Technology has great potential to help address critical challenges facing global education today: the lack of access to school for millions of children globally; the lack of access to quality education for those children who do make it to school; and the challenge of ensuring that education supports the development of skills critical for jobs, livelihoods, and life choices. Unsurprisingly, as previous articles in this series have highlighted, there is no technological silver bullet solution to any of these challenges. But an area where technology could have the most impact is for children who are out of school and are unlikely to have access to formal education opportunities. These are children who may be affected by war, migration, or early marriage, or may need to work to contribute to their families’ economic wellbeing.
Many private and public sector organizations are now turning to technological initiatives in the hope of addressing the huge needs of children losing out on an education as a result of conflicts such as the Syrian crisis. One of these initiatives is Can’t Wait to Learn (CWTL), a program led by youth aid NGO War Child Holland that uses educative gaming on tablet computers to bring a digitized version of learning curricula for literacy and math to children affected by conflict. Two pilots of the program, then called eLearning Sudan, in three states between 2013 and 2015 found that participating children scored an average of 20 and 31 percentage points, respectively, higher in math than children in the control group. The pilots also indicated positive effects on children’s self esteem. CWTL then tested the program among marginalized children across Sudan and again found that it helped children learn math successfully and quickly. Based on this success and the urgency of the humanitarian need in the Middle East, the IKEA Foundation, the Dutch National Postcode Lottery, UNICEF, and others have funded CWTL to scale up in that region.
Scale is the holy grail of education technology in emergencies, as demonstrated by the recent growth of funding and mentoring programs focused on scale, as well as the interest of new, highly skilled partners such as Google.org. But the story of scale is always a human story. Social innovation thinkers Dan McClure and Ian Gray identify the “missing middle” or “messy middle” as an especially challenging part of the scaling timeline—a phase when it’s not clear how to move from the initial validation of an idea to the optimization of that idea. CWTL is now in that “messy middle,” and the sheer number of factors involved can seem overwhelming.
So what are we learning from this process? While the following lessons build on McClure and Gray’s excellent work on innovation, they also aim to provide more concrete reflections on how common themes such as investment, risk, and partnership work in real time.
- Reaching the unreached is a huge challenge but must remain the aim. This sounds obvious, but although a body of academic literature highlights the urgent need to target the most marginalized, it remains a challenge to implement due to the structural violence and inequalities that marginalized children face. While small-scale pilots with strong local partnerships can help navigate these issues, scaling remains a huge challenge when negotiations with governments and other stakeholders complicate programming decisions. That said, a strong belief in the life-changing nature of education and the right of all children to access quality learning opportunities can motivate a team through some hard times.
- Scaling education programs always requires working with governments. Around the world, education is, with some caveats, the responsibility of the state. Working on education in emergencies, especially in places where the state is fractured or lacks capacity and resources, provides a range of additional challenges in designing a program for long-term sustainability. Can’t Wait to Learn has benefitted from some great relationships with government partners, but establishing these connections takes time and resources, and may delay the scaling of an intervention’s different elements. When working well, government relationships can strengthen local buy-in and adaptation of a program that is expanding to new locations. However, don’t underestimate the time and effort involved in these efforts, or the need to genuinely revise and re-contextualize the program.
- Be generous and open, and expect the same from others. In reflecting on the success of CWTL to date—and on the challenges to come—this is a constant refrain. One element of this attitude is a shared commitment with UNICEF to openness of data, software, findings, and other key program workings. These offerings contribute to the sector not only in terms of a positive stance toward innovation and scale but also to practitioners at all levels who can access the components of CWTL and rework, revise, and learn from them. This approach to sharing also applies to program ownership. It takes a global village to create a successful scaling program. The ability to recognize the input of others, broker new partnerships, and contribute to the wider discussion has been crucial. The program’s success here has been partly due to funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, which has been supporting humanitarian innovation initiatives for many years, but also to the culture and strategy of openness of War Child Holland as the program’s lead organization.
- Constantly base your work on robust evidence. This mandate doesn’t change when you “reach scale.” The research work during the first years of piloting CWTL in Sudan was intense and broached new relationships and discussions among organizations, collaborations, and government at all levels. CWTL’s insistence on creating an evidence base, in partnership with research organizations such as TNO and Ahfad University for Women, meant that even before scaling, the program contributed to the sector's combined knowledge. It also meant that venture capital funders and donors had the kind of information they needed to take the investment risk to help scale the program, and that data on the factors impacting learning outcomes was available when program leaders were deciding how to move forward. Program leaders should be prepared to adapt and change based on lessons learned as the program scales up. This process can be painful when it involves moving away from elements that worked in one place, or on a small scale, but that don’t translate to other contexts. However, flexibility allows the organization to continue to develop and respond to evidence, allowing for new negotiations and further scale.
- Enjoy it. If you are in the middle of scaling an educational technology project you might not believe this, but even with all the hard work, “riding the scale-up rollercoaster” is an amazing experience. It brings together best practices in a range of areas: education and learning approaches; technology procurement, legal and corporate negotiations; challenging new governance issues around intellectual property, partnership, research approaches, and targeted populations; and implementation of an innovation that is scaling in some countries and brand new in others.
Innovation in humanitarian education means working hard and with passion, in real time, to try and ensure that children at risk of becoming members of a lost generation” gets their educational start when they should: now.