These 12 innovators are transforming the future of education

innovations in education

Quality education is vital in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but this has been significantly disrupted by COVID-19. Image:  UNSPLASH/Ivan Aleksic

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innovations in education

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Stay up to date:.

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  • COVID-19 continues to disrupt schoolchildren’s right to a quality education.
  • In March 2021, schools in 57 countries were still closed, according to the World Bank.
  • Deloitte launched the World Class Education Challenge on the World Economic Forum's UpLink platform to search for innovators who are bridging gaps in learning and access.
  • Deloitte will invest US$1 million in the 12 top innovations, announced today, supporting them to scale their solutions to impact more learners. This is part of Deloitte’s World Class ambition to provide educational opportunities to 100 million individuals by 2030.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s workers, problem-solvers and leaders. Access to a quality education is vital not just for children to thrive, but for social and economic development.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals set out that every child should have a free, quality primary and secondary level education. It’s estimated that the disruptions to education resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have set back progress in educational gains by 20 years . While all students were impacted by the pandemic, the difference between the privileged, and those being left behind, has widened even further.

In India, for example, one study suggests nearly 40% of students in less privileged households have not been able to study at all. And the government estimates some 30 million schoolchildren have no access to smartphones, devices or the internet to attend school online.

World Class Education Challenge

Deloitte is committed to using this moment to truly catalyze change. We must identify what is working, the new ways and innovations that are delivering results for students, and scale them. To find ideas with the highest potential for impact and scale, Deloitte ran the World Class Education Challenge on the World Economic Forum’s UpLink platform.

The Challenge had three focus areas: providing equitable access for students being left behind; investing in teachers’ development; and equipping students with the skills they will need in 2030. It focused on finding solutions in Africa, India and Asia Pacific.

From almost 400 submissions, 12 innovators have been selected. These individuals and their organizations will work alongside Deloitte professionals to help address the global education crisis. They will also receive up to US$1 million in professional services on a pro bono basis and financial grants.

Announcing the Top UpLink innovators

The 12 innovations chosen to be Top UpLink innovators are:

Developed with the needs of African teachers in mind, Learnable is an augmented teaching assistant that allows teachers to compose and distribute dynamic, interactive lessons via a dedicated mobile app and WhatsApp. Lessons can be saved offline, so that students do not need constant internet access.

Nomad Education

Nomad Education is a free mobile app which offers 350 academic certificates that helps more than 1 million francophone children every year to succeed in their studies, whatever their social, geographic or academic background.

Pan-African Robotics Competition

The Pan-African Robotics Competition (PARC) is the largest robotics competition in Africa and has educated more than a 1000 African youth in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM), while also offering a Virtual Learning Platform (VLP) to enable the African youth to virtually learn to code, design and build their own robots. It also integrates a feature for collaboration and knowledge exchange.

A lack of quality STEM education directly impacts productivity and economic development in Nigeria. Millions of students have no access to traditional laboratories, which are expensive to build and maintain, says Oyebisi. StanLab is a cloud-based, 3D virtual laboratory platform, providing near real-life laboratory experience for students without access to physical laboratories.

UCT Online High School

UCT Online High School's mission is to turn physical limitations into digital opportunities for Africa’s children to access aspirational, quality secondary school education. Its purpose-built online school and free online curriculum pave the way for high quality, online and blended learning to be delivered at scale, and stimulate digital transformation of the education systems on the continent.

innovations in education


Emotional intelligence, critical thinking and problem solving are key skills for the future of work. Call-a-Kahaani is Udhyam Learning Foundation's Interactive Voice Response (IVR) platform to empower youth with entrepreneurial mindsets, leveraging engaging interactive storytelling.

Ekatra is a tool for educators and organizations to deliver learning at scale, using text (including SMS and WhatsApp) message-based micro courses targeted to improve learning, with the mission to bring important knowledge to people no matter what their circumstances are.

Rocket Learning

Rocket Learning builds vibrant digital communities of parents and teachers to support foundational learning for some of the world's most underprivileged children. It is helping 20,000 teachers reach over 200,000 parents daily with contextualized content in their local language sent via WhatsApp groups. This supports parents with the crucial early years education, including teaching children to recognize letters and numbers.



An initiative of Generation Peace, this solution aims to empower educators to reinvent the way they teach. The web-based learning platform is designed to help Indonesian educators encourage innovation in their classrooms – and raise the next generation of critical thinkers. It offers practical tools, proven strategies, and best practices from around the world to inspire future change-makers.

Komerce is transforming the lives of rural Indonesian communities by unlocking e-commerce potential through education. The innovative platform teaches Indonesian youth e-commerce skills, and connects them with small and medium-sized enterprises in their rural towns, to both boost the local economy and provide opportunities for young people.

Scaling Skills That Matter

An innovation of The Posify Group, The Posify Academy is a student-led, evidence-based combined well-being and career development platform, arming youth with a sense of purpose and equipping them with future skills, so they can navigate this rapidly evolving world with confidence, and uncover and deliver their unique potential.

Tech-Voc Career Accelerator Program

An initiative of, Tech-Voc Career Accelerator drives youth not in education, employment and training (NEET) in the Philippines to the frontlines of employment by transforming their interest into a passion for technical-vocational work through holistic skills development, industry training and linkages, and continuous learning.

The group of top innovators submitted to the education challenge were officially announced during the Sustainable Development Impact Summit. You can watch the session and find out more about the solutions here .

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How technology is reinventing education.

Image credit: Claire Scully

New advances in technology are upending education, from the recent debut of new artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots like ChatGPT to the growing accessibility of virtual-reality tools that expand the boundaries of the classroom. For educators, at the heart of it all is the hope that every learner gets an equal chance to develop the skills they need to succeed. But that promise is not without its pitfalls.

“Technology is a game-changer for education – it offers the prospect of universal access to high-quality learning experiences, and it creates fundamentally new ways of teaching,” said Dan Schwartz, dean of  Stanford Graduate School of Education  (GSE), who is also a professor of educational technology at the GSE and faculty director of the  Stanford Accelerator for Learning . “But there are a lot of ways we teach that aren’t great, and a big fear with AI in particular is that we just get more efficient at teaching badly. This is a moment to pay attention, to do things differently.”

For K-12 schools, this year also marks the end of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding program, which has provided pandemic recovery funds that many districts used to invest in educational software and systems. With these funds running out in September 2024, schools are trying to determine their best use of technology as they face the prospect of diminishing resources.

Here, Schwartz and other Stanford education scholars weigh in on some of the technology trends taking center stage in the classroom this year.

AI in the classroom

In 2023, the big story in technology and education was generative AI, following the introduction of ChatGPT and other chatbots that produce text seemingly written by a human in response to a question or prompt. Educators immediately  worried  that students would use the chatbot to cheat by trying to pass its writing off as their own. As schools move to adopt policies around students’ use of the tool, many are also beginning to explore potential opportunities – for example, to generate reading assignments or  coach  students during the writing process.

AI can also help automate tasks like grading and lesson planning, freeing teachers to do the human work that drew them into the profession in the first place, said Victor Lee, an associate professor at the GSE and faculty lead for the AI + Education initiative at the Stanford Accelerator for Learning. “I’m heartened to see some movement toward creating AI tools that make teachers’ lives better – not to replace them, but to give them the time to do the work that only teachers are able to do,” he said. “I hope to see more on that front.”

He also emphasized the need to teach students now to begin questioning and critiquing the development and use of AI. “AI is not going away,” said Lee, who is also director of  CRAFT  (Classroom-Ready Resources about AI for Teaching), which provides free resources to help teach AI literacy to high school students across subject areas. “We need to teach students how to understand and think critically about this technology.”

Immersive environments

The use of immersive technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality is also expected to surge in the classroom, especially as new high-profile devices integrating these realities hit the marketplace in 2024.

The educational possibilities now go beyond putting on a headset and experiencing life in a distant location. With new technologies, students can create their own local interactive 360-degree scenarios, using just a cell phone or inexpensive camera and simple online tools.

“This is an area that’s really going to explode over the next couple of years,” said Kristen Pilner Blair, director of research for the Digital Learning initiative at the Stanford Accelerator for Learning, which runs a program exploring the use of virtual field trips to promote learning. “Students can learn about the effects of climate change, say, by virtually experiencing the impact on a particular environment. But they can also become creators, documenting and sharing immersive media that shows the effects where they live.”

Integrating AI into virtual simulations could also soon take the experience to another level, Schwartz said. “If your VR experience brings me to a redwood tree, you could have a window pop up that allows me to ask questions about the tree, and AI can deliver the answers.”


Another trend expected to intensify this year is the gamification of learning activities, often featuring dynamic videos with interactive elements to engage and hold students’ attention.

“Gamification is a good motivator, because one key aspect is reward, which is very powerful,” said Schwartz. The downside? Rewards are specific to the activity at hand, which may not extend to learning more generally. “If I get rewarded for doing math in a space-age video game, it doesn’t mean I’m going to be motivated to do math anywhere else.”

Gamification sometimes tries to make “chocolate-covered broccoli,” Schwartz said, by adding art and rewards to make speeded response tasks involving single-answer, factual questions more fun. He hopes to see more creative play patterns that give students points for rethinking an approach or adapting their strategy, rather than only rewarding them for quickly producing a correct response.

Data-gathering and analysis

The growing use of technology in schools is producing massive amounts of data on students’ activities in the classroom and online. “We’re now able to capture moment-to-moment data, every keystroke a kid makes,” said Schwartz – data that can reveal areas of struggle and different learning opportunities, from solving a math problem to approaching a writing assignment.

But outside of research settings, he said, that type of granular data – now owned by tech companies – is more likely used to refine the design of the software than to provide teachers with actionable information.

The promise of personalized learning is being able to generate content aligned with students’ interests and skill levels, and making lessons more accessible for multilingual learners and students with disabilities. Realizing that promise requires that educators can make sense of the data that’s being collected, said Schwartz – and while advances in AI are making it easier to identify patterns and findings, the data also needs to be in a system and form educators can access and analyze for decision-making. Developing a usable infrastructure for that data, Schwartz said, is an important next step.

With the accumulation of student data comes privacy concerns: How is the data being collected? Are there regulations or guidelines around its use in decision-making? What steps are being taken to prevent unauthorized access? In 2023 K-12 schools experienced a rise in cyberattacks, underscoring the need to implement strong systems to safeguard student data.

Technology is “requiring people to check their assumptions about education,” said Schwartz, noting that AI in particular is very efficient at replicating biases and automating the way things have been done in the past, including poor models of instruction. “But it’s also opening up new possibilities for students producing material, and for being able to identify children who are not average so we can customize toward them. It’s an opportunity to think of entirely new ways of teaching – this is the path I hope to see.”

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  • Strengthening education systems and innovation

Getting all children in school and learning takes strong, innovative education systems.

On 15 April 2020 in Kyiv, Ukraine, Zlata, 7, works on schoolwork from home, with all schools in the country closed as part of measures to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Education systems are complex. Getting all children in school and learning requires alignment across families, educators and decision makers. It requires shared goals, and national policies that put learning at the centre. It also requires data collection and regular monitoring to help policymakers identify what’s working, who’s benefiting, and who’s being left behind.

Strong education systems are inclusive and gender-equitable. They support early learning and multi-lingual education, and foster innovations to extend education opportunities to the hardest-to-reach children and adolescents.

Innovation in education

Innovation in education is about more than new technology. It’s about solving a real problem in a fresh, simple way to promote equity and improve learning.

Innovation in education comes in many forms. Programmes, services, processes, products and partnerships can all enhance education outcomes in innovative ways – like customized games on solar-powered tablets that deliver math lessons to children in remote areas of Sudan. Or digital learning platforms that teach refugees and other marginalized children the language of instruction in Greece, Lebanon and Mauritania.

Innovation in education means solving a real problem in a new, simple way to promote equitable learning.

Innovation in education matches the scale of the solution to the scale of the challenge. It draws on the creativity and experience of communities – like a programme in Ghana that empowers local mothers and grandmothers to facilitate early childhood education – to ensure decisions are made by those most affected by their outcomes.

Many innovators are already at work in classrooms and communities. UNICEF collaborates with partners to identify, incubate and scale promising innovations that help fulfil every child’s right to learn.

Five girls stand outside in a refugee camp, looking at cell phones and tablets.

UNICEF’s work to strengthen education systems

UNICEF works with communities, schools and Governments to build strong, innovative education systems that enhance learning for all children.

We support data collection and analysis to help Governments assess progress across a range of outcomes and strengthen national Education Management Information Systems. We also develop comprehensive guidelines for education sector analysis that are used in countries around the world to drive equity-focused plans and policies.

Our efforts promote transparency , shedding light on education systems so that students, parents and communities gain the information they need to engage decision makers at all levels and hold them to account.

More from UNICEF

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Children at a primary school

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High school students in North Macedonia team up to clean up their school.

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Climate action for a climate-smart world

UNICEF and partners are monitoring, innovating and collaborating to tackle the climate crisis

Education Sector Analysis Guidelines: Volume 1 ( English , French , Spanish , Portuguese and Russian )

These guidelines support ministries of education and their partners in undergoing sector analysis and developing education sector plans.

Education Sector Analysis Guidelines: Volume 2 ( English , French , Spanish , Portuguese and Russian )

The investment case for education and equity.

This report analyses the learning crisis and its determinants and makes the case for an increase in funding for education and for more equitable and efficient spending.

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Explore the Global Partnership for Education’s roundtable to leverage partners’ expertise and improve the availability and use of accurate, timely education data.

Collecting Data on Foundational Learning Skills and Parental Involvement in Education

This methodological paper measures foundational learning skills and parental involvement in education through household surveys.

How technology is reinventing education

Stanford Graduate School of Education Dean Dan Schwartz and other education scholars weigh in on what's next for some of the technology trends taking center stage in the classroom.

innovations in education

Image credit: Claire Scully

New advances in technology are upending education, from the recent debut of new artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots like ChatGPT to the growing accessibility of virtual-reality tools that expand the boundaries of the classroom. For educators, at the heart of it all is the hope that every learner gets an equal chance to develop the skills they need to succeed. But that promise is not without its pitfalls.

“Technology is a game-changer for education – it offers the prospect of universal access to high-quality learning experiences, and it creates fundamentally new ways of teaching,” said Dan Schwartz, dean of Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), who is also a professor of educational technology at the GSE and faculty director of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning . “But there are a lot of ways we teach that aren’t great, and a big fear with AI in particular is that we just get more efficient at teaching badly. This is a moment to pay attention, to do things differently.”

For K-12 schools, this year also marks the end of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding program, which has provided pandemic recovery funds that many districts used to invest in educational software and systems. With these funds running out in September 2024, schools are trying to determine their best use of technology as they face the prospect of diminishing resources.

Here, Schwartz and other Stanford education scholars weigh in on some of the technology trends taking center stage in the classroom this year.

AI in the classroom

In 2023, the big story in technology and education was generative AI, following the introduction of ChatGPT and other chatbots that produce text seemingly written by a human in response to a question or prompt. Educators immediately worried that students would use the chatbot to cheat by trying to pass its writing off as their own. As schools move to adopt policies around students’ use of the tool, many are also beginning to explore potential opportunities – for example, to generate reading assignments or coach students during the writing process.

AI can also help automate tasks like grading and lesson planning, freeing teachers to do the human work that drew them into the profession in the first place, said Victor Lee, an associate professor at the GSE and faculty lead for the AI + Education initiative at the Stanford Accelerator for Learning. “I’m heartened to see some movement toward creating AI tools that make teachers’ lives better – not to replace them, but to give them the time to do the work that only teachers are able to do,” he said. “I hope to see more on that front.”

He also emphasized the need to teach students now to begin questioning and critiquing the development and use of AI. “AI is not going away,” said Lee, who is also director of CRAFT (Classroom-Ready Resources about AI for Teaching), which provides free resources to help teach AI literacy to high school students across subject areas. “We need to teach students how to understand and think critically about this technology.”

Immersive environments

The use of immersive technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality is also expected to surge in the classroom, especially as new high-profile devices integrating these realities hit the marketplace in 2024.

The educational possibilities now go beyond putting on a headset and experiencing life in a distant location. With new technologies, students can create their own local interactive 360-degree scenarios, using just a cell phone or inexpensive camera and simple online tools.

“This is an area that’s really going to explode over the next couple of years,” said Kristen Pilner Blair, director of research for the Digital Learning initiative at the Stanford Accelerator for Learning, which runs a program exploring the use of virtual field trips to promote learning. “Students can learn about the effects of climate change, say, by virtually experiencing the impact on a particular environment. But they can also become creators, documenting and sharing immersive media that shows the effects where they live.”

Integrating AI into virtual simulations could also soon take the experience to another level, Schwartz said. “If your VR experience brings me to a redwood tree, you could have a window pop up that allows me to ask questions about the tree, and AI can deliver the answers.”


Another trend expected to intensify this year is the gamification of learning activities, often featuring dynamic videos with interactive elements to engage and hold students’ attention.

“Gamification is a good motivator, because one key aspect is reward, which is very powerful,” said Schwartz. The downside? Rewards are specific to the activity at hand, which may not extend to learning more generally. “If I get rewarded for doing math in a space-age video game, it doesn’t mean I’m going to be motivated to do math anywhere else.”

Gamification sometimes tries to make “chocolate-covered broccoli,” Schwartz said, by adding art and rewards to make speeded response tasks involving single-answer, factual questions more fun. He hopes to see more creative play patterns that give students points for rethinking an approach or adapting their strategy, rather than only rewarding them for quickly producing a correct response.

Data-gathering and analysis

The growing use of technology in schools is producing massive amounts of data on students’ activities in the classroom and online. “We’re now able to capture moment-to-moment data, every keystroke a kid makes,” said Schwartz – data that can reveal areas of struggle and different learning opportunities, from solving a math problem to approaching a writing assignment.

But outside of research settings, he said, that type of granular data – now owned by tech companies – is more likely used to refine the design of the software than to provide teachers with actionable information.

The promise of personalized learning is being able to generate content aligned with students’ interests and skill levels, and making lessons more accessible for multilingual learners and students with disabilities. Realizing that promise requires that educators can make sense of the data that’s being collected, said Schwartz – and while advances in AI are making it easier to identify patterns and findings, the data also needs to be in a system and form educators can access and analyze for decision-making. Developing a usable infrastructure for that data, Schwartz said, is an important next step.

With the accumulation of student data comes privacy concerns: How is the data being collected? Are there regulations or guidelines around its use in decision-making? What steps are being taken to prevent unauthorized access? In 2023 K-12 schools experienced a rise in cyberattacks, underscoring the need to implement strong systems to safeguard student data.

Technology is “requiring people to check their assumptions about education,” said Schwartz, noting that AI in particular is very efficient at replicating biases and automating the way things have been done in the past, including poor models of instruction. “But it’s also opening up new possibilities for students producing material, and for being able to identify children who are not average so we can customize toward them. It’s an opportunity to think of entirely new ways of teaching – this is the path I hope to see.”

Spark & Sustain: How all of the world’s school systems can improve learning at scale

It is more important today than ever before to improve the quality and equity of education systems around the world. Automation is expected to increase demand for highly educated workers, creating a greater need for technological, socioemotional, and cognitive skills. The rise of generative AI is accelerating these workforce transitions. In addition to preparing students for the workforce, education systems are increasingly being asked to participate in resolving broader societal issues, from rising mental health challenges among young people 1 “Education: Overview,” World Bank, updated October 11, 2023. to political polarization 2 Sarah Garland, “Can we teach our way out of political polarization?,” Hechinger Report , January 25, 2021. to combating climate change. 3 “Climate change education,” UNESCO, accessed January 4, 2024.

About the authors

This article is a collaborative effort by Jake Bryant , Felipe Child , Ezgi Demirdag, Emma Dorn , Stephen Hall , Kartik Jayaram , Charag Krishnan , Cheryl Lim , Emmy Liss, Kemi Onabanjo, Frédéric Panier, Juan Rebolledo, Jimmy Sarakatsannis , Doug Scott, Roman Tschupp, Seckin Ungur , and Pierre Vigin, representing views from McKinsey’s global Education Practice.

Student learning improvements are not keeping up with these demands. More children than ever are in school, but many are not mastering basic skills. The World Bank estimates that seven in ten students in low- and middle-income countries are living in “learning poverty,” unable to read a simple text by the end of elementary school. The same is true for nearly nine in ten students in sub-Saharan Africa. This means that the majority of the world’s children are born into education systems where they will not learn to read by the end of elementary school. 4 “70% of 10-year-olds now in learning poverty, unable to read and understand a simple text,” World Bank, June 23, 2022.

More children than ever are in school, but many are not mastering basic skills.

Much of the global discussion about educational performance revolves around a small subset of mostly high-income countries that get relatively high scores on the three major assessments: the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). In our schema below, we classify those countries as having “good” or “great” performance.

However, more than 90 percent of children live in countries where average educational outcomes are below poor, poor, or fair. 5 Based on UNESCO population data of countries with World Bank Harmonized Learning Outcome (HLO) data. Historically, many of these countries have not taken international assessments, but more recently, the introduction of regional assessments 6 Relevant regional assessments include the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ), Programme for the Analysis of Education Systems (PASEC), and Latin American Laboratory for the Assessment of the Quality of Education (LLECE). and the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) has enabled a broader global comparison of learning outcomes. The OECD suggests that approximately 20 PISA points are equivalent to a year of learning. By that measure, high school students in many sub-Saharan African countries may be ten or more years behind their peers in Europe, North America, or East Asia (Exhibit 1). 7 The translation of PISA points to a year of learning is an art, not a science. The latest analysis from the OECD suggests that approximately 20 PISA points reflect a year of learning, while the World Bank suggests a year of learning equates to 20 to 50 PISA points. There is likely some variation depending on a student’s age; typically, students in earlier grades learn more content in a single year than students in later grades.

In the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, student performance in most school systems globally stagnated—or declined. Of the 73 countries with longitudinal data over the past decade, only 23 managed to achieve significant, sustained, and consistent improvements in student outcomes. In 17 systems, student performance declined by half a year of learning or more. 8 Countries are categorized as “improved” if they gained ten points on two subject tests across PISA math, PISA reading, PISA science, PIRLS reading, TIMSS math, and TIMSS science in the past decade and if they improved by ten points or more on average across tests. Countries are categorized as “declined” if they lost ten points on two subject tests in the past decade. Countries are categorized as “stagnated” if they are not categorized as “improved” or “declined.” Some of these categorized as stagnated had stable performance; others had differing performance across different tests. Countries are excluded from the analysis if they lack enough evidence (for example, if they have not taken two international tests with a decade’s worth of data). Systems that historically performed at the highest levels were most likely to experience declines (Exhibit 2). Even in high-performing countries, overall system performance may mask significant inequities; every system that participates in PISA shows gaps in performance correlated with socioeconomic status.

In the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, student performance in most school systems globally stagnated—or declined.

The pandemic only exacerbated these challenges. Lost learning time widened equity gaps within and between countries, with students ending up, on average, eight months behind where they would have been absent the pandemic. Meanwhile, the pandemic’s shift to remote work and e-commerce accelerated changes in the workforce. This is creating a scissor effect: learning losses are colliding with an increasing need for higher-order skills.

The stakes are high: if historical trends continue, more than 700 million children will remain in learning poverty in 2050. The pandemic wiped out decades of educational improvements, and we cannot wait decades to make up these losses. The world’s population is growing fastest in the places where learning is the furthest behind. 9 Population growth is projected to be significant in many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (for example, 43 percent projected population growth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 2019 to 2030), but flat or negative in many higher-income countries (for example, 1 percent projected population decline in Canada over the same period). “Population estimates and projections,” World Bank, updated December 20, 2023. If we do nothing, the implications for economic growth and political stability worldwide will be tremendous. However, this grim future is not inevitable. If all systems could improve student outcomes at the rate of the top improvers, an additional 350 million students could be lifted out of learning poverty in the next 30 years (Exhibit 3). This report considers what it would take to make that happen.

Systems beating the odds

At first glance, the lack of progress may seem puzzling. Over the past decades, the education community has researched, developed, and codified strong evidence on what students need to master foundational skills such as reading, writing, and critical thinking. We know what interventions work to move most students to proficiency. Over the past decade, per-capita education spending has increased in countries of all income levels. 10 Education Finance Watch 2023 , a joint report from the World Bank, the Global Education Monitoring Report, and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2023. And yet our global survey of 400 education leaders globally found that only 20 percent of education improvement efforts meet their stated goals (Exhibit 4).

To understand how school systems globally can reignite growth and recover from the learning losses of the pandemic, McKinsey examined the decade prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. We conducted research across both improving and declining school systems; analyzed global data; and spoke with more than 200 system leaders, donors and philanthropists, not-for-profit leaders, academics, and educational consultants.

Our interviews all pointed to the complexity of the implementation challenge. Most school systems struggle to turn improvements into action at scale. Our research demonstrates that to make changes stick, it is not enough for leaders to know “what” interventions to use. It also requires understanding “how” to implement them well at scale. In many systems, well-intentioned changes fizzle out. Stagnating school systems tend to get stuck in a few “failure modes”:

  • Conflicting directions. Education is not seen as a priority, resulting in an inability to raise the donor or domestic funds needed to deliver. Goals are too numerous, too far out in the future, and hard to measure, and there is a lack of coherence across the individual elements of reform.
  • Leadership discontinuity. Educational change requires more time than politics often allows. Rapid electoral cycles and short tenures for ministers of education can lead to a whipsaw of priorities, which can in turn confuse and disillusion educators and families. This is exacerbated when reform efforts are tied to political structures, rather than more deeply embedded within institutions.
  • Organ rejection of reform. Improvements may falter in the face of pushback from communities and educators who feel they were not consulted. Top-down policies may not actually work once they reach the classroom.
  • Insufficient coordination and pace of change. Too much time is spent on developing strategy and not enough on creating an implementation road map with aligned budgets, timelines, and accountability.
  • Limited implementation capacity. A lack of program management and analytical capacity within government undermines reform efforts—great educators do not always make great managers. Donor technical assistance ends up overly dependent on international consultants, who leave, rather than local players.
  • Flying blind. Leaders at all levels operate without sufficient data, missing key opportunities to create transparency and to intervene.
  • Standing still. Systems try to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. Leaders may pilot new ideas but without a plan for how to measure impact and take them to scale.

Yet failure is not inevitable. The good news is that some systems are beating the odds and producing meaningful gains in student learning year after year. These outlier school systems exist on every continent and at every level of national development. The global education community can chart a new path by learning from these systems.

To identify improving systems, we looked at national systems that had achieved sustained, consistent, and significant improvements in student outcomes as measured by international assessments, 11 This included PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS. as well as at lower-income systems with emerging evidence of improvement on regional assessments. 12 Relevant regional assessments include SACMEQ, PASEC, and LLECE. We also identified relevant subnational improvers using national assessment data. 13 This included the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) in India, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the United States, the National Achievement Survey (NAS) in India, Sistema Nacional de Avaliação da Educação Básica (SAEB) in Brazil, and the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in England. None of the 14 systems that we profiled is perfect, and in some, the absolute level of achievement is still low, but each has meaningful lessons to impart at different stages of the educational improvement journey from below poor to poor to fair to good to great (Exhibit 5). 14 Some of these systems faltered in more recent assessments, including the 2021 PIRLS and 2022 PISA administrations, though we believe these results are largely a reflection of recent global crises. Because of that, our historical analysis is based on the decade preceding the pandemic.

Some systems are beating the odds and producing meaningful gains in student learning year after year.

Our analysis suggests that successful systems, at every level of spending and national development, use reinforcing strategies to create a virtuous cycle, enabling significant, long-term gains in student learning (Exhibit 6):

  • Anchor in the evidence. Based on clear research into what improves outcomes, successful school systems ground changes in the classroom, focusing first and foremost on teachers and the content they deliver. They choose evidence-backed strategies relevant to their starting place and prioritize foundational learning, particularly in systems with limited resources. They use technology as a tool to enhance learning, not as an end in itself.
  • Build a durable coalition for change. Successful school systems focus on a few coherent priorities, rallying stakeholders around them to ensure that everyone—from system leadership to principals to teachers—is on board. They invest in authentic, two-way communication with families, educators, and communities to design better policies and build deeper buy-in.
  • Create delivery capacity to scale. Successful systems move quickly from strategy to implementation, pacing reforms to show early traction while building stamina for the long road to impact. They build dedicated delivery teams with the organizational structures and individual skills to execute on plans over time.
  • Drive and adapt with data. Successful systems rigorously measure what matters—student learning outcomes—and use transparent data to improve their interventions. As they roll out tried-and-true methods, they also create space for innovation and measure what they innovate, which feeds back into the evidence base of what works.

Individually, these strategies may seem obvious or incremental. Together, they are transformative. Our survey suggests that systems that used all seven of the “how” levers above were six times more likely to be successful in meeting their goals for student outcomes and system transformation than those that used four or fewer (Exhibit 7).

Anchor in the evidence

Ground system strategy in better classroom instruction. The global education community knows what strategies drive learning outcomes. Successful systems focus on interventions closest to students and work outward, starting with the classroom (what is taught, how it is taught), then the school (what supports exist for students and teachers), and finally aligning the system supports (performance management, infrastructure, funding) to what is needed in the classroom (Exhibit 8).

For example, Singapore invests heavily in its instructional core throughout the curriculum and across teacher recruitment, development, and retention. Teacher candidates are drawn from the top 30 percent of their graduating class and must demonstrate core content knowledge. Once in the system, teachers complete 100 hours of professional development annually and receive coaching and weekly collaborative sessions with master and senior teachers. Professional development is practical and tailored, offered in digestible modules, and delivered in classrooms. 15 Singapore: A teaching model for the 21st century , Center on International Education Benchmarking, 2016.

In Poland, reforms in the early 2000s focused on redesigning the national curriculum—first in elementary grades and later in secondary schools—and on investments at the teacher, principal, and school level to reinforce adoption. Based on research about learning and comprehension, the curriculum was redesigned to prioritize critical thinking and reasoning where there had previously been a content overload. Teachers were engaged in the redesign to inform what strategies might lead to the best uptake; expert coaches worked with teachers to build their skills around the new curriculum. 16 Fernando M. Reimers, Audacious Education Purposes: How Governments Transform the Goals of Education Systems , New York, NY: Springer, 2020.

Start the journey where you are. To select the best interventions, school systems need to consider their starting student performance, their financial resources, and the capabilities of their teachers and school leaders. One of the biggest mistakes that school systems can make is to “lift and shift” best practices from a system that operates in a vastly different context. In our methodology, we group school systems into five performance bands, based on student learning levels: below poor, poor, fair, good, and great. While the elements of school system excellence remain the same, the interventions differ.

Education technology—great potential but mixed results

While education technology, including generative AI, has great potential to improve access and quality, it is not a silver bullet and can cause more harm than good if it becomes a distraction to proven, tried-and-true methods to deliver student outcomes. History is littered with examples of universal device and connectivity programs that did not yield improvements in student outcomes. Data from the 2022 Programme for International Assessment (PISA) questionnaire, which was issued with the assessment, creates additional reason for pause regarding the use of technology in schools, given that a arge number of students reported feeling distracted by devices while engaged in classroom instruction. While learning outcomes were often better for students who used devices in school for learning than for those who did not, the benefits were strongest for those who used their device for less than an hour a day; the impact decreased with additional use. Moreover, students who used devices at home for leisure for more than an hour a day saw a big decline in math performance. 1 Andreas Schleicher, PISA 2022 insights and interpretations , OECD, 2023.

Effective technology strategies start in the classroom—with an understanding of how technology will further student learning goals and provide support for teachers. They are focused on the ability of software to address specific use cases rather than just hardware distribution, are integrated into and aligned with the existing curriculum, involve significant professional learning and support for teachers, and consider putting technology in the hands of teachers rather than just students. Effective technology strategies are also tailored to journey and context—including existing infrastructure and existing teacher and principal capabilities.

As school systems progress toward good and great performance (for example, Poland and Singapore), increasing levels of school and teacher autonomy are possible, paired with effective accountability, capability building, and peer learning. Systems in the poor or below-poor performance bands (for example, Malawi and South Africa), by contrast, may be best advised to focus on foundational literacy and numeracy, ensure that instructional materials are available on a one-to-one basis, scaffold teachers through structured (or even scripted) lesson plans and in-situ coaching, and put effective assessment for instruction in place to account for greatly varying student achievement levels—a package of interventions sometimes referred to as structured pedagogy. Systems in the fair category (for example, Kenya) need to ensure the basics are in place, but they then can begin to expand selective earned autonomy, broader competency-based curricula tied to economic pathways, and incentives for teachers and school leaders to develop top talent (Exhibit 9). These imperatives to “start in the classroom” and “tailor to journey” apply equally to technology use (see sidebar, “Education technology—great potential but mixed results”).

For example, Ceará in Brazil, where performance was poor, prioritized Portuguese literacy and math in the curriculum, with a focus on elementary school, and invested heavily in supporting teachers to deliver quality content. All teachers received regular practical professional development, including classroom observations. The state government also led a long and sustainable journey to improve the quality of municipal education leaders, empowering them to provide better support for teachers and schools. From 2009 to 2019, Ceará registered an increase of nearly 12 percentage points on the National Assessment of Basic Education (Sistema Nacional de Avaliação da Educação Básica), moving from poor to fair. Ceará also saw the highest increase of any Brazilian state on the national index of educational quality in elementary education (Index of Development of Basic Education) between 2005 and 2017. 17 “The state of Ceara and the city of Sobral, in Brazil, are role models for reducing learning poverty,” World Bank, July 7, 2020.

In Punjab, India, where performance was below poor, leaders used Teaching at the Right Level to group students by level rather than age to reduce targeted learning gaps in primary school. Leaders used simple, quick one-on-one assessments to group students into levels at the start of the intervention, administered assessments throughout to track progress and adapt instruction based on students’ results, and reviewed aggregate data to make programmatic decisions. 18 Details of the Teaching at the Right Level implementation in Punjab are included in multiple years of the Pratham Foundation’s annual reports, accessed via the Pratham website. Teachers received training and support to change behaviors. While the share of students in India who could read a grade two text as measured by the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) declined from 2006 to 2014, the share in Punjab surpassed the national average and grew by 13.2 percentage points. 19 “Punjab rural: Trends over time: 2006-2014,” ASER, January 2015. Punjab moved from below poor to poor in the decade prior to the pandemic.

The journey is not perfectly linear for any system, and there are multiple paths to system improvement. In addition, in many systems, overall performance may mask inequities within the nation or region. In a single system, there can be schools ranging from below poor to great. This may require system leaders to consider a range of approaches to drive improvement based on schools’ starting points.

Build a durable coalition for change

Set fewer priorities to get more done. Education leaders are regularly pulled in too many directions. To counteract this, leaders of successful school systems define a North Star vision and choose a limited set of coherent, sustained, and evidence-based priorities (typically no more than three to six). They define these nonnegotiables based on the evidence of what works and ensure that donors and partners support this short list, channeling money and energy to what matters most.

For example, Mississippi reorganized its state education department and board to align their work against six core goals, started every meeting with a recap of these goals, and interrogated every new initiative against these priorities. 20 Emma Dorn, “ Behind the scenes of Mississippi’s school turnaround with Carey Wright ,” McKinsey, August 3, 2023. From 2010 to 2014, Kenya introduced 25 different interventions to address literacy rates and saw limited impact. 21 “Let’s Read: Understanding Kenya’s success in improving foundational literacy at scale,” RTI International, December 9, 2016. Starting in 2014, leaders pivoted and prioritized a singular evidence-based approach: Tusome. By relentlessly targeting the country’s low literacy rates through a proven approach, the initiative nearly doubled the share of students who met the government’s literacy benchmarks from 2014 to 2021. 22 Joseph Destefano et al., “Scaling up successfully: Lessons from Kenya’s Tusome national literacy program,” Journal of Educational Change , July 2018, Volume 19.

If everything is a priority, nothing is. Carey Wright, Former State Superintendent of Mississippi

Cultivate leadership beyond a single leader. True transformation can take a decade, but few leaders have that much time. Successful systems invest in civil servants who outlast political leaders and build a deep bench of talent at the central office (especially at the n-2 level 23 “N-2” is the organizational layer two levels below the minister—the individuals who report to the executive team that reports to the minister. These leaders are more likely to stay in place through political changes. ), at the middle layer, and across schools. Leaders foster institutions beyond the ministry, insulating education from politics by distancing the work from political structures and enabling a greater ecosystem of experts who can support policy development and implementation. Longevity also comes from embedding educational change into policies and procedures that are harder to reverse.

In Norway, for example, policy continuation was facilitated by the stability of senior civil servants from the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research and Directorate for Education and Training. These trusted institutions provided a common set of evidence-based research that both parties relied on as the fact base for policy. When the 2012 PISA results were released, leaders in both political parties called the same senior civil servant to understand the data and implications for policy. 24 Li-Kai Chen, Emma Dorn, and Tore Vamraak, “ Education reform in Norway: Looking beyond politics to bring sustained change ,” McKinsey, June 21, 2019. In Morocco, ministry leaders enshrined reforms in a framework law with bipartisan support and created binding mechanisms for new leadership to manage implementation.

My initiative is now being fulfilled by a conservative government. This kind of continuity gives me hope for the future. Kristin Halvorsen, Former Minister of Education of Norway

Engage educators and families authentically. Authentic engagement is hard to do well, but successful school systems treat it as nonnegotiable. Successful systems actively collect diverse stakeholder input at the outset and throughout implementation to design and refine policies that will resonate and work in the classroom. In practice, this includes engaging teacher, principal, and student advisory boards; conducting regular surveys of parents, students, and educators to keep a pulse; and ensuring that every member of the executive cabinet visits a diverse range of schools at least twice a month. Successful systems then create compelling change stories and use a broad tool kit to influence changes at the school and classroom level.

For example, during Kaya Henderson’s tenure as school chancellor in Washington, DC, the public school system worked closely with communities to communicate how school closures would lead to more resources in remaining schools, and it sought community input on how to transform school communities. When the district made subsequent closure decisions, there was less pushback from the community than otherwise expected. Overall, public school enrollment grew during this time period for the first time in decades, pointing to strengthened public confidence in the system. 25 Emma Dorn, “ Lessons in leadership: Transforming struggling US K–12 schools ,” McKinsey, March 28, 2023. Cecilia María Vélez White, former minister of education in Colombia, held monthly meetings with principals, convened more than 1,500 teachers, shared information with unions, and went on a listening tour to a different region every week. 26 Andres Cadena, Li-Kai Chen, Felipe Child, and Emma Dorn, “ Bringing major improvements to education in Colombia ,” McKinsey, May 29, 2019.

We asked people, ‘Ten years from now, what should DCPS look like? What are your hopes and your dreams for the district and for your students?’ Kaya Henderson, Former Chancellor of DC Public Schools

Create delivery capacity to scale

Create coordination and a cadence for change. Successful systems move quickly to turn their plans into action. They create a concrete road map, pressure-test their implementation plans, and ensure the budget is oriented around priorities. They pace their changes to show quick wins in the first six months to demonstrate momentum. At the same time, they design for scale to ensure that changes have their intended impact.

For example, as part of the London Challenge initiative, London appointed dedicated advisers who were deployed to the schools that were struggling the most. The advisers provided on-the-ground coaching and brought immediate recommendations back to the central department so resources could be deployed rapidly. 27 Marc Kidson and Emma Norris, Implementing the London Challenge, Institute for Government , July 10, 2014. South Africa created free literacy workbooks, adapted them to native languages, and distributed copies to 6.5 million students across 20,000 schools. A dedicated delivery team oversaw the entire process, from development to printing and delivery of the workbooks, and 40,000 trained teachers provided support for adoption. 28 “20,000 schools to receive workbooks,” SANews, July 6, 2010. From 2011 to 2015, more than 150 million workbooks were delivered to schools. 29 “South African women and girls empowered by literacy programme to take their place in society,” UNESCO, September 7, 2015.

You can be nimble and agile. The fact that you can work at a ridiculously higher speed than government normally works makes people believe in you in a completely different way. Sir Jon Coles, Former Director of the London Challenge

Build implementation structures and skills. Many school systems struggle to access the in-house talent to implement major changes. In addition to great educators, school systems need great project managers and implementors to translate strategy at the ministry into implementation in every classroom across the system. Successful systems ensure dedicated implementation capacity within the central team, at the middle layer, and across schools. This involves establishing clear roles and responsibilities for making decisions and approving investments, as well as creating an army of changemakers in the field to bring changes to fruition. Systems can then assess their delivery capacity across this structure and hire or build missing capabilities.

For example, under Jaime Saavedra’s leadership in Peru, the ministry brought in experienced managers from within and outside of government, with a specific goal of improving management and the pace of change. At the same time, Peru also reformed the process for selecting its 15,000 school principals to ensure high-caliber management talent in schools. 30 Li-Kai Chen, Felipe Child, Emma Dorn, and Raimundo Morales, “ An interview with former Peruvian Minister of Education Jaime Saavedra ,” McKinsey, September 26, 2019. In Ceará, Brazil, the 150 highest-performing schools adopted the 150 lowest-performing schools. If the lower-performing school improved, both schools in the pair were financially rewarded. This pairing of successful and struggling schools has also worked in London and in Shanghai. In Shanghai, deputy school leaders of successful schools can only be promoted to principal or school leader if they first lead the turnaround of a struggling school. 31 Joanna Farmer and Ben Jensen, School turnaround in Shanghai: The empowered-management program approach to improving school performance , Center for American Progress, May 2013.

I ended up changing most of the top 60 positions in the ministry to ensure the right managerial skills and implementation capacity, including attracting people from the Ministry of Finance. Jaime Saavedra, Former Minister of Education of Peru

Drive and adapt with data

Measure student outcomes and make them transparent. Successful school leaders build robust data systems, identify trends, and use the data to build a shared culture of continuous improvement. They make important information public to build momentum, segment schools for accountability and support, and use data to drive improvement at every level, from system strategy to instruction in schools.

For example, in Estonia, student outcome data is linked with broader social data. The government maintains a centralized data system for all public services with a unique ID for each citizen. Families can look at their own child’s achievement data within this broader context. The ministry makes school-level data transparent to the public and regularly uses this data to support policy making. Data is sufficiently protected, and there is a high degree of trust among citizens. 32 “Building an integrated data system: Lessons from Estonia,” NCEE, May 2, 2021. In Sierra Leone, the ministry has built data systems from the ground up, digitalizing the school census and linking it to student performance data, enabling data to become the reference point for all interventions. Data on gender inequities in access has informed new policies, which have helped increase enrollment among girls. 33 Tichafara Chisaka and Kate Richards, “Supporting girls’ education in Sierra Leone through inclusive data systems,” Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, July 19, 2021.

I made sure that we had data to inform everything we did. From day one, all policies had to be grounded in data and evidence. David Moinina Sengeh, Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education and Chief Innovation Officer for Sierra Leone

Roll out what works, but create space for innovation. Successful systems create space for innovation and, critically, measure what they innovate to add to the existing evidence base of what works. Most innovation in education systems will likely be oriented toward continuous improvement and sustaining practices. However, there is also a need for more-disruptive innovation, especially in systems where performance is poor or below poor and where exponential growth in achievement is needed. Innovation is needed both to improve the effectiveness of existing interventions and to create more-scalable models.

For example, structured pedagogy approaches currently provide the best evidence base for improving literacy and numeracy across low-income countries—but financial and human capital constraints mean that systems will not be able to roll out and scale such approaches rapidly enough to reach this generation of students. In Malawi, education leaders are scaling up a foundational literacy and numeracy program that uses robust, solar-powered, offline tablets in primary-school education. The intervention was first tested as a pilot with external partners, and the government has built a team strictly focused on the rollout. A big part of the innovation is in the streamlined implementation—schools and teachers can be set up to run the program within weeks. The program is being measured and tested as it scales. 34 “Building Education Foundations through Innovation & Technology: Malawi scale-up program overview,” Government of Malawi Ministry of Education, September 8, 2022.

Singapore has demonstrated that even the most successful school systems need to keep innovating, particularly as the needs of students change. This has led to new experiments and investments in social-emotional learning and 21st century skills to complement the already-strong approach to math and literacy instruction, based on emerging research on the importance of student mindsets on educational outcomes. 35 Dennis Kwek, Jeanne Ho, and Hwei Ming Wong, “Singapore’s educational reforms toward holistic outcomes,” Brookings, March 16, 2023. Singapore’s system is unique among top PISA scorers in that it continues to grow while others have stagnated.

When we talk about professional learning, we can never say we have arrived. . . . The moment we say we have arrived, that will cause our downfall. Yen Ching Chua-Lim, Deputy Director-General of Education (Professional Development), Singapore

Individually, these strategies may seem obvious or incremental. Together, they are transformative. The slow and steady work of implementation sets improving school systems apart from the rest. This is not really a story about beating the odds. It is a story about the systems that were able to change the odds. Education leaders can—and must—learn from them.

Jake Bryant is a partner in McKinsey’s Seattle office; Felipe Child is partner in the Bogota office; Ezgi Demirdag is a partner in the Istanbul office; Emma Dorn is a senior knowledge expert and associate partner in the Silicon Valley office; Stephen Hall and Roman Tschupp are partners in the Dubai office; Kartik Jayaram is a senior partner in the Nairobi office; Charag Krishnan is a partner in the New Jersey office; Cheryl Lim is a partner in the Kuala Lumpur office; Kemi Onabanjo is an expert associate partner in the Lagos office; Frédéric Panier is a partner in the Brussels office, where Pierre Vigin is an expert associate partner; Juan Rebolledo is an associate partner in the Mexico City office; Jimmy Sarakatsannis is a senior partner in the Washington, DC office; Doug Scott is a senior expert in the Chicago office; and Seckin Ungur is a partner in the Sydney office. Emmy Liss is a senior adviser to McKinsey’s Education Practice

The authors wish to acknowledge the tireless work of school system leaders, school principals, and particularly classroom teachers, who have dedicated their lives to educating youth and who are working every day to close gaps in student achievement. This research benefited from the contributions of hundreds of global education experts and McKinsey team members. Please see the larger report for a complete set of acknowledgments.

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The  Future of Teaching and Learning Task Force convened at the request of President Larry Bacow and Provost Alan M. Garber starting in the spring of 2021, and on Wednesday the group released its report . The initiative brought together faculty and staff from across Harvard’s Schools and units to explore the innovations and lessons that emerged from pandemic-era teaching and imagine how the University might create more engaging and equitable learning opportunities in the future. The Gazette spoke with lead task force members Bharat Anand, vice provost for advances in learning; Bridget Long, dean of the Graduate School of Education; and Mike Smith, the John H. Finley Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a Distinguished Service Professor, to learn more about the task force’s recommendations.

Bharat Anand, Bridget Long, and Mike Smith

GAZETTE:  Can you provide some context for the work of the task force and for what lies ahead in teaching and learning?

BHARAT ANAND:  First and foremost, the last two years were an incredibly difficult period for so many. There has been a great deal of hardship and loss for many members of our community and elsewhere. Yet here at Harvard, we were also reminded of everything special about the campus experience that we missed — and it’s been a joy to return to our classrooms and campus.

Even as we do so now, the question many faculty, staff, and academic leaders asked as early as last year, and in anticipation of our return to in-person teaching, was: What have we learned from our teaching and learning experiences during this period and, indeed, from the last decade of digital investments that might inform how we educate our students going forward? Are there new opportunities to advance learning and new approaches to making it more accessible, rather than relegating the experiences of the last two years entirely to the rearview mirror? Are there new things that we want to embrace without being forced to do so? These were the key questions that the task force tackled.

GAZETTE:  We’ve discussed in this space before just how innovative faculty members, staffers, and students alike were during the pandemic, finding new and creative ways to continue to support Harvard’s commitment to teaching and learning, even when they were unable to do so on campus. With two years now behind us, in what ways did this period impact pedagogy?

BRIDGET LONG:  While the teaching and learning experience was challenging, some pretty remarkable things also happened that otherwise would not have happened so quickly. Faculty were forced to think differently, to rethink certain assumptions about how we teach, and to be deliberate in creating connection with students. Remote teaching provided an opportunity to increase educational access for learners who might otherwise never come to our campus. In so many ways, a great deal of creative energy went into re-envisioning teaching and learning.

GAZETTE:  What are some examples?

ANAND:  We saw new possibilities arise when our classrooms were no longer bound by constraints on time and location. Faculty embraced simple features of digital technology like chat and breakout rooms that enabled simultaneous multiperson conversation and more interactive learning. Guest experts and speakers could join from anywhere. Virtual tours allowed students to visit locations they otherwise could not have. New video and audio asynchronous materials enabled the flipping of classrooms, which allowed for richer and deeper synchronous class discussion. Approaches to assessments were in certain cases productively rethought. Alumni were drawn into some of our classrooms to teach and learn. Programs were restructured to create more time for reflection between classes. And being “one click away” increased educational opportunity for learners around the world, and diversity in our virtual classrooms.

The key question going forward is how to take advantage of some of these beneficial features now that we’ve gone back to classroom teaching — and some of this is already starting to happen. How do we preserve and sustain a culture of innovation in teaching? And how do we also take advantage of the prior decade’s investments in asynchronous digital learning when we had figured out ways to create online experiences that were immersive and relational and more than just a “Zoom university.”

GAZETTE:  Bridget, you led various efforts at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that leaned into some of these opportunities. What were some of the most important lessons from your vantage point?

LONG:  Talent resides everywhere. When the HGSE one-year master’s program was forced to go fully online during the pandemic, we decided to open a new round of admissions, and the response was incredible. Within five weeks we received 1.5 times the applications we would in a typical year — drawing a more diverse set of learners into our classrooms who might otherwise have never come to Harvard. We increased access for them, and they enriched our classroom conversations with new perspectives and experiences grounded in communities around the world.

GAZETTE:  Tell us about the major recommendations emerging from the work of the task force.

MIKE SMITH:  The task force was charged with taking some of these learnings from the pandemic, along with perspectives that were already in place during the pre-COVID era, to think about a couple of main ideas. One, how can Harvard enrich and enhance the in-person learning experiences for those who reside on our physical campus, and two, how can we enrich and expand the online experiences for learners who are located in different parts of the world and are unable or unlikely to physically come to the Harvard campus?

A range of opportunities present themselves, some of which involve deepening and amplifying existing practices, processes, and programs.

In the report, the task force also proposes three new strategic directions for Harvard’s Schools and for the University more broadly: reimagining student learning through blended experiences that combine the best of in-person with the best of digital; creating a new, coherent Harvard strategy for short-form digital content and learning experiences; and — this is more exploratory — building out a new virtual Harvard campus that reflects in its own unique way the richness of the Cambridge/Boston-based campus experience.

GAZETTE:  Bridget, you led the working group of the task force that focused on blended experiences. What can you tell us about the takeaways from this group?

LONG:  We have seen how digital technologies can enhance what we do in our classrooms and how they can expand opportunities for students everywhere. We encourage, and foresee, a shift in mindset beyond the current alternatives of entirely in-person or entirely online offerings to incorporate a range of experiences across all of Harvard’s offerings, including degree and non-degree programs.

Learning does not have to be confined in a traditional residential classroom. We’ve seen the value of community and meaningful connections. We witnessed the power of giving students multiple ways to connect with their instructors and peers and to contribute their ideas — whether that be verbally or in written form, synchronous and asynchronous, and in a large group or smaller breakouts made possible with the touch of a keyboard. Interventions typically used for accessibility accommodations, like the use of captions and classroom recording transcripts, supported the advancement of all students’ learning. Overall, we saw a heightened commitment to meeting students where they are and incorporating technologies that make learning more flexible.

GAZETTE:  Bharat, you led the working group that identified opportunities around short-form digital learning experiences. What were some of the specifics to come out of this group?

ANAND:  Historically, the unit of analysis for almost every Harvard program or offering, whether a residential degree program or online certificate offering, has been a roughly 12-week-long “course.” But that’s just an artifact of the semester structure. When we consider opportunities in digital learning, we can think more flexibly about the length of a learning experience and not just limit ourselves to the residential format of a course. So much of what we might call “short-form content” is regularly created at Harvard, and it represents an exciting opportunity to build out a repertoire of flexible learning experiences. They will be a complement to our traditional courses and expand the scope and impact of the learning Harvard enables for individuals everywhere.

But more than that, shorter-form digital learning experiences can also meaningfully enhance residential learning. Forced by the pandemic, many of our faculty created mini-lecture recordings, short lessons with digital content, podcasts, and other learning formats for students, which, in turn, opened up time in live sessions for more substantive discussion. Putting this together, we foresee the need — and a big opportunity — for a technology and support infrastructure that allows faculty to more easily create such impactful, short-form learning experiences that can complement residential learning and expand digital learning, as and when they choose.

GAZETTE:  And Mike, you led the working group on creating impactful experiences for students from around the globe in a way that’s quite different from the efforts that Harvard and other universities have been engaged in for the last decade, some of which you participated in and led.

SMITH:  That’s right. For much of the past decade, since Harvard and other universities got into the online learning space, we primarily focused on the content of online courses. Which courses did we want to create? How could we bring the diverse subject matter taught by our experts to the world?

But one of the most powerful lessons of the pandemic was the importance of community and the relationships that bind us together. It is community that enriches our courses and ultimately makes memorable our content. This led the task force to imagine what might be possible if we could use technology to create a virtual Harvard campus experience. What would attract people to this virtual space? What elements of our Cambridge/Boston-based campus experience would we want replicated in this new virtual space, and what new experiences could we build virtually that we cannot easily do with our physical campus? This represents a fundamental shift in emphasis from content, courses, and catalogs alone, to include connections, community, and relationships that enhance these experiences.

GAZETTE:  Could you explain more about how these three strategic directions are meant to work, in concert?

ANAND: Indeed, they are closely intertwined in many ways. Content, classrooms, and campus all reinforce each other for impact — for example, blended experiences can be created by leveraging short-form digital content, which in turn can also anchor a virtual campus. A common priority across all our working group discussions was how to continue to meaningfully expand diversity and access. And beyond specific examples of new opportunities in each category, we also considered common design principles that we should aspire to follow, regardless of the particular strategic recommendation. These principles are informed both by Harvard’s centuries-long experience in residential teaching and by the experience of remote teaching and learning in the last decade.

GAZETTE:  What are some of the design principles?

SMITH:  To begin with, Harvard will continue to seek to offer teaching and learning experiences that are “uniquely Harvard.” There is real history here with regard to the quality of the education we provide, and we of course don’t want to forget that. We should also aim to creatively incorporate technology into our teaching and learning activities when it helps us to meet students where they are — whether in Cambridge, Boston, or elsewhere.

LONG:  Diversity, equity, and inclusion must also be our guiding tenets in the work we do. Although our various learner experiences won’t be identical, we should always seek to deliver excellent outcomes. What we have seen the past two years is that we have many more tools to accomplish this goal than ever before. And we must recognize that innovations will need to occur at multiple levels: by individual faculty and through support at the program, School, and University levels — through leveraging shared insights, dedicating resources, and making investments across Harvard. These are just a few of the principles.

GAZETTE:  The work to implement the task force’s recommendations is already in motion. Can you tell us about some of the initiatives that are already taking place?

LONG:  Many deans, including myself, are examining how to lean into the teaching and learning innovations that were especially beneficial the last two years, and we are giving serious thought to how to increase opportunity and access. We are taking the lessons learned to digitally transform our Schools and expand our aspirations.

ANAND: We’re currently exploring an initiative that would expand the work of the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, thanks to a generous gift from Rita Hauser in honor of her late husband, Gus. This initiative would support pedagogical innovations by faculty for in-person, blended, and online experiences on a University-wide level. In addition, there is also exploratory work underway on an exciting new learning experience platform for the University that VPAL, Harvard Business School, Harvard University Information Technology, and other partners are collaborating on.

GAZETTE:  What other considerations were discussed by the task force?

LONG:  Although we learned to manage the external factors caused by COVID-19 and even as innovations across the University were happening, the inequities in access to education for our students also quickly became apparent. While some issues were resolved as students returned to campus, now is the time for us to consider how students everywhere access our educational resources and infrastructure. We have an opportunity to double down on being intentional in our thinking about the ways in which we level the playing field to ensure equitable access for all students.

SMITH:  And access isn’t only restricted to financial or technological access. It includes support, participation, and inclusive relationships, as we outline in the report.

GAZETTE:  What are some next steps we can take as soon as today versus others that may require additional resources?

SMITH:  The recommendations section of the report touches on immediate, one- to three-year, and longer-term next steps for the University. Some innovations can be more seamlessly incorporated or transferred and others require some rethinking in terms of physical infrastructure.

Tomorrow, an instructor could decide to prioritize an activity that allowed students to experience a meaningful interaction — with them or their peers. But upgrading technology in residential classrooms requires more time and investment, not to mention collaborative work across Schools, departments, and relevant units.

GAZETTE:  Anything else you’d like to add?

ANAND:  One of the things that we repeatedly came back to in the task force discussions is what makes Harvard special — what is it about the “Harvard experience” that we ought to aspire to preserve in any educational experience, whether this involves 30 learners engaged in in-person classroom discussions, 3,000 learners in an online course, or 30 million learners in a virtual campus community.

Harvard has, historically and for generations, signified inspiring ideas, personal transformation, a network of relationships, and a commitment to the truth. These attributes, and the principles that Bridget and Mike delineated, ought to continue to anchor any Harvard offering going forward, whether residential or virtual, whether long-form or short-form.

LONG:  I’m excited about the opportunities in front of us to expand upon what it means to be a part of such an experience. The task force discussions have shown that there is a strong desire within all of Harvard’s Schools to build upon our already meaningful and impactful educational experience for our students, and to improve the core residential educational experience itself in lasting ways.

SMITH:  We owe it to our learners everywhere to do whatever we can to deliver an experience they will value and appreciate. After all, this is why we do what we do.

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Subscribe to the center for universal education bulletin, rebecca winthrop and rebecca winthrop director - center for universal education , senior fellow - global economy and development @rebeccawinthrop adam barton adam barton cambridge international scholar, faculty of education - university of cambridge, former senior research analyst - center for universal education.

May 17, 2018

In the lead up to the Center for Universal Education’s annual research and policy symposium “ Citizens of the Future: Innovations to Leapfrog Global Education ” May 21, 2018 (livestream available), authors from the education innovations community have contributed their unique insights to this blog series on the topic. Access all of our content on innovations here .

When you think of education systems, what sorts of words come to mind? If you are anything like the many education practitioners, policymakers, and leaders who we meet every year throughout the world, you might be thinking of words and phrases like “political” or “resistant to change.” But we would wager that one word almost certainly did not cross your mind: “innovative.”

If a common educational narrative exists across the globe, it seems to be one of stagnation. In academic journals and on TV, in boardrooms and in statehouses, concerned citizens consistently and urgently call for “reinventing” and “reimagining” education. Education systems, they argue, are both outmoded and slow to change.

However, findings in our forthcoming book, Leapfrogging Inequality : Remaking Education to Help Young People Thrive , call this narrative into question. We spent the last three years studying education innovations, which we define as any tools, policies, programs, or ideas that break from previous practice. To be innovative, these diverse practices need not be new to the world, though they are often new in a particular context.

With this broad definition in mind, we found a flourishing group of teachers, school leaders, students, companies, community organizations, non-profits, parents, researchers, administrators, ministers, and politicians who are actively innovating in education. We call these actors engaged in supporting innovative education practices worldwide the “education innovations community.” Compiling a global catalog of almost 3,000 education innovations , the largest such collection to date, we discovered new practices in some 166 countries. These include some from the most remote and resource-strapped parts of the globe, as well as the wealthy urban centers of industrialized nations. Innovation in education, it seems, is alive and well.

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However, it appears that many of these actors do not yet feel part of a global education innovations community. They often innovate on the margins of formal education systems, in isolation and with little connection to or support from peers. Visibility is an additional challenge for innovators, as many struggle to showcase their work for actors who could make systems-wide changes.

This is why the organizations that we call “Innovation Spotters” play such an important role in creating and sustaining an education innovations community. We define Innovation Spotters as those groups that are searching the globe to find, highlight, and sometimes support education innovations. These Spotters vary widely in mission and mandate: some seek innovation across the globe, while others look only to the developing world; some prioritize specific types of innovation implementers, such as government actors, and still others consider only innovations with particular pedagogical features, such as those that teach 21st century skills, or those that use technology.

In our efforts to map the state of the global education innovations community, we studied the work of 16 Innovation Spotters:

  • Results for Development’s Center for Education Innovations
  • OECD’s Innovative Learning Environments project
  • Graduate XXI
  • UNICEF Innovation Fund
  • Harvard’s Global Education Innovations Initiative
  • Teach for All’s Alumni Incubator
  • the mEducation Alliance
  • All Children Reading: Grand Challenge for Development
  • Development Innovation Ventures
  • Humanitarian Education Accelerator
  • Global Innovation Fund.

We relied heavily on lists and databases of innovations compiled by each of these Spotters to develop our global catalog of innovations. A relatively coherent picture of global spotting efforts emerged from our analysis of these Spotters’ activities. We found that, collectively, the Spotter community is heavily focused on new practices emerging from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Indeed, NGOs implement over 60 percent of innovations in our global catalog. In contrast, for-profit organizations implement only 26 percent of cataloged innovations, and government actors fall farthest behind, leading only 12 percent. We also found that Spotters focused heavily on innovations serving the most marginalized children, such as low-income learners, out-of-school children, and orphans. Fifty-seven percent of all innovations serve such communities.

These Spotters seem keen to highlight innovations that are relatively young, with half of all cataloged interventions created or founded in the past 10 years, and one-quarter in or after 2012. In terms of pedagogy, we are pleased to see that nearly half of the spotted innovations aim to teach both academic competencies and 21st century skills at the same time. In doing so, nearly 70 percent make use of the playful, hands-on learning approaches needed to effectively develop a full range of learners’ abilities.

Still, we note that the Innovation Spotters have carved out quite specific niches for themselves. Indeed, only 10 percent of cataloged innovations appeared on the lists of more than one Spotter. This diversity of spotting practice aids in the effort to build an enduring education innovations community—one that can share learnings, inspire ideation, and support implementation within and between contexts around the world. While there are plenty of discussions to be had on the prospect of building this community and strengthening the networks within it, perhaps the most pressing question is around next steps: how can we translate this spotting effort into educational transformation on the ground?

This is a question we will explore at our May 21 symposium, Citizens of the future: Innovations to leapfrog global education (webcast available) , co-hosted with the Inter-American Development Bank. Grappling with the role of teaching and learning in educational transformation, we hope to map what comes next for the global education innovations community—and, in so doing, chart an accelerated path toward equitable and quality learning for all.

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Research Areas

  • Poverty & Inequality
  • Federal & State Education Policy
  • Teaching & Leadership Effectiveness
  • Technological Innovations in Education

innovations in education

Technological innovations are having a significant impact on educational systems at all levels. Online courses, teaching aids, educational software, social networking tools, and other emerging technologies are disrupting the traditional classroom environment. Understanding the effects that technological innovations have on students, teachers, and schools is critical to developing strategies and techniques to manage and use technology in education. CEPA research gives education leaders insights on how technological innovations are being used and how effective they are at helping to improve student outcomes.

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Innovation in education: what works, what doesn’t, and what to do about it?

Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching & Learning

ISSN : 2397-7604

Article publication date: 3 April 2017

The purpose of this paper is to present an analytical review of the educational innovation field in the USA. It outlines classification of innovations, discusses the hurdles to innovation, and offers ways to increase the scale and rate of innovation-based transformations in the education system.


The paper is based on a literature survey and author research.

US education badly needs effective innovations of scale that can help produce the needed high-quality learning outcomes across the system. The primary focus of educational innovations should be on teaching and learning theory and practice, as well as on the learner, parents, community, society, and its culture. Technology applications need a solid theoretical foundation based on purposeful, systemic research, and a sound pedagogy. One of the critical areas of research and innovation can be cost and time efficiency of the learning.

Practical implications

Several practical recommendations stem out of this paper: how to create a base for large-scale innovations and their implementation; how to increase effectiveness of technology innovations in education, particularly online learning; how to raise time and cost efficiency of education.

Social implications

Innovations in education are regarded, along with the education system, within the context of a societal supersystem demonstrating their interrelations and interdependencies at all levels. Raising the quality and scale of innovations in education will positively affect education itself and benefit the whole society.


Originality is in the systemic approach to education and educational innovations, in offering a comprehensive classification of innovations; in exposing the hurdles to innovations, in new arguments about effectiveness of technology applications, and in time efficiency of education.

  • Implementation
  • Educational technology
  • Time efficiency

Serdyukov, P. (2017), "Innovation in education: what works, what doesn’t, and what to do about it?", Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching & Learning , Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 4-33.

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Peter Serdyukov

Published in the Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching & Learning . This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at

Necessity is the mother of invention (Plato).


Education, being a social institution serving the needs of society, is indispensable for society to survive and thrive. It should be not only comprehensive, sustainable, and superb, but must continuously evolve to meet the challenges of the fast-changing and unpredictable globalized world. This evolution must be systemic, consistent, and scalable; therefore, school teachers, college professors, administrators, researchers, and policy makers are expected to innovate the theory and practice of teaching and learning, as well as all other aspects of this complex organization to ensure quality preparation of all students to life and work.

Here we present a systemic discussion of educational innovations, identify the barriers to innovation, and outline potential directions for effective innovations. We discuss the current status of innovations in US education, what educational innovation is, how innovations are being integrated in schools and colleges, why innovations do not always produce the desired effect, and what should be done to increase the scale and rate of innovation-based transformations in our education system. We then offer recommendations for the growth of educational innovations. As examples of innovations in education, we will highlight online learning and time efficiency of learning using accelerated and intensive approaches.

Innovations in US education

For an individual, a nation, and humankind to survive and progress, innovation and evolution are essential. Innovations in education are of particular importance because education plays a crucial role in creating a sustainable future. “Innovation resembles mutation, the biological process that keeps species evolving so they can better compete for survival” ( Hoffman and Holzhuter, 2012 , p. 3). Innovation, therefore, is to be regarded as an instrument of necessary and positive change. Any human activity (e.g. industrial, business, or educational) needs constant innovation to remain sustainable.

The need for educational innovations has become acute. “It is widely believed that countries’ social and economic well-being will depend to an ever greater extent on the quality of their citizens’ education: the emergence of the so-called ‘knowledge society’, the transformation of information and the media, and increasing specialization on the part of organizations all call for high skill profiles and levels of knowledge. Today’s education systems are required to be both effective and efficient, or in other words, to reach the goals set for them while making the best use of available resources” ( Cornali, 2012 , p. 255). According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, “the pressure to increase equity and improve educational outcomes for students is growing around the world” ( Vieluf et al. , 2012 , p. 3). In the USA, underlying pressure to innovate comes from political, economic, demographic, and technological forces from both inside and outside the nation.

Many in the USA seem to recognize that education at all levels critically needs renewal: “Higher education has to change. It needs more innovation” ( Wildavsky et al. , 2012 , p. 1). This message, however, is not new – in the foreword to the 1964 book entitled Innovation in Education, Arthur Foshay, Executive Officer of The Horace Mann-Lincoln Institute of School Experimentation, wrote, “It has become platitudinous to speak of the winds of change in education, to remind those interested in the educational enterprise that a revolution is in progress. Trite or not, however, it is true to say that changes appear wherever one turns in education” ( Matthew, 1964 , p. v).

Yet, more than 50 years later, we realize that the actual pace of educational innovations and their implementation is too slow as shown by the learning outcomes of both school and college graduates, which are far from what is needed in today’s world. Jim Shelton, Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the US Department of Education, writes, “Whether for reasons of economic growth, competitiveness, social justice or return on tax-payer investment, there is little rational argument over the need for significant improvement in US educational outcomes. Further, it is irrefutable that the country has made limited improvement on most educational outcomes over the last several decades, especially when considered in the context of the increased investment over the same period. In fact, the total cost of producing each successful high school and college graduate has increased substantially over time instead of decreasing – creating what some argue is an inverted learning curve […].”

“Education not only needs new ideas and inventions that shatter the performance expectations of today’s status quo; to make a meaningful impact, these new solutions must also “scale,” that is grow large enough, to serve millions of students and teachers or large portions of specific underserved populations” ( Shelton, 2011 ). Yet, something does not work here.

Lack of innovation can have profound economic and social repercussions. America’s last competitive advantage, warns Harvard Innovation Education Fellow Tony Wagner, its ability to innovate, is at risk as a result of the country’s lackluster education system ( Creating innovators, 2012 ). Derek Bok, a former Harvard University President, writes, “[…] neither American students nor our universities, nor the nation itself, can afford to take for granted the quality of higher education and the teaching and learning it provides” ( Bok, 2007 , p. 6). Hence it is central for us to make US education consistently innovative and focus educational innovations on raising the quality of learning at all levels. Yet, though there is a good deal of ongoing educational research and innovation, we have not actually seen discernable improvements in either school students’ or college graduates’ achievements to this day. Suffice it to mention a few facts. Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) evaluations keep revealing disappointing results for our middle school ( Pew Research Center, 2015 ); a large number of high school graduates are not ready for college ( College preparedness, 2012 ); and employers, in turn, are often dissatisfied with college graduates ( Thomson, 2015 ; Jaschik, 2015 ). No one, be they students, parents, academia, business, or society as a whole, are pleased with these outcomes. Could it be that our education system is not sufficiently innovative?

Danny Crichton, an entrepreneur, in his blog The Next Wave of Education Innovation writes expressly, “Few areas have been as hopeful and as disappointing as innovation in education. Education is probably the single most important function in our society today, yet it remains one of the least understood, despite incredible levels of investment from venture capitalists and governments. Why do students continue to show up in a classroom or start an online course? How do we guide students to the right knowledge just as they need to learn it? We may have an empirical inkling and some hunches, but we still lack any fundamental insights. That is truly disappointing. With the rise of the internet, it seemed like education was on the cusp of a complete revolution. Today, though, you would be excused for not seeing much of a difference between the way we learn and how we did so twenty years ago” ( Crichton, 2015 ).

Editors of the book Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation , Ben Wildavsky, Andrew Kelly, and Kevin Carey write, “The higher education system also betrays an innovation deficit in another way: a steady decline in productivity driven by a combination of static or declining output paired with skyrocketing prices ( Wildavsky et al. , 2012 , p. 3). This despairing mood is echoed by Groom and Lamb’s statement in EDUCAUSE Review, “Today, innovation is increasingly conflated with hype, disruption for disruption’s sake, and outsourcing laced with a dose of austerity-driven downsizing” ( Groom and Lamb, 2014 ).

USA success has always been driven by innovation and has a unique capacity for growth ( Zeihan, 2014 ). Nevertheless, it is indeed a paradox: while the USA produces more research, including in education, than any other country ( Science Watch, 2009 ), we do not see much improvement in the way our students are prepared for life and work. The USA can be proud of great scholars, such as John Dewey, B.F. Skinner, Abraham Maslow, Albert Bandura, Howard Gardner, Jerome Bruner, and many others who have contributed a great deal to the theory of education. Yet, has this theory yielded any innovative approaches for the teaching and learning practice that have increased learning productivity and improved the quality of the output?

The USA is the home of the computer and the internet, but has the information revolution helped to improve the quality of learning outcomes? Where and how, then, are all these educational innovations applied? It seems, write Spangehl and Hoffman, that “American education has taken little advantage of important innovations that would increase instructional capacity, effectiveness, and productivity” (2012 , p. 21). “The new ‘job factory’ role American universities have awkwardly stuffed themselves into may be killing the modern college student’s spirit and search for meaning” ( Mercurio, 2016 ).

What is interesting here is that while we are still undecided as to what to do with our struggling schools and universities and how to integrate into them our advanced inventions, other nations are already benefiting from our innovations and have in a short time successfully built world-class education systems. It is ironic that an admirable Finnish success was derived heavily from US educational research. Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author of a bestselling book, The Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change In Finland , said in an interview to the Huffington Post, “American scholars and their writings, like Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, have been influential in building the much-admired school system in Finland” ( Rubin, 2015 ); so wrote other authors ( Strauss, 2014 ). Singapore, South Korea, China, and other forward-looking countries also learned from great US educational ideas.

We cannot say that US educators and society are oblivious to the problems in education: on the contrary, a number of educational movements have taken place in recent US history (e.g. numerous educational reforms since 1957 to this day, including recent NCLB, Race to the Top, and the Common Core). Universities and research organizations opened centers and laboratories of innovation (Harvard Innovation Lab, Presidential Innovation Laboratory convened by American Council on Education, Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky, NASA STEM Innovation Lab, and recently created National University Center for Innovation in Learning). Some institutions introduced programs focusing on innovation (Master’s Program in Technology, Innovation, and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education; Master of Arts in Education and Innovation at the Webster University). New organizations have been set up (The International Centre for Innovation in Education, Innovative Schools Network, Center for Education Reform). Regular conferences on the topic are convened (AERA, ASU-GSV Summit, National Conference on Educational Innovation, The Nueva School for the Innovative Learning Conference). Excellent books have been written by outstanding innovators such as Andy Hargreaves (2003) , Hargreaves and Shirley (2009) , Hargreaves et al. (2010) , Michael Fullan (2007, 2010) , Yong Zhao (2012) , Pasi Sahlberg (2011) , Tony Wagner (2012) , Mihaliy Csikszentmihalyi (2013) , and Ken Robinson (2015) . There is even an Office of Innovation and Improvement in the US Department of Education, which is intended to “[…] drive education innovation by both seeding new strategies, and bringing proven approaches to scale” ( Office of Innovation and Improvement, 2016 ). And still, innovations do not take hold in American classrooms on a wide scale, which may leave the nation behind in global competition.

Society’s failure to anticipate the problems and their outcomes may have unpredictable consequences, as Pulitzer Prize winner and Professor Jared Diamond, University of California, Los Angeles, writes in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed ( Diamond, 2005 ). Yong Zhao interpreted Diamond’s findings as “[…] society’s inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept large and distant changes – and thus work to come up with the right response – is among one of the chief reasons that societies fail. This inability also leads human beings to look for short-term outcomes and seek immediate gratification” ( Zhao, 2012 , p. 162). It looks like the issue of educational innovation goes beyond the field itself and requires a strong societal response.

Three big questions arise from this discussion: why, having so many innovators and organizations concerned with innovations, does our education system not benefit from them? What interferes with creating and, especially, implementing transformative, life-changing, and much-needed innovations across schools and colleges in this country? How can we grow, support, and disseminate worthy innovations effectively so that our students succeed in both school and university and achieve the best learning outcomes that will adequately prepare them for life and work? Let us first take a look at what is an educational innovation.

What is educational innovation?

Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things (Theodore Levitt).

To innovate is to look beyond what we are currently doing and develop a novel idea that helps us to do our job in a new way. The purpose of any invention, therefore, is to create something different from what we have been doing, be it in quality or quantity or both. To produce a considerable, transformative effect, the innovation must be put to work, which requires prompt diffusion and large-scale implementation.

Innovation is generally understood as “[…] the successful introduction of a new thing or method” ( Brewer and Tierney, 2012 , p. 15). In essence, “[…] innovation seems to have two subcomponents. First, there is the idea or item which is novel to a particular individual or group and, second, there is the change which results from the adoption of the object or idea” ( Evans, 1970 , p. 16). Thus, innovation requires three major steps: an idea, its implementation, and the outcome that results from the execution of the idea and produces a change. In education, innovation can appear as a new pedagogic theory, methodological approach, teaching technique, instructional tool, learning process, or institutional structure that, when implemented, produces a significant change in teaching and learning, which leads to better student learning. So, innovations in education are intended to raise productivity and efficiency of learning and/or improve learning quality. For example, Khan’s Academy and MOOCs have opened new, practically unlimited opportunities for massive, more efficient learning.

Efficiency is generally determined by the amount of time, money, and resources that are necessary to obtain certain results. In education, efficiency of learning is determined mainly by the invested time and cost. Learning is more efficient if we achieve the same results in less time and with less expense. Productivity is determined by estimating the outcomes obtained vs the invested effort in order to achieve the result. Thus, if we can achieve more with less effort, productivity increases. Hence, innovations in education should increase both productivity of learning and learning efficiency.

Educational innovations emerge in various areas and in many forms. According to the US Office of Education, “There are innovations in the way education systems are organized and managed, exemplified by charter schools or school accountability systems. There are innovations in instructional techniques or delivery systems, such as the use of new technologies in the classroom. There are innovations in the way teachers are recruited, and prepared, and compensated. The list goes on and on” ( US Department of Education, 2004 ).

Innovation can be directed toward progress in one, several, or all aspects of the educational system: theory and practice, curriculum, teaching and learning, policy, technology, institutions and administration, institutional culture, and teacher education. It can be applied in any aspect of education that can make a positive impact on learning and learners.

In a similar way, educational innovation concerns all stakeholders: the learner, parents, teacher, educational administrators, researchers, and policy makers and requires their active involvement and support. When considering the learners, we think of studying cognitive processes taking place in the the brain during learning – identifying and developing abilities, skills, and competencies. These include improving attitudes, dispositions, behaviors, motivation, self-assessment, self-efficacy, autonomy, as well as communication, collaboration, engagement, and learning productivity.

To raise the quality of teaching, we want to enhance teacher education, professional development, and life-long learning to include attitudes, dispositions, teaching style, motivation, skills, competencies, self-assessment, self-efficacy, creativity, responsibility, autonomy to teach, capacity to innovate, freedom from administrative pressure, best conditions of work, and public sustenance. As such, we expect educational institutions to provide an optimal academic environment, as well as materials and conditions for achieving excellence of the learning outcomes for every student (program content, course format, institutional culture, research, funding, resources, infrastructure, administration, and support).

Education is nourished by society and, in turn, nourishes society. The national educational system relies on the dedication and responsibility of all society for its effective functioning, thus parental involvement, together with strong community and society backing, are crucial for success.

political (NCLB (No Child Left Behind Act), Race to the Top);

social (Equal Opportunities Act, affirmative action policy, Indivuals with Disabilities Education Act);

philosophical (constructivism, objectivism);

cultural (moral education, multiculturalism, bilingual education);

pedagogical (competence-based education, STEM (curriculum choices in school: Science, Technology, English, and Mathematics);

psychological (cognitive science, multiple intelligencies theory, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, learning style theory); and

technological (computer-based learning, networked learning, e-learning).

Though these innovations left a significant mark on education, which of them helped improve productivity and quality of learning? Under NCLB, we placed too much focus on accountability and assessment and lost sight of many other critical aspects of education. In drawing too much attention to technology innovations, we may neglect teachers and learners in the process. Stressing the importance of STEM at the expense of music, arts and physical culture ignores young people’s personal, social, emotional, and moral development. Reforming higher education without reforming secondary education is futile. Trying to change education while leaving disfunctional societal and cultural mechanisms intact is doomed. It is crucial, therefore, when innovating to ask, “What is this innovation for?” “How will it work?” and “What effect will it produce?”

Many of us educators naively believe grand reforms or powerful technologies will transform our education system. Did we not expect NCLB to change our schools for the better? Did we not hope that new information technologies would make education more effective and relieve teachers from tedious labor? However, again and again we realize that neither loud reforms nor wondrous technology will do the hard work demanded of teachers and learners.

Innovations can be categorized as evolutionary or revolutionary ( Osolind, 2012 ), sustaining or disruptive ( Christensen and Overdorf, 2000 ; Yu and Hang, 2010 ). Evolutionary innovations lead to incremental improvement but require continuity; revolutionary innovations bring about a complete change, totally overhauling and/or replacing the old with the new, often in a short time period. Sustaining innovation perpetuates the current dimensions of performance (e.g. continuous improvement of the curriculum), while disrupting innovation, such as a national reform, radically changes the whole field. Innovations can also be tangible (e.g. technology tools) and intangible (e.g. methods, strategies, and techniques). Evolutionary and revolutionary innovations seem to have the same connotation as sustaining and disruptive innovations, respectively.

When various innovations are being introduced in the conventional course of study, for instance Universal Design of Learning ( Meyer et al. , 2014 ); or more expressive presentation of new material using multimedia; or more effective teaching methods; or new mnemonic techniques, students’ learning productivity may rise to some extent. This is an evolutionary change. It partially improves the existing instructional approach to result in better learning. Such learning methods as inquiry based, problem based, case study, and collaborative and small group are evolutionary innovations because they change the way students learn. Applying educational technology (ET) in a conventional classroom using an overhead projector, video, or iPad, are evolutionary, sustaining innovations because they change only certain aspects of learning. National educational reforms, however, are always intended to be revolutionary innovations as they are aimed at complete system renovation. This is also true for online learning because it produces a systemic change that drastically transforms the structure, format, and methods of teaching and learning. Some innovative approaches, like “extreme learning” ( Extreme Learning, 2012 ), which use technology for learning purposes in novel, unusual, or nontraditional ways, may potentially produce a disruptive, revolutionary effect.

Adjustment or upgrading of the process: innovation can occur in daily performance and be seen as a way to make our job easier, more effective, more appealing, or less stressful. This kind of innovation, however, should be considered an improvement rather than innovation because it does not produce a new method or tool. The term innovative, in keeping with the dictionary definition, applies only to something new and different, not just better, and it must be useful ( Okpara, 2007 ). Educators, incidentally, commonly apply the term “innovative” to almost any improvement in classroom practices; yet, to be consistent, not any improvement can be termed in this way. The distinction between innovation and improvement is in novelty and originality, as well as in the significance of impact and scale of change.

Modification of the process: innovation that significantly alters the process, performance, or quality of an existing product (e.g. accelerated learning (AL), charter school, home schooling, blended learning).

Transformation of the system: dramatic conversion (e.g. Bologna process; Common Core; fully automated educational systems; autonomous or self-directed learning; online, networked, and mobile learning).

First-level innovations (with a small i ) make reasonable improvements and are important ingredients of everyday life and work. They should be unequivocally enhanced, supported, and used. Second-level innovations either lead to a system’s evolutionary change or are a part of that change and, thus, can make a considerable contribution to educational quality. But we are more concerned with innovations of the third level (with a capital I), which are both breakthrough and disruptive and can potentially make a revolutionary, systemic change.

qualitative: better knowledge, more effective skills, important competencies, character development, values, dispositions, effective job placement, and job performance; and

quantitative: improved learning parameters such as test results, volume of information learned, amount of skills or competencies developed, college enrollment numbers, measured student performance, retention, attrition, graduation rate, number of students in class, cost, and time efficiency.

Innovation can be assessed by its novely, originality, and potential effect. As inventing is typically a time-consuming and cost-demanding experience, it is critical to calculate short-term and long-term expenses and consequences of an invention. They must demonstrate significant qualitative and/or quantitative benefits. As a psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi writes, “human well-being hinges on two factors: the ability to increase creativity and the ability to develop ways to evaluate the impact of new creative ideas” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2013, p. 322).

In education, we can estimate the effect of innovation via learning outcomes or exam results, teacher formative and summative, formal and informal assessments, and student self-assessment. Innovation can also be computed using such factors as productivity (more learning outcomes in a given time), time efficiency (shorter time on studying the same material), or cost efficiency (less expense per student) data. Other evaluations can include the school academic data, college admissions and employment rate of school graduates, their work productivity and career growth.


multiple/spread/significant; and


This gradation correlates with the three levels of innovation described above: adjustment, modification, and transformation. To make a marked difference, educational innovation must be scalable and spread across the system or wide territory. Prominent examples include Khan Academy in the USA, GEEKI Labs in Brazil (GEEKI), and BRIDGE International Academies in Kenya (BRIDGE). Along with scale, the speed of adoption or diffusion, and cost are critical for maximizing the effect of innovation.

Innovations are nowadays measured and compared internationally. According to the 2011 OECD report ( OECD, 2014 ), the USA was in 24th place in educational innovativeness in the world. This report singled out the use of student assessments for monitoring progress over time as the top organizational innovation, and the requirement that students were to explain and elaborate on their answers during science lessons as the top pedagogic innovation in the USA. Overall, the list of innovations selected by OECD was disappointingly unimpressive.

Innovations usually originate either from the bottom of the society (individual inventors or small teams) – bottom-up or grass root approach, or from the top (business or government) – top-down or administrative approach. Sometimes, innovations coming from the top get stalled on their way to the bottom if they do not accomplish their goal and are not appreciated or supported by the public. Should they rise from the bottom, they may get stuck on the road to the top if they are misunderstood or found impractical or unpopular. They can also stop in the middle if there is no public, political, or administrative or financial backing. Thus, innovations that start at the bottom, however good they are, may suffer too many roadblocks to be able to spread and be adopted on a large scale. Consequently, it is up to politicians, administrators, and society to drive or stifle the change. Education reforms have always been top-down and, as they near the bottom, typically become diverted, diluted, lose strength, or get rejected as ineffective or erroneous. As Michael Fullan writes in the Foreword to an exciting book, Good to Great to Innovate: Recalculating the Route to Career Readiness, K012+ , “[…] there is a good deal of reform going on in the education world, but much of it misses the point, or approaches it superficially” ( Sharratt and Harild, 2015 , p. xiii).

Innovations enriching education can be homegrown (come from within the system) or be imported (originate from outside education). Examples of imported innovations that result from revolution, trend, or new idea include the information technology revolution, social media, medical developments (MRI), and cognitive psychology. Innovations can also be borrowed from superior international theories and practices (see Globalization of Education chapter). National reform may also be a route to innovation, for instance when a government decides to completely revamp the system via a national reform, or when an entire society embarks on a new road, as has happened recently in Singapore, South Korea, and Finland.

Innovations may come as a result of inspiration, continuous creative mental activity, or “supply pushed” through the availability of new technological possibilities in production, or “demand led” based on market or societal needs ( Brewer and Tierney, 2012 , p. 15). In the first case, we can have a wide variety of ideas flowing around; in the second, we observe a ubiquitous spread of educational technologies across educational system at all levels; in the third, we witness a growth of non-public institutions, such as private and charter schools and private universities.

