Change through Education Innovation

This year’s Social Impact ConferenceReinventing the Mainstream – was billed as a platform to demand and inspire businesses to act on their social and environmental responsibility with true and immediate materiality. As part of this, the Wheeler Institute’s Academic Co-Director Professor Elias Papaioannou moderated a panel entitled “Change through Education Innovation.”

Education has been one of the hardest issues for the private sector to tackle because of the long-term nature of investment involved. The panel – comprised of Jaime Uzeta, CEO of Public Allies, Farida Lambay, Co-Founder of Pratham Education Foundation, and Matt Greenfield, Managing Partner of Rethink Education – shared valuable insights on how the public, private and not-for-profit sectors can work together to create a more inclusive workforce and break the cycle of poverty through innovation in education.

Call to action: The role of business in education

In spite of the challenges involved, education has emerged as a hotspot of innovation and other entrepreneurial activity in recent years – much of it driven by non-government actors. Professor Papaioannou initiated the session by asking the four panellists for their views on the role of business in education.

“All of our community [at London Business School]… want to see business taking a much more active and much more impactful role in areas that are not traditionally within the same sphere – education being one of them,” he said.

“Education is not a private matter,” Lambay said. “The world over – we need to look at it as a public matter. Business should look it as their duty, as their commitment to take the entire society with them. When you are talking about corporates, companies and industries, they all need skilled labour, workers – educated people. It’s also for their own benefit.”

While education comprises inherent complexities – including curriculum, social norms and accessibility – Uzeta concurred that business has a role to play. “I think there is an obligation that corporations have to look beyond shareholder value, to be thinking about the societal system in which they are operating. And education is foundational.”

Indeed, there are valuable returns to be realised from investment in education, with the benefits shared between both students and business – and as the panel went on to outline, the scope of the potential role for business to play is significant.

“There are businesses like the ones backed by my [venture capital] firm that have a mission centrally focused on narrowing the gap and improving education for the most vulnerable,” Greenfield said. “We have one company that is particularly focused on English language learners, another that is focused on children with special needs [and] another on improving attendance in schools, as well as engagement.”

The impact of COVID-19 as an accelerant

Professor Papaioannou raised the topic of the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic, positing that its wide-reaching effects may have exacerbated existing inequalities – particularly in education.

“There were some long-run trends, regarding race, segregation, rural and urban divides… perhaps COVID-19 has been the gasoline to a fire that was already there,” he said.

“[The pandemic] has been a great shock,” Lambay acknowledged. “It hit us [and] it scared us… one, in terms of personal safety – second, for the insecurity it caused. And it happened so suddenly, none of us were prepared.”

Lambay noted that extended school closures can be significantly more damaging in developing countries, with the risk of reversing gains made in reducing education attainment gaps.

As she detailed: “We’ve made a lot of progress in recent years, dropout rates have decreased… but we may lose some of what we have gained. One hunch is that we may see girls moved from private schools to government schools, or pulled out of school altogether.”

Nonetheless, there have also been some positives – including a greater and faster uptake of technology which, in turn, can create new and better opportunities in education.

“If you look at online education before [the pandemic], almost all of it was asynchronous – watching videos, reading PDFs, doing quizzes… now everyone around the globe has been exposed to synchronous education [like] video conferencing,” Greenfield pointed out. “There’s no going back. Online education is often more convenient, lower cost and better able to reach the poor.”

Similarly, Uzeta cited the pace change underway – particularly with demographic shifts as well as the global transformation towards a digital economy – in arguing for a “wholesale re-design” of the way society continues to prepare young people for the future.

“We need to figure out a range of alternative routes to equip them with the skills to thrive… [and] the pandemic is fuelling a lot of the innovation around that,” he said.

The magnitude of the task, however, requires collaboration across all sectors: “Governments are having trouble keeping up, non-profits are having trouble keeping up, businesses are having trouble keeping up. This cuts across sectors… it requires everybody to come to the table and push new ideas, innovate and collaborate in new ways.”

How business can make a difference

Research has shown that early intervention in education has long-run effects that persist over an individual’s lifetime, underscoring the need to address educational inequality. Business has been at the forefront of some innovative proposals to address the issue, with Greenfield citing one such example: “[This] company has an AI-based reading tutor and it basically gives the student a passage to read out loud, listens, and offers guidance on decoding and also diagnoses of things like dyslexia. It’s a powerful supplement to what a teacher does.”

However, Greenfield also highlighted the gap between developed and developing economies in accessing such technologies as one major barrier. “The problem is, how do you get [the technology] to the poor? It has to run on a phone and an adult has to set [the student] up with it. So we need to find some philanthropic way of getting innovations like that to the very poor. Technological innovations are a lot cheaper than tutors, and they would have a huge impact.”

“I think we are really in the guts of it right now… some of the more exciting innovations are still to come. There are some realities we have to come to terms with, regardless of what the technology is. Human resource thinking and systems, how we think about human capital and potential – they’re some areas [in which] big innovations are going to emerge,” Uzeta said.

Professor Papaioannou closed the panel with a parting message to the audience – to consider the substantial financial and non-financial gains to be made from education. “Perhaps the best way to close the increasing gaps in wealth, income and opportunity is education – and more generally, learning,” he said.

Change through Education Innovation was part of the Social Impact Club at London Business School’s flagship conference, Reinventing the Mainstream. The Wheeler Institute for Business and Development is delighted to collaborate with the students who organise this event every year – calling on businesses to prioritise and take ownership of their social and environmental responsibility with immediacy and materiality.

Seonah Choi (MBA 2021) worked as a political adviser to a number of government ministers in New Zealand, including the Prime Minister, prior to studying at LBS. She experienced first-hand how cross-sector collaboration can drive positive, large-scale change. Seonah is an intern for the Wheeler Institute, contributing to the creation of content that amplifies the role of business in improving lives.

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