Notes from the Field

Reimagining Education at the Big Ideas Fest

January 11, 2012

For three days in December, individuals from a range of industries gathered at the 3rd Annual Big Ideas Fest to explore the future of education. In a venue overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley, teachers, administrators, and representatives from policy and advocacy groups, non-profits, foundations, social enterprises, and cutting-edge technology companies discussed the unique opportunities offered by the intersection of education, technology, and innovation.

I registered for the Big Ideas Fest hoping to better understand innovative trends in education and assess their potential application for the developing world. Based on its growing reputation, I knew that Big Ideas would be unlike any other conference I had attended. Challenging from the start, the ice-breaker exercise asked us to reflect on our earliest memories of learning and the most dramatic shifts in our own personal education experiences, and to then share them with all 175 participants, in a span of 15 minutes. I was immediately brought back to my experience as an English as a Second Language (ESL) student. Born in a refugee camp in northern Thailand to parents who fled war-torn Laos, I was very young when we were sponsored to resettle in the United States. Speaking only my mother tongue, Mien, and placed in an ESL group at school, I felt lost and at times ostracized in the classroom. But as I gained fluency in English, I remember the wonderful “aha” moments that occurred as I found a voice in my new environment. As it turns out, my own early memories were about to inform another dramatic shift in my perception of education at the Big Ideas Fest 2011.

With the guidance of Jonah Houston of IDEO, a social innovation and design non-profit, we were tasked with designing, creating, and presenting solutions with the potential to transform education. Breaking into “Action Collab” groups, we were offered one of three big challenges: achieve universal basic literacy and math skills; transform teaching and learning by leveraging open resources (content, data, and research); or create ways to assess learning geared to making tangible progress toward meaningful goals.

I chose to work on tackling the challenges of leveraging open content to transform learning. The Open Education Resources (OER) movement promotes the idea that educational resources should be made available online for free. The most well-known of these projects include Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare, and iTunes U. The free materials on these sites and others are invaluable, but the challenge facing the OER movement is the aggregation of these resources to allow the end user to find material relevant to their needs. Even more elusive, and with the most potential to transform education for generations to come, in my opinion, are the systems that provide immediate feedback and guidance to respond to individual interests and drive future learning.

My team was one of the many groups that presented prototypes to address these challenges with OER. Dubbed “weLearn,” our design prototype would allow users to “match” their learning needs with resources, such as online courses or reading materials, already available on the web. These activities would then be recorded on an online visual map to track their learning progress.

Another team offered Pandora4Learning (P4L), a service that would take cues from what you are passionate about and respond with links to relevant, new open-education resources, similar to the way the popular on-line service Pandora analyzes your musical interests to select songs for your personalized “radio station.” Both these prototypes have the potential to make OER more personalized and user-friendly, and to remove barriers to education such as cost, geography, and marginalization, especially as multi-lingual content becomes more available. At the closing session, after nine teams presented their final design solutions, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave a $50,000 matching grant to incubate the top three ideas during their next phase of development. My group was thrilled to learn that the combination of weLearn and Pandora4Learning was one of the winning solutions.

As my Action Collab team now digs into developing our concept for the real world, I’m reminded of some of the challenges with basic access to OER. One of the main reasons I was drawn to the Big Ideas Fest was to learn how The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program can use technology to further its mission to improve access to information in the developing world. Many of the populations that we serve still do not have access to the internet or computers and therefore hard copy books and other materials are essential. Although the prototypes described above are exciting, how can we, as innovators and developers, ensure they narrow rather than widen the digital divide and gap?

Many institutions that Books for Asia serves are eager and ready to have the world’s information instantly at their fingertips, and we are exploring opportunities to help them gain access to it, but physical books continue to be important in areas without reliable electricity and internet connections. At this critical juncture, we struggle with the promise and challenge that technology poses. While the amount of information available electronically – growing exponentially every day – theoretically makes education more accessible, it can overwhelm some and leave behind others who lack access to the internet, relevant language skills, or finances for education. Whether it is through the pairing of physical and digital delivery of material to our vast network; partnering with publishing, technology, and telecommunications industries and educators to provide localized content and training; utilizing low-cost mobile technology to deliver learning materials; or designing innovative systems like weLearn and Pandora4Learning, increasing access to information for the neediest populations must continue to inspire and inform Books for Asia’s mission.

Naita Saechao is operations manager for The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program. She can be reached at nsaechao@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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