Innovation in any area or aspect can make a change in education in a variety of ways. Ultimately, however, innovations are about quality and productivity of learning (this does not mean we can forget about moral development, which prepares young people for life, work, and citizenship) ( Camins, 2015 ). Every innovation must be tested for its potential efficiency. The roots of learning efficiency lie, however, not only in innovative technologies or teaching alone but even more in uncovering potential capacities for learning in our students, their intellectual, emotional, and psychological spheres. Yet, while innovations in economics, business, technology, and engineering are always connected to the output of the process, innovation in education does not necessarily lead to improving the output (i.e. students’ readiness for future life and employment). Test results, degrees, and diplomas do not signify that a student is fully prepared for his or her career. Educational research is often disconnected from learning productivity and efficiency, school effectiveness, and quality output. Innovations in educational theories, textbooks, instructional tools, and teaching techniques do not always produce a desired change in the quality of teaching and learning. What, then, is the problem with our innovations? Why do not we get more concerned with learning productivity and efficiency? As an example, let us look at technology applications in teaching and learning.

Effects of technology innovations in education

A tool is just an opportunity with a handle (Kevin Kelly).

When analyzing innovations of our time, we cannot fail to see that an overwhelming majority of them are tangible, being either technology tools (laptops, iPads, smart phones) or technology-based learning systems and materials, e.g., learning management system (LMS), educational software, and web-based resources. Technology has always served as both a driving force and instrument of innovation in any area of human activity. It is then natural for us to expect that innovations based on ET applications can improve teaching and learning. Though technology is a great asset, nonetheless, is it the single or main source of today’s innovations, and is it wise to rely solely on technology?

The rich history of ET innovations is filled with optimism. Just remember when tape recorders, video recorders, TV, educational films, linguaphone classes, overhead projectors, and multimedia first appeared in school. They brought so much excitement and hope into our classrooms! New presentation formats catered to various learning styles. Visuals brought reality and liveliness into the classrooms. Information and computer technology (ICT) offered more ways to retrieve information and develop skills. With captivating communication tools (iPhones, iPads, Skype, FaceTime), we can communicate with anybody around the world in real time, visually, and on the go. Today we are excited about online learning, mobile learning, social networking learning, MOOCs, virtual reality, virtual and remote laboratories, 3D and 4D printing, and gamification. But can we say all this is helping to produce better learning? Are we actually using ET’s potential to make a difference in education and increase learning output?

Larry Cuban, an ET researcher and writer, penned the following: “Since 2010, laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards, smart phones, and a cornucopia of software have become ubiquitous. We spent billions of dollars on computers. Yet has academic achievement improved as a consequence? Has teaching and learning changed? Has use of devices in schools led to better jobs? These are the basic questions that school boards, policy makers, and administrators ask. The answers to these questions are ‘no,’ ‘no,’ and ‘probably not.’” ( Cuban, 2015 ). This cautionary statement should make us all think hard about whether more technology means better learning.

Technology is used in manufacturing, business, and research primarily to increase labor productivity. Because integrating technology into education is in many ways like integrating technology into any business, it makes sense to evaluate technological applications by changes in learning productivity and quality. William Massy and Robert Zemsky wrote in their paper, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity,” that “[…] technology should be used to boost academic productivity” ( Massy and Zemsky, 1995 ). National Educational Technology Standards also addressed this issue by introducing a special rubric: “Apply technology to increase productivity” ( National Educational Technology Standards, 2004 ). Why then has technology not contributed much to the productivity of learning? It may be due to a so-called “productivity paradox” ( Brynjolfsson, 1993 ), which refers to the apparent contradiction between the remarkable advances in computer power and the relatively slow growth of productivity at the level of the whole economy, individual firms, and many specific applications. Evidently, this paradox relates to technology applications in education.

A conflict between public expectations of ET effectiveness and actual applications in teaching and learning can be rooted in educators’ attitudes toward technology. What some educational researchers write about technology in education helps to reveal the inherent issue. The pillars and building blocks of twenty-first century learning, according to Linda Baer and James McCormick (2012 , p. 168), are tools, programs, services, and policies such as web-enabled information storage and retrieval systems, digital resources, games, and simulations, eAdvising and eTutoring, online revenue sharing, which are all exclusively technological innovations. They are intended to integrate customized learning experiences, assessment-based learning outcomes, wikis, blogs, social networking, and mobile learning. The foundation of all this work, as these authors write, is built on the resources, infrastructure, quality standards, best practices, and innovation.

These are all useful, tangible things, but where are the intangible innovations, such as theoretical foundation, particularly pedagogy, psychology, and instructional methodology that are a true underpinning of teaching and learning? The emphasis on tools seems to be an effect of materialistic culture, which covets tangible, material assets or results. Similarly, today’s students worry more about grades, certificates, degrees, and diplomas (tangible assets) than about gaining knowledge, an intangible asset ( Business Dictionary, 2016 ). We may come to recognize that modern learning is driven more by technological tools than by sound theory, which is misleading.

According to the UNESCO Innovative Teaching and Learning (ITL) Research project conducted in several countries, “ICT has great potential for supporting innovative pedagogies, but it is not a magic ingredient.” The findings suggest that “[…] when considering ICT it is important to focus not on flash but on the student learning and 21st century skills that ICT can enable” ( UNESCO, 2013 ). As Zhao and Frank (2003) argue in their ecological model of technology integration in school, we should be interested in not only how much computers are used but also how computers are used. Evidently, before starting to use technology we have to ask first, “What technology tools will help our students to learn math, sciences, literature and languages better, and how to use them efficiently to improve the learning outcomes?”

Thus, the problem of ET innovations is twofold: any integration of technology in teaching and learning has to demonstrate an increased productivity of teaching and learning, but it can be achieved only when ET applications are based on an effective pedagogic theory. Technology innovation will eventually drive pedagogic innovations, without a doubt, however, this path is slower, more complicated, and leads to an enormous waste of financial, technical and human resources.

Technocentric syndrome

More disquieting than even the lack of pedagogical foundation for technology-enhanced education is the sincere belief of many educators that technology will fix all the problems they encounter in the classroom, be they live or virtual. Consequently, fewer university professors nowadays perceive the need for pedagogic mastery in online teaching in addition to content-area expertise as they reason technology will solve all instructional difficulties anyway. This belief is called “technocentrism” ( Pappert, 1990 ), which, according to Nickols (2011) , is common in higher education and e-learning discussions. It is probably common in secondary school as well. Unfortunately, educators often forget that the computer is only an extension of human abilities, not a replacement or substitute. We, as educators, must realize that for technology innovation to produce a positive effect in learning it must be preceded by pedagogic leadership, research, and sound theory; however, the reality is typically the reverse. We are excited to grab the new gadget and try to fit it into the classroom without preliminary assessment of its implementation challenges and potential effects, solid research, or laying out a theoretical foundation based on advanced pedagogic theory which will ensure its effective use. Former Kodak Chairman George Fisher described it this way, “Even good people get locked into processes that may be totally inappropriate to deal with a new technology attacking from underneath (Christensen and Eyring, 2011, p. 16).

Technology (as an entity) contains an inherent pedagogical value ( Accuosti, 2014 , p. 5). It pushes the limits of what educators can do but is not a magic wand; it is only a means, an instrument, a tool for an innovative teacher and learner. That we overestimate technology’s power in education has its roots in human anticipation of a miracle, or a hope of finding a quick fix. But “[…] we can’t just buy iPads (or any device), add water, and hope that strategy will usher schools to the leading edge of 21st century education. Technology, by itself, isn’t curative. Human agency shapes the path” ( Levasseur, 2012 ). We are all excited by the technology and information revolution and believe in its potential but “[…] perhaps the next important revolution isn’t technological, even as technology marches forward unabated. Perhaps the revolution that we need, the one we should aspire to, is societal. Indeed, the next revolution should be one of education, empathy, and a broader understanding of the world, and of its people and culture” ( Jiang, 2015 ).

One of my students wrote in a recent online class, “Students learn from their teachers, not from electronic gadgets.” Do we understand how students learn in a technology-based environment, one-on-one with the laptop or mobile phone? Can we estimate possible changes in the students’ cognition, learning style, behavior, attitudes, values, and social relationships under the influence of electronic devices? It is certainly true that live interaction between students and their teachers offers worthy examples and enlightening experiences for students and gratifying moments for teachers. Overestimating the power of technology, regrettably, leads to the deterioration of the “human element” ( Serdiukov, 2001 ) in technology-based and, particularly, online teaching and learning. It further underestimates the need for sound pedagogy and quality teacher preparation. It may also have a devastating impact on our ability to socialize, collaborate, and survive. George Friedman argues that computers have had “profoundly disruptive consequences on cultural live throughout the world” ( Friedman, 2012 , p. 25), which could not have left education unperturbed.

Neil Postman addressed another concern of overemphasizing the role of technology in education, cautioning against “[…] surrendering education to technology” ( Postman, 1993 ), which may have far-reaching social and cultural consequences ( Serdyukov, 2015b ). According to Sousa (2014) , the widespread use of technology is having both positive and negative effects on students’ attention and memory systems. A strong warning about the negative effects of the Web comes from Maurer et al. (2013) , who caution that modern media, particularly networked computers, are endangering our capacity to think, to remember clearly, and to read and write with concentration; they also imperil creativity. “New technologies, whether or not they succeed in solving the problem that they were designed to solve, regularly create unanticipated new problems” ( Diamond, 2005 , p. 505). There are numerous social, cultural and psychological side effects of technology-enhanced or technology-based education, among them placing unrealistic hopes on technology, which leads to weakening a student’s and teacher’s effort and eventually takes the teachers out of the equation. This in turn makes the outcomes of online learning overly dependent on the LMS platform, washing away human interaction and communication by industrializing and formalizing learning.

Christensen and Eyring (2011) , who wrote about disruptive innovations that force universities to change, predict that teaching in the future will be disruptable as technology improves and shifts the competitive focus from a teacher’s credentials or an institution’s prestige to what students actually learn. Their observations support the findings of other studies that indicate learning occurs best when it involves a blend of online and face-to-face learning, with the latter providing essential intangibles best obtained on a traditional college campus. From this statement, one can extrapolate that technology alone cannot ensure productive and enriched learning and, especially, personal and social development as students still need a human element in a technology-enhanced environment. Additionally, when planning to apply a new technology to education, we have to consider its potential pedagogic and psychological effects. Finally, we need a solid, innovative, theoretical foundation for online learning. This foundation would help teachers do a better job in both classroom and online environments than simply integrating computers and other gadgets into learning. It would help enrich students’ otherwise almost entirely independent online experiences using only LMS navigation as a GPS in the world of knowledge with inspiring interaction with a live instructor, peers, and real life.

As technology-based education is unquestionably going to grow, we need to make it pedagogically, psychologically, and socially meaningful and effective. At the same time, we want to minimize its negative short- and long-term consequences, which reaffirms the need for a comprehensive theory of technology-based education and serious research.

Online learning concerns

Demand for online learning is largely driven by working adult students (WALs) willing to have broad access to education and, at the same time, to accommodate learning to their busy lives, rather than by its effectiveness as a cognitive tool, which is determined by its most attractive feature – convenience ( Christensen and Eyring, 2011 ; Song et al. , 2004 ). In studies of student satisfaction, students commonly rate their online experiences as satisfactory, with convenience being the most cited reason ( Cole et al. , 2014 ). We observe students’ preference for convenience as a consumer strategy, and regrettably, not only in online higher education but across the whole educational system ( Kerby et al. , 2014 ). Convenience, along with comfort, helps reduce workload and complexity of learning, as well as the strain of face-to-face interaction with the class and instructor. It produces a sense of privacy and self-satisfaction. It also generates a false perception that online learning is easier than learning in the classroom ( Aaron, 2007 ; Westra, 2016 ), and often leads to online cheating ( Spalding, 2012 ). The convenience, like the happiness factor, however, means a less demanding and less rigorous school experience ( Zhao, 2012 , p. 137). Convenience can be a blessing for creative people, liberating them from the need to waste time and energy on trifles; however, it may also develop self-gratification and laziness instead of struggling with obstacles and doing the hard job of digging in the knowledge mine.

So, accessibility and, especially, convenience, enhanced by flexibility of the study schedule and comfortable learning environment of one’s office or bedroom are evidently the key factors of its popularity among students. The motto of online education, “Any time, any place, any pace” is extremely seductive. Yet, despite a number of studies showing that online learning is on a par with traditional, campus-based learning ( Ni, 2013 ; Wrenn, 2016 ), it is going to take more time and effort to really make online learning deliver outcomes comparable to the traditional classroom-based, face-to-face education. Mattan Griffel, Founder of “One Month,” an online education startup, rethinks online education in the aftermath of the MOOC explosion writing, “[Online education] has kind of overstepped its current effectiveness, and everyone is saying what is possible by painting this picture, but the tools haven’t reached that point yet” ( Crichton, 2015 ). We know very well online education suffers from restricted interaction among students and with the instructor, is deficient of live collaboration, and lacks opportunities for relationships that take form in a study group. These collective relationships are crucial for individual success. Productive online learning also depends on well-developed learning, technology, critical thinking, research, and even reading and writing skills, as well as strong intrinsic motivation, perseverance, and self-efficacy, which many students do not possess. Finally, substituting real-life objects and processes with virtual reality is not helpful in developing practical skills, which makes real-world laboratory and experimental work less effective in virtual online environments.

Still, the question remains whether online education has helped improve teaching and learning. With the popularity of online education and enormous investment, do online college programs now prepare better specialists? Have we achieved the result we had expected, besides widening access to education for working adult learners, formerly marginalized groups, such as disabled students and minorities, and people geographically separated from the learning centers, thus reaching multi-million enrollment in online programs by 2016 and making sure that students enjoy convenience in their studies?

Innovative technology may bring performance enhancement in some ways but does not necessarily produce a direct benefit to education expressed by increased learning productivity. Are the secondary benefits, like convenience or fun with technology, worthy of heavy investment? What, then, is needed to raise the quality of education? The real question here is, as always, do we control technology, or do we let ourselves be controlled by it and those who have created it? “Choose the former,” writes an innovative author Douglas Rushkoff, “and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make” ( Rushkoff, 2010 ). The raw powers of technology should be harnessed by sound pedagogy.

Pedagogy of online education is just being developed, after two decades of titanic effort ( Serdyukov, 2015a ). Online learning is a big business ( Stokes, 2012 ), which should be turned into a serious academic endeavor. When improving online learning, we should not narrow our innovative focus down to only technical solutions in all educational issues. We need to develop a broader look at all aspects of teaching and learning rather than trying to resolve problems and overcome barriers with technology alone.

Barriers to innovation

There are reasons for the discrepancy between the drive for educational innovation that we observe in some areas, great educational innovations of recent times, and the daily reality of the education system.

First of all, if we look at the education holistically, as a complete system in charge of sustaining the nation’s need for educating society members and building their knowledge and expertise throughout their active lifetime, we have to acknowledge that all educational levels are interrelated and interdependent. Moreover, education being a system itself is a component of a larger social supersystem, to which it links in many intricate and complicated ways. As a social institution, education reflects all the values, laws, principles, and traditions of the society to which it belongs. Therefore, we need to regard education as a vital, complete, social entity and address its problems, taking into account these relations and dependencies both within the educational system and society.

In turn, if the society supports innovations in education, then its educational system will continuously and effectively evolve and progress. If it does not, education will stagnate and produce mediocre outcomes. An example of negative socio-cultural impact on education is mercantilism, which is destroying the ultimate purpose of education, and consumerism which is degrading institutions of higher education ( Feeman and Thomas, 2005 ; Ng and Forbes, 2009 ; Abeyta, 2013 ). Other harmful social and cultural trends exert a powerful influence. These include monetization of education, entitlement, instant gratification, and egotism, which destroy education in general and the development of creativity and innovative spirit of students in particular ( Kerby et al. , 2014 ). Such grave societal issues must be dealt with forcefully.

Second, it is well known that higher education has been historically slow to adopt innovations for various reasons ( Hoffman and Holzhuter, 2012 ; Marcus, 2012 ; Evans, 1970 ). Because it is complex (due to cohesion and contuinuity of science) and labor intensive, higher education is particularly difficult to make more productive ( Brewer and Tierney, 2012 ). Secondary school is even more conservative than universities because they cater more and more to students’ well-being and safety than to their preparation for real life and work ( Gibbons and Silva, 2011 ). Both secondary and higher education function as two separate and rather closed systems in their own rights. They are not only loosely connected to the wider world but also suffer from a wide disconnect between high school output measured in graduate learning outcomes and college entrance student expectations. It seems that “[…] the systems and values of industrial education were not designed with innovation and digital tools in mind. Innovation, whether it is with technology, assessment or instruction, requires time and space for experimentation and a high tolerance for uncertainty. Disruption of established patterns is the modus operandi of innovation. We like the fruits of innovation, but few of us have the mettle to run the gauntlet of innovation” ( Levasseur, 2012 ). It is paramount, nonetheless, to accept that “innovation is linked to creativity, risk taking, and experimentation” ( Brewer and Tierney, 2012 , p. 15), which must be a part of the education system.

