainment. However in the absence of shared benchmarks that can be used as rating tools and measures of comparative performance, donors have to adopt a “trial and error” approach to investment decisions. Apart from funding decisions, establishing metrics and performance indicators can prove to be useful tools in student and institution assessment; gauging effectiveness of innovation strategies and gathering necessary evidence to advice future policy.
The development of shared values and a common set of performance indicators is often viewed by organizations as dilution of their individual goals. However, as the SSIR article entitled “Channeling Change” discusses, the collective impact suggests building these indicators is synonymous with establishing a common language that will enable greater alignment of individual organization goals that enables collaborative problem-solving. Furthermore, these tools need to be built using a small set of indicators that cover all the activities being performed by individual stakeholders. In a nutshell the collective impact theory aims to make all actors work together “not by requiring that all participants do the same thing, but encouraging each to undertake the specific set of activities at which it excels in a way that supports and is coordinated with the actions of others.”
Proper Dissemination of Research and Knowledge
For the Pakistani education sector to make important and innovative breakthroughs it is of the utmost importance that more pertinent research to our local context is carried out. The increasing usage of revolutionary tools such as mobile phone enabled gathering of data is widening not only the scope but also the quality of data available and the time is ripe for researchers to tap into such resources to improve knowledge. Another problem is that while the current research is a very rich resource it still remains inaccessible to the grassroots’ workers and practitioners due to barriers in communication, access and language. The collective impact framework can help dissemination and communication of the knowledge already present through inherent ‘feedback loops’ that are created once collaboration begins. The development of a common language and continuous communication can also further facilitate knowledge sharing and building of best-case practices. The large networks not only enable discovering of previously unnoticed solutions and mobilizing greater stakeholder participation but also act as mediums of churning knowledge, through identifying localized models that work, but also disseminating this knowledge by spreading them wider.
The case of a nonprofit Strive, highlighted by SSIR, can serve as both proof of success and a template to follow. Strive through the collective impact framework facilitated the collaboration of local organizations to tackle the student achievement crisis in Cincinnati and achieved positive trends in 34 of its 53 success indicators only four years after its launch. To address Pakistan’s education emergency there is a dire need to harness the innovation potential of the multiple stakeholders which can be effectively achieved through increased collaboration. We believe that moving away from predetermined solutions, building shared objective benchmarks for measurements and ensuring greater dissemination of knowledge can serve as the essential starting point towards building the right infrastructure. However, it needs to be kept in mind that collective impact is a long-term process that needs to be viewed as “a marathon and not a sprint” and requires patience and a major mindset shift. While the process may seem painstakingly time-consuming, the end-result of more holistic solutions to our education problems will prove to be worth the effort.
For additional information on Collective Impact see: