I have spent the last 25 years studying and working with governments and private groups to improve the education available to marginalized youth, in the United States and around the world. Most of that work was based in the belief that change at scale could result from the decisions made by governments, and that research could enlighten those choices. When I joined the Harvard faculty 13 years ago I set out to educate a next generation of leaders who would go on to advise policy makers or to become policy makers themselves, and designed a masters program largely responsive to that vision. During those years I continued to write for those audiences.
Over time, however, I have become aware that traditional approaches can’t improve education at a scale and depth sufficient to ready the next generation of students for the challenges they will face. I have also become more skeptical of the assumed linear relationship between conventional research and educational change. I now believe the needed educational revitalization requires design and invention, as much as linear extrapolation from the study of the status quo — that is, of the past. It also requires systemic interventions — changes in multiple conditions and at multiple levels, inside the school and out. And it requires a departure from the conventional study into how much we can expect a given intervention or additional resource to change one educational outcome measure — typically a skill as measured on a test or access to an education level, or transition to the next.
It is this interest in change that has led me to study the work of education entrepreneurs — of innovators who are creating new education designs, in ways that exceed the resources they command. I am especially interested in the entrepreneurs whose goal is to produce significant educational innovation — rather than simply providing access and delivering services to new groups, or rather than improving the efficiency of the educational enterprise as we know them — to teach our old schools a few new tricks, so to speak. I am also particularly interested in entrepreneurs who can achieve sufficient scale and develop the strategy to significantly change the ecosystem, to shift the conversation about education, to eventually transform the sector in the way in which Wilhelm Humboldt transformed the sector of higher education with the creation of the University of Berlin, or in the way in which Joseph Lancaster propelled the universalization of basic education with the development of a method to teach a basic curriculum at low cost.
The conversations in these blogs on Educational Innovation and Technology are an exciting opportunity to explore a promising mix — the synergies that can result from combining innovation, the utilization of technology in education and the role of education entrepreneurs in creating new designs that can transform the ecosystem. It is in the interplay of these three factors that I see the greatest potential. Not all education entrepreneurs using technology generate innovation, and most of their designs have failed to transform the sector and not all innovators using technology have produced designs that can be scaled or with the ambition and potential to change the conversation or the sector. As a result, educational enterprise is a fragmented territory, of modest scale, yet to transform the education ecosystem.
In order for these three elements — innovation, technology and entrepreneurship — to produce the synergies necessary to substantially transform education, we will need to build a collaborative architecture that allows for the fruitful integration of careful study, design and invention, and action at scale. Such collaboration of industry, academy and the public schools is exceptional, not the conventional way of business for universities, governments or businesses.
Universities are uniquely positioned to lead in forging these partnerships. The trust we receive from society in the form of financial resources, financial and legal advantages and institutional autonomy enable us to anticipate new organizational forms to support educational renewal, rather than reproduce the established forms of the past. While we haven’t done this consistently in the history of higher education in the US or abroad, there are good historical precedents of universities taking seriously the task of substantially improving the work of elementary and secondary schools, of serving those who are not direct members of the university community.
This is the time for universities to lead the task of fundamentally reinventing public education. But to do it well, we need to seriously commit to design and innovation, and to work with others — with entrepreneurs, industry and governments — so that their ambitions and impatience for results, and the accountability they have with the constituencies they serve, can help align our efforts with the creation of public value in the form of education institutions that prepare the next generation to lead and manage the challenges we have passed on to them.
Fernando Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of International Education and the Director of the International Education Policy Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Fellow of the International Academy of Education, and Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Education.