Innovation is difficult to spread across school and academia because it disrupts the established routine and pushes implementers out of their comfort zone. Terry Heick writes that “[…] many K-12 schools give lip-service to the concept of innovation in mission statements, on websites, in PDs (professional development), and during committee, council, and board meetings, but lose their nerve when it’s time to make it happen. Supporting something seen as secondary (innovation) in the face of pressure, far-reaching programs, external standards ranging from Common Core to Literacy, Technology, and Career Readiness becomes a matter of priority and job security. While education begs for innovation, arguments against it often turn to tempting, straw man attacks” ( Heick, 2016 ). In many instances, innovation in educational institutions does not take priority over pressing routine issues – really, abiding by the state standards is more urgent.

Teachers and school administrators are commonly cautious about a threatening change and have little tolerance for the uncertainty that any major innovation causes. Of course there are schools and even districts that are unafraid to innovate and experiment but their success depends on individual leaders and communities of educators who are able to create an innovative professional culture. Pockets of innovation give hope but we need a total, massive support for innovations across society.

Third, one of the reasons for the slow pace of improvements in education is a sharp conflict between society’s welfare and political and business interests, as vividly illustrated when the NCLB took US education on the path of rigid accountability. It was used by standardized testing companies to reap huge profits (or, may be, vice versa, these companies influenced NCBL). The trend stifled true education and produced unsatisfactory learning outcomes that changed the nature of teaching, narrowing the curriculum and limiting student learning. ( National Council of Teachers of English, 2014 ; The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, 2012 ).

Fourth, even when an innovation comes to life, it is of little worth without implementation (Csikszentmihalyi, 2013). Innovation is not about talking the talk but walking the walk. Moreover, an innovation can make a significant difference only when it is used on a wide scale. To create innovations is not enough, they need to be spread and used across schools and universities, a more difficult task. For the innovation to make a sizable effect, we need an army of implementers together with favorable conditions for the invention to spread and produce a result. Implementers in turn have to be creative and motivated to do their job; they must also have freedom to innovate in the implementation, security on the job to take risks, and control of what they are doing. Ultimately, they need be trusted (as are teachers in Finland) to do their job right. In short, there must be an “innovation-receiving system” ( Evans, 1970 ), or a “change zone” ( Polka and Kardash, 2013 ). Is this where one of the main problems of innovating lies?

A growing trend in higher education is a market approach wherein the main goal is set for “meeting the demands of the student population that is learning – a life-long population of learners” ( Afshar, 2016 ). Universities today are busy innovating how to increase students’ satisfaction and create “exceptional,” “premier,” or “extraordinary” learning experiences rather than caring about their true knowledge and quality achievements. This is clearly an extension of the adaptive or differentiated approach to teaching and learning, thereby leading to customization of education ( Schuwer and Kusters, 2014 ). But this view raises a question: are students’ demands and satisfaction the proper indicators of quality learning? When we began to be more concerned about how students feel in the classroom, what bothers them, and how best to accommodate them to make their learning experiences superior and anxiety-free, we began to set aside the quality outcomes of the learning process.

Every cloud has a silver lining, fortunately. When market approach is applied to higher education, as it is in the current national and global competitive environment, the contest for enrollments increases and forces colleges to decrease attrition in all ways possible. This requires innovative approaches. The institutions that depend on enrollment for their revenue appear more willing to innovate than traditional, public universities that enjoy government support. “Hence, innovation is likely to vary by several characteristics, including type of institution, institution size, market niche, and resources” ( Brewer and Tierney, 2012 , p. 22). Clearly, private institutions are more adept at innovating than public ones. The market is a powerful factor, however, the changes it may bring have to be tackled cautiously.

The hurdles to technology integration are described by Peggy Ertmer (1999) as external (first-order) and internal (second-order) barriers. The first-order barriers are purely operational (technological), while the second-order barriers are applicational (pedagogical). The difference in approaches to applying technology to teaching and learning (overcoming technological vs pedagogical barriers) might explain why huge investments in ET have brought little if any effect to the quality of learning outcomes.

Last but not least, innovations grow in a favorable environment, which is cultivated by an educational system that promotes innovation at all levels and produces creative, critical thinking, self-sufficient, life-long learners, problem solvers, and workers. This system enjoys a stimulating research climate, encourages uplifting cultural attitudes toward education, and rallies massive societal support.

The ultimate question is, what innovations do we really need, and what innovations might we not need?

standardization of curriculum enforced by frequent external tests;

narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and mathematics;

reduced use of innovative teaching strategies;

adoption of educational ideas from external sources, rather than development of local internal capacity for innovation and problem-solving; and

adoption of high-stakes accountability policies, featuring rewards and sanctions for students, teachers, and schools ( Sahlberg, 2010 , p. 10).

Instead, the Finns went their own, the Finnish Way, so profoundly described by Pasi Sahlberg in his bestselling book ( Sahlberg, 2011 ). So would it be innovative not to adopt some reforms? A big question now arises, what is then the American way to build innovative education? And what would be the global way?

What to do? Possible solutions

To create innovations, we need innovators, and many of them. But though innovation is often a spark originated in the mind of a bright person, it needs an environment that can nourish the fire. This environment is formed and fed by educational institutions, societal culture, and advanced economy. Csikszentmihalyi underlines the importance of creating a stimulating macroenvironment, which integrates the social, cultural, and institutional context, and also microenvironment, the immediate setting in which a person works. “Successful environment […] provide(s) freedom of action and stimulation of ideas, coupled with a respectful and nurturant attitude toward potential geniuses” (2013, p. 140). Control over such an environment, he reasons, is in the educators’ hands.

Then, when the invention is created, it must fall into a fertile ground like a seed and be cultivated to grow and bring fruit. Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Creative ideas vanish unless there is a receptive audience to record and implement them […]. Edison’s or Einstein’s discoveries would be inconceivable without the prior knowledge, without the intellectual and social network that stimulated their thinking and without the social mechanisms that recognized and spread their innovations (2013, p. 6)”. The audience is not only the educators but also students, parents, policy makers, and all other members of society who act either as implementers or consumers of the innovation.

Coherent systemic support is essential for growing innovations. As the ITL Research project states, “Important school-level supports tend to be present in schools with higher concentrations of innovative teaching. Based on survey data, in schools where teachers reported higher average levels of innovative teaching practices, they also tended to report […] a professional culture aligned to support innovation, reflection, and meaningful discourse about new teaching practices” ( UNESCO, 2013 ). The OECD report on teaching practices and pedagogical innovation also argues that “Teaching practices […] are factors affecting student learning that are more readily modifiable. Moreover, additional professional practices have received attention, especially those that help transform the school into a professional learning community” ( Vieluf et al. , 2012 , p. 3).

Technology integration in education can be successful only when the human element is taken into consideration. This then integrates innovators, implementers, educational leadership, professional community and, certainly, the learners. Walter Polka and Joseph Kardash argue that the effectiveness of a computer innovation project they developed “[…] was facilitated by the school district leadership because of their focus on the ‘human side’ of change” ( Polka and Kardash, 2013 , p. 324). They found correlation between the implementation process employed in the district and the concepts associated with the three general need categories of innovation implementers: organizational needs, professional needs, and personal needs, which contributed to the innovation’s success. Long-lasting changes require “[…] a mixture of cultural and institutional changes, commitment from those within the program, and active and engaged leadership,” writes Leticia De Leόn, addressing technological innovations in higher education ( De Leόn, 2013 , p. 347).

When we try to innovate education, we often leave students out of the equation. We do not innovate in students’ learning, their mind, attitudes, behaviors, character, metacognition, and work ethics enough. Yet, we try everything we can to improve teaching (delivery), while what we actually need is to improve learning. In education, nothing works if the students do not. According to the famous Bulgarian scholar Georgi Lozanov (1988) , learning is a matter of attitude, not aptitude. This is where the greatest potential for improving education lies. As a renowned cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham writes, “[…] education makes better minds, and knowledge of the mind can make better education” ( Willingham, 2010 , p. 165). The most important goal, thus, should be not so much to learn STEM but to cultivate innovative people in K-12, grow their autonomy, self-efficiency, and foster an entrepreneurial mindset or “a critical mix of success-oriented attitudes of initiative, intelligent risk taking, collaboration and opportunity recognition” ( Zhao, 2012 , p. 5). To help develop new survival skills, effective communication and critical thinking skills, and nurture curious, creative, critical thinking, independent and self-directed entrepreneurs, we must disrupt the ways of our school system and the ways our teachers are prepared. It may be worthwhile to extend the commonly used term “career readiness” to “life readiness.”

Research of exemplary educational systems across the world vividly demonstrates that teacher quality is the fundamental element of educational success: “It is especially teachers who shape students’ learning environments and help them reach their intellectual potential”: ( Vieluf et al. , 2012 , p. 113). Teacher education and professional development are definitely one of the primary areas that call for innovative approaches: teachers must be taught to teach well ( Marcus, 2012 ). The “how” of the teaching (instructional methodology) is as important as the “what” (content) ( Morais et al. , 2004 ). A great resource for effective education is the instructional design and methodology used by teachers, as shown by the ITL Research project: “Across countries and classrooms, the characteristics of assigned classroom activities strongly predicted the 21st century skills that students exhibited in their work. Students are much more likely to learn to solve real-world problems and collaborate productively with their peers, for example, if their learning activities are carefully designed to offer opportunities for them to do these things. This finding suggests that professional development for innovative teaching might begin with lesson design” ( UNESCO, 2013 ).

Teacher social status is one of the determining factors of the teacher quality. Teachers’ status in the most advanced countries like Finland, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan is very high. It reflects the quality of teaching and learning and also the level of pedagogic innovations. In our drive to enhance educational innovation, empowering school teachers and college instructors may be the most important task. Mattan Griffel writes, “We need to change the role of teachers. What kind of people do we consider teachers? How do we elevate teachers in society?” ( Crichton, 2015 ). He believes we have to make them “rock stars” and bring new perspectives into the profession.

Eventually, the most recognized pathway to education innovation, writes Shelton, is “[…] basic and applied research […] with more and better leveraged resources, more focus, and more discipline, this pathway can accelerate our understanding of teaching and learning and production of performance enhancing practices and tools” ( Shelton, 2011 ). Research focusing on raising productivity and efficiency and improving the quality of learning has to increase in all critical areas of education. One crucial indicator of educational effectiveness is measuring the quality of learning that remains imperfect. “The lack of good measures has severely limited the degree to which market forces can discipline the provision of educational quality” ( Massy, 2012 ). Developing clear and effective measures of educational quality is an important venue for future innovative research.

Societal support for innovative education and building up a new culture of educational preeminence both inside the education system and around it is paramount for its success. Brunner (1996) suggests viewing education in a broader context of what society intends to accomplish through its educational investment in the young. The best way to achieve superior education is to shape a new educational culture. As Pasi Sahlberg explains, “We are creating a new culture of education, and there is no way back” (Sahlberg, 2011, p. 2).

Innovation can be presented as a model in the context of its effects on the quality of teaching and learning within an educational environment, which is permeated by professional and societal cultures ( Figure 1 ).

Americans’ love affair with the car extends to computers, iPhones, and the internet. Therefore, innovations in education focus primarily on technology and technology applications. Technocentrists want to see education more automated, more technology-enhanced, and more technology-controlled in the hope of making education more effective. The way of doing so would be through more sophisticated LMS’s, automated analytics, customization, or individualization of learning and developing the student as an avid consumer of digital information. While we realize there is no stopping the technological revolution, we educators must do all we can to preserve the primary mission of education, which is reflected in a humanistic approach that caters to the whole person wherein efforts are made to develop a free, independent, critical thinking, active, and effective thinker, doer, citizen, and worker. Educational innovations embrace both views, interacting and enriching each other for society’s common good.

Globalization in education

Along with developing our own innovations and creating a broad base for implementation, it might be useful to look outside the box. As the world becomes more and more globalized, national education systems are shedding their uniqueness and gaining a more universal, homogeneous look (e.g. the Bologna process, which has brought 50 national higher education systems to a common denominator in Europe and beyond) ( Bologna process, 2016 ). Scholars indicate there is “[…] the need for US universities to keep up with the rest of the world in today’s highly competitive educational marketplace” ( Wildavsky et al. , 2012 , p. 1). It is also economically and culturally beneficial to learn from each other in the spirit of global cooperation and share one’s achievements with others. While in the context of globalization it may be convenient to have a common education system across the world, however, to satisfy the needs and expectations of the nation-state it is necessary to continue innovating within one’s own system. The rich international educational palette offers unique solutions to many issues facing US schools and universities.

What attractive innovative approaches exist in the world that could be applied to the US education system? To mention just a few, the Confucian culture of appreciating education in China, Japan, South Korea, and other South-East Asian nations which brings students’ and parents’ positive and respectful societal attitudes toward education and educators; cultural transformation in education and quality teacher preparation in Finland, Singapore, and Shanghai; organizational innovations in schools of Ontario, Canada. In Finland, a new ecosystem for learning was created ( Niemi et al. , 2014 ). Singapore, for one, has become one of the top-scoring countries on the PISA tests by cultivating strong school leadership, committing to ongoing professional development, and exploring innovative models, like its tech-infused Future Schools ( EDUTOPIA, 2012b ). In Shanghai, China, every low-performing school is assigned a team of master teachers and administrators to provide weekly guidance and mentorship on everything from lesson plans to school culture ( EDITOPIA, 2012a ). The list of international innovations to cogitate is, fortunately, extensive. Is this what our educational innovators could do something about?

Daniel Willingham demonstrates a very interesting angle in international education that substantially differs from ours: “In China, Japan and other Eastern countries, intelligence is more often viewed as malleable. If students fail a test or don’t understand a concept, it’s not that they are stupid – they just haven’t worked hard enough yet. This attribution is helpful to students because it tells them that intelligence is under their control. If they are performing poorly, they can do something about it […] Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work” ( Willingham, 2010 , p. 131).

There are numerous exciting foreign examples for the US educators to learn from and innovate, implementing and adapting them to US schools.

Many US educators certainly learn from advanced nations’ educational experiences ( Darling-Hammond, 2010 ; Stewart, 2012 ), but these innovations find a hard way into the school system. A right step in this direction is to integrate global education ideas into teacher preparation programs. A worthy case of opening up a wide world of global education to US teachers and developing outside-the-box thinking is a new specialization in the Master of Arts in Teaching program, “U.S. Education in Global Context” which has been offered at National University since 2014. The principal focus of this specialization is on advanced, innovative, and effective international approaches, ideas, and strategies in teaching and learning that address the needs of the nation and create contemporary school environments to accommodate diverse student populations. Specialization’s goals and objectives are designed to help students develop the knowledge, competencies, skills, and dispositions required of a globally competent citizen and world-class educator. Focusing on the universal need for continuous improvement in teaching and learning, this specialization provides students with a balance of philosophy and theory, practice and application through collaborative research projects and field-based activities. The ultimate outcome of the four-course specialization is an innovative, practical implementation project to apply in the candidates’ schools.

The Finns, Singaporeans, South Koreans, Hong Kongers, and citizens of other nations consider education the best way to improve their country’s economy, and it has worked. An even more remarkable consequence has been a change to their national cultures. This provides a worthy example for other nations, including ours. To sum up, we need to create favorable conditions for growing our own innovations, while taking advantage of the best international theories and practices.

Learning faster, learning better, and at a lower cost?

You don’t have the time, you make the time (Thorin Klosowski).

Among many points for educational innovations time definitely deserves close attention. Time is a significant factor in education. Attempts to save time on learning and raise its productivity are well known to each of us. To increase learning efficiency using so-called accelerated and intensive approaches is a promising path for innovation. These two approaches demonstrate the difference between evolutionary and revolutionary disruptive approaches.

Innovation, as we know, can be called to life by social, political, or professional factors but the strongest is definitely economic. A flat world ( Friedman, 2005 ) means global competition, faster production cycles, and more to keep up with. Time is speeding up. Requirements for workers are rapidly mounting in industry and business due to swiftly changing technologies and fierce international competition. It is impractical to spend a third of one’s active lifetime attending secondary school and college learning in advance what may not be useful on the job in the next 10 to 15 years because manufacturing, technology, and business will completely change.

Additionally, the cost of a college education is rising faster than inflation, though the outcomes are disproportionate to this rise: “[…] tuition has increased faster than inflation, without a comparable increase in the quality or results” ( Brewer and Tierney, 2012 , p. 13). If you ask students what worries them most, it is the cost of the next course and its value for their future job. Education has become more expensive and less affordable for many people. This also creates a heavy burden on the state’s budget. Therefore, educators need to find ways to make education more time and cost efficient ( Hjeltnes and Hansson, 2005 ).

We can identify two possible roads to take. The first is to increase revenue, and this is what the majority of colleges and universities are doing. Raising tuition, however, has its limits; government support is drying out. Cutting costs, on the other hand, may undermine some essential aspects of higher education. The second road is to increase learning productivity defined as the output (learning outcomes measured in certain units) per dollar or per time unit (academic year, semester, month, week, day, or hour). The former can be used to compute cost efficiency, while the latter will help to define time efficiency. Time efficiency and cost efficiency of education are evidently interrelated. The most obvious source of enhancing educational productivity is integration of ICT; however, there are other ways.

Time is the most precious of commodities, especially for WALs. Our own survey of National University students who take accelerated programs, which allow them to graduate sooner than in conventional programs, shows that time is paramount when selecting their learning program ( Serdyukov et al. , 2003 ). When asked what is more important for them, the cost of the program or the time spent learning, 88 percent of surveyed WALs stated that time was more important, and they were willing to pay more for a shorter program of the same quality. So accelerated programs are often more competitive than the conventional extended ones. Serdyukov and Serdyukova (2012) posit that time efficiency of the learning process is a decisive factor in assessing a program or a course. In their opinion, colleges and universities, which are now evaluated based upon the quality of their education, will soon be selected and valued based on the time needed for the learning to take place.

In the same way, programs that cost less will be more competitive than those that cost more. With education budgets decreasing and numbers of learners taking part in education increasing, time and cost efficiency will play an increasing role in determining a program’s, and thus an institution’s, value.

When considering time investment, instructional activities are basically concerned with either learning more in the same time (i.e. growth in learning outcomes without increasing learning time) or learning the same amount of information in less time (decreasing learning time or compressing the course). As Serdyukov and Serdyukova (2006) write: “Can we, the educators, teach more effectively; can students learn more, better and in less time?” (p. 255). The answer to this question can have profound social, economic and personal significance as it may affect a learner’s career and lifestyle, societal attitude toward education, the rate of investment in education, and eventually the nation’s well-being ( Barbera et al. , 2015 ).

Consideration of time investment in learning coupled with recent innovations in cognitive psychology and ET is what brought to life accelerated and intensive programs. Various approaches and methodologies for providing faster and shorter education without compromising academic quality have been described in the literature ( Scott and Conrad, 1992 ; Rose and Nicholl, 1997 ; Bowling et al. , 2002 ; Serdyukov, 2008 ). They are grounded in the newest brain research in the cognitive and emotional potential of learners ( Lozanov, 1978, 1988 ; Kitaigorodskaya, 1995 ), innovative approaches to teaching and learning that use nontraditional organizational forms, techniques and processes ( Boyes et al. , 2004 ; Serdyukov et al. , 2003 ), ET applications, and even fancy programs of learning during sleep ( Ostrander and Schroeder, 2000 ). The most popular approaches are accelerated learning (AL) programs, which use a compressed, short-term course format, and intensive learning (IL) programs, which employ specially organized course structure, visuals, music, and suggestive techniques to open up students’ intellectual and sensitive capacities, thereby contributing to more effective learning.

Accelerated and intensive programs can significantly shorten the duration of the learning measured in class hours, days, weeks, or semesters. In some cases, they can also increase learning outcomes measured in the volume of knowledge constructed or skill sets learned in a given time. ( Serdyukov, 2008 ).

A conventional semester model of college education may not suit a new generation of WALs who take school part-time and need to speed up learning to obtain employable competencies and skills. The AL model delivers a semester program in a shorter period of time than the conventional program model but with the comparable results. National University, for example, offers undergraduate and graduate-level programs using a nontraditional, accelerated 1×1 model of instruction (one month long, one course at a time) for adult learners ( Serdyukov et al. , 2003 ). Onsite classes usually meet two evening sessions per week for four-and-a-half hour each; in some cases, there are two additional Saturday morning sessions of the same duration. Thus, each course runs for eight evenings with one Saturday morning final session for graduate programs (totaling 40.5 hours) or two Saturday sessions for undergraduate programs (totaling 45 hours). Similar models are used by such schools as Cornell College, Colorado College, DeVry University, Northeast University, Grand Canyon University, Tusculum University, and Colorado State University Global.

Online courses also run for four weeks but instead of face-to-face classroom sessions students participate in threaded discussions (one or two per week), view live videoconferencing sessions (one per week), carry out weekly written assignments, develop projects, and in some courses complete mandatory field activities (e.g. teacher preparation programs require school visits for observing and teaching lessons).

The sequential approach when students take one course after another allows for more accumulated and integrated learning experiences. Besides, according to the student survey ( Serdyukov et al. , 2003 ), this 1×1 format helps to unshackle students’ minds and focus their attention and energy on a single subject. It can also make it easier to adapt to the same teaching/learning style in this instructional model. The advantages observed for the sequential model appear to occur because the more intense, consecutive instruction reduces the number of distractions in the students’ lives, thus allowing for more focused attention and ultimately creating a more effective learning environment. Csikszentmihalyi’s (1982) research suggests that “deep concentration,” “immersion” in an activity, and “undivided intentionality” lead to increasingly rewarding “optimal experiences” which nourish and strengthen the self. He also comments that “optimal experience stands out against this background of humdrum everyday life by excluding the noise that interferes with it in normal existence” (p. 22). This becomes evident when we consider the working adult’s hectic life and complicated everyday experiences. Scott and Conrad (1992) state that “concentrated study may cultivate skills and understandings which will remain untapped and undeveloped under the traditional system” (p. 417). Therefore, learning only one content area at a time has become one of the crucial factors of AL.

The intensive approach, a superior level of AL, has been used in many countries primarily for foreign language education, probably the most time-consuming didactic endeavor. One indicator of how efficiently a student has learned a foreign language is the number of words learned, retained, and correctly used in communication, both in oral and written speech (reading and writing). According to research ( Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 2007 ), a person needs to know and be able to use two to three thousand words in a foreign language for basic communication. These so-called communicative skills can be assessed by the ability of the learner to accomplish a communication task in certain communicative situations. Duration of the study course at this level in a conventional institution can reach 200-300 hours. At a rate of two hours a week, the course duration may extend to 100 or more weeks (two years).

When an innovative, intensive instructional methodology, such as suggestopedia ( Lozanov, 1978 ; Kitaigorodskaya, 1995 ; Rose and Nicholl, 1997 ), is used to teach a foreign language, the learning efficiency significantly rises, and the course duration with the same outcomes can be reduced by approximately 50 percent, as compared to a conventional college course. For instance, an initial intensive course can take up to 100 to 150 hours. The course is usually taught with higher frequency and longer lessons (usually four to five hours, two to three or more times a week). Thus, a complete course of study may be completed only in ten weeks (2.5 months). So time efficiency ( Et ) of an intensive foreign language course in the number of hours ( t ) is of the order of 2 (200 hours of a conventional course ( c ) divided by 100 hours of an intensive course ( i )): E t = t c t i ;

Time efficiency of the same intensive course in the number of weeks is of the order of 10: duration of a conventional course ( dc ) (100 weeks) divided by the duration of an intensive course ( di ) (ten weeks): E t = d c d i .

This is a case of disruptive, revolutionary innovation that produces a radical transformation in foreign language learning where learners achieve course goals and objectives in half the study hours and one-tenth of a typical course duration. This approach, which was extremely popular in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Soviet Union) in the 1980s and 1990s, was to a larger extent inspired by the rise of the Iron Curtain and prospective emigration to the west. Some variations or similar approaches emerged later in Germany, England, Japan, and the USA ( Rose and Nicholl, 1997 ). Why it was not recognized and did not spread throughout US schools and colleges may be partially due to a lack of need (English is spoken worldwide). In addition, it is labor intensive and demands high-level teacher qualifications (special preparation, dedication, excellent dispositions, inventiveness, and very hard work in the class). In addition, it must be taught in specially designed and equipped classrooms. Finally, it depends on students’ elevated intrinsic motivation, work ethic, trust and respect for the teacher, and perseverance, though for a limited time.

Both accelerated and intensive short-term courses demand highly efficient planning, organization, and management of the instructional process. Furthermore, to ensure efficient course delivery, innovative methods and technologies are required for effective presentation, processing, skill development, and real-life applications. Many accomplishments in AL and IL methodologies, incidentally, can be used to teach other than foreign language programs.

learner-centered approach;

specific structure and organization of the course and its content for consistent, “whole” student experience;

effective content presentation in various formats and modalities;

immediate application of new knowledge in authentic situations in the class and real life, and gaining practical outcomes of the course;

iterative process of knowledge construction and skill development ( Serdyukov and Ryan, 2008 );

situated learning ( Lave and Wenger, 1991 ) that uses real-life situations as the basis of learning activities and, especially, in developing professional competence;

continuous active communication, collaboration, and cooperation among students in various small- and big-group activities;

high level of intrinsic motivation developed and constantly supported through emotional involvement of each student in team work and learning process;

instructor’s suggestive, supportive, and efficient teaching style incorporating incessant involvement with the class; immediate, objective, and stimulating feedback; continuous student support;

systemic use of ET in classroom and homework both for content acquisition and skill development, for communication and collaboration, and for maintaining students’ high level of cognitive, physical, and emotional state;

application of suggestive techniques, such as relaxation, ritual structure of classroom activities, positive environment, emotional involvement, and music; and

combination of intensive work and total relaxation.

This approach is rooted in consistent, systemic application of all these principles.

The formula for IL is as follows: The more organized and efficient the instructional system, the more focused the student, the more effort is produced, the better the effect of learning, the faster the rate of learning, and the shorter the process duration ( Serdyukov and Serdyukova, 2006 ). This is why all accelerated and intensive courses are always short (two weeks to 1-2 months long). If no significant effort is applied to learning, then there is no effect, no increase in productivity, and consequently, no opportunity to shorten the duration of the course.

So, accelerated programs that speed up learning by compressing the course duration, while requiring the same number of hours for the same learning outcomes, are an evolutionary innovation. Intensive programs that provide better outcomes in a considerably shorter time are a revolutionary innovation. We can state now that when an innovation ensures significantly better outcomes and saves on cost or time by at least an order of 2 (100 percent) or more, we can call it a revolutionary innovation.

Measuring time in learning can be instrumental for increasing its productivity. Learning to manage time productively is especially acute for independent learners and online students for whom effective time management is a well-known issue. Therefore, teachers need be taught to use time effectively. In teacher preparation programs, for instance, we recommend that teachers use time estimates when planning lessons ( Serdyukov and Ryan, 2008 ; FEA, 2016 ). Thus, making learning more time and cost efficient offers a promising venue for further innovations.

US education desperately needs effective innovations of scale that can help produce high quality learning outcomes across the system and for all students. We can start by intensifying our integration of successful international learning models and creating conditions in our schools and colleges that foster and support innovators and educational entrepreneurs, or edupreneurs ( Tait and Faulkner, 2016 ). Moreover, these transformations should be varied, yet systematic, targeting different vital aspects of education. Deep, multifaceted, and comprehensive innovations, both tangible and intangible, have the capacity to quickly generate scalable effects.

Radically improving the efficiency and quality of teaching and learning theory and practice, as well as the roles of the learner, teacher, parents, community, society, and society’s culture should be the primary focus of these changes. Other promising approaches should seek to improve students’ work ethic and attitudes toward learning, their development of various learning skills, as well as making learning more productive. We also have to bring all grades, from preschool to higher and postgraduate levels, into one cohesive system.

As the price of education, especially at colleges and universities, continues to rise, cost and time efficiency of learning, effective instructional approaches, and methods and tools capable of fulfilling the primary mission of education all will become critical areas of research and inventive solutions. Colleges and universities must concentrate on expanding the value of education, maximizing the productivity of learning, correlating investments with projected outcomes, and improving cost and time efficiency.

Whatever technologies we devise for education, however much technology we integrate into learning, the human element, particularly the learner and teacher, remains problematic. So, while taking advantage of effective educational technologies, we must situate those modern tools within a wider context of human education in order to preserve its humanistic, developmental purpose and, thus, make more effective use of them.

Computers for schools are ready, but are we ready? Our understanding of how students learn and how teachers teach and craft their methodology in technology-based environments remains lacking. Questions to ask are whether current methods help increase learning productivity, and as a result, time and cost efficiency. All technology applications require a solid theoretical foundation based on purposeful, systemic research and sound pedagogy to increase efficiency and decrease possible side issues. When integrating novel technologies in teaching and learning, we must first consider their potential applicability, anticipated costs and benefits, and then develop successful educational practices.

Therefore, the key to a prosperous, inventive society is a multidimensional approach to revitalizing the educational system (structures, tools, and stake holders) so that it breeds learners’ autonomy, self-efficacy, critical thinking, creativity, and advances a common culture that supports innovative education. In order to succeed, innovative education must become a collective matter for all society for which we must generate universal public responsibility. Otherwise, all our efforts to build an effective educational system will fail.

innovations in education

Model of educational innovation

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The author would like to thank Drs Robyn Hill, Sara Kelly and Margot Kinberg for their help in preparing this paper for publication.

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Innovation in Education: What Does It Mean, and What Does It Look Like?

Innovation. It’s such an overused term, isn’t it? Everyone these days is striving to be innovative, is promising innovation, is encouraging others to innovate. But if you think about it, it’s overused for a reason. It’s a single word that encapsulates everything that is exciting in any industry—a goal to shoot for because it means you’re different, your ideas are new, and your work is almost magical.

Our team uses the term a lot, and we say it proudly! Innovation in the education vertical is so very important. We want our students to love learning, we need them to! By being innovative, we can engage students in ways we never have before, and that’s pretty incredible.

We surveyed teachers and educators to respond to two questions: What does innovation in education mean to you? And, what’s the most innovative thing you have done—or have seen another teacher do—in the classroom? Some of our favorite responses are below. Read on and get inspired.

What does innovation in education mean to you?

“Innovation in education means doing what’s best for all students. Teachers, lessons, and curriculum have to be flexible. We have to get our students to think and ask questions. We need to pique their curiosity, and find ways to keep them interested. Innovation means change, so we have to learn that our students need more than the skills needed to pass the state assessments given every spring. We have to give them tools that will make them productive in their future careers.”  – Kimberly

“Innovation, to me, means finding any way you can to reach all of your students. This means being willing and flexible to adjust what you teach and how you teach. We have to keep our students engaged and excited to learn. We have to create a safe place for them to make mistakes, take risks, and ask questions.” – Ashley

“Innovation in education is always seeking knowledge that will support new and unique ideas in instructional techniques that will reach the students in more effective and exciting ways.” – Mischelle

“Innovation in education is stepping outside of the box, challenging our methods and strategies in order to support the success of all students as well as ourselves. This transformation may be small or a complete overhaul, but it is done with purpose and supports the whole student.” – Whitney

“Innovation in education means allowing imagination to flourish and not be afraid to try new things. Sometimes these new things fail but it’s awesome when they are a success. Without the right attitude, innovation would just be a word and the art of education would miss out on some great accomplishments.”  – Valerie

“Innovation means keeping yourself educated about new trends and technology in education. For example, I incorporated STEM bins into my classroom because their is a huge push for more STEM related activities in education. I think innovation is also being creative with the resources your given. Sometimes your building or district might not provide everything you need for a lesson so you need to be innovative and think on the fly of how you could make something work!” – Nadia

What’s the most innovative thing you have done—or have seen another teacher do—in the classroom?

“My team teacher and I used guest teacher certificates as part of our reward system. Kids had 10-15 minutes to teach the class anything they wanted. It was amazing to see them get up in front of their peers and share their passions!” – Marlene

“I set my math & science units for my third graders up like college classes. Students start with picking a particular major and at the end of the unit, we work on making connections on how each lesson relates to the real world and the job they each choose individually. My students absolutely love the opportunity to be treated like adults and explore future options.” – Jade

“We have at times had students begin creating graphic novels in order to have better recall regarding historical information!” – Misty

“My second graders grade their own tests using their tech devices. They get immediate feedback and take the time to understand the answers that are wrong.” – Jenifer

“The most innovative thing I’ve done in my classroom is using a TAP (Teacher Advancement Program) rubric in my whole lesson where there are 19 indicators to follow. Some of the indicators are standards and objectives, activities and materials, feedbacking, questioning, etc. These indicators are true testament that if this TAP rubric is done daily, I can move students daily. Move means students’ academic growth. There is nothing more rewarding for a teacher than to see his or her students academic grow, improve, or increase. That’s the beauty of the TAP rubric.”  – Marlyn

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The Impact of Innovation in Education

The Impact of Innovation in Education

Industry Advice Education

Organizations across industries today have come to rely on innovation to remain relevant and effective in our constantly evolving society. Whether by updating their products, processes, or business models or developing new ones from scratch, innovation allows companies to stay abreast of changing consumer needs and expectations, and to remain competitive against similar companies in their space.

The innovation process is responsible for many of the most popular products and services we know today, including app-ordered food delivery services , video streaming platforms , two-day shipping features from Amazon , and so much more. However, Karen Reiss Medwed , PhD—associate teaching professor and the assistant dean of networks, digital engagement, and partnerships in Northeastern’s Graduate School of Education —explains that innovation should be associated with more than just these large-scale projects. The education sector, for example, offers countless opportunities for change and evolvement that have the potential to impact students, parents, and educators for years to come.

Below, we explore the powerful significance of this innovative mindset among educators and offer tips for applying innovation in your educational institution today.

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What is Innovation in Education?

In general, innovation is based in the creation or redesign of products, processes, or business models for the benefit of an organization. Innovation in education is similarly focused on making positive changes, but in this case, these changes will directly benefit a classroom, school, district, university, or even an organization’s training and learning practices.

Educators and administrators take a variety of both large- and small-scale approaches to this process. For instance, innovation in education might include: 

  • An educator recognizing a need for ideas to be better shared among other teachers in their district and developing processes that more easily facilitate that.
  • A professor identifying a gap in understanding among the students in their classroom and brainstorming new, creative ways to approach that topic.
  • An administrator identifying the need for better communication between teachers and parents, and working to create an online system that allows for more transparency into their child’s progress.

While each of these forms of innovation is very different, each involves an educator following the innovation process in an effort to improve the ways in which the educational system functions.

Why is Innovation in Education Important?

Innovation is a vital component of progress across industries, and education is no different. “Schools don’t exist in a silo, teachers don’t exist in a silo, [and] businesses don’t exist in a different realm,” Reiss Medwed says. “We’re all at a table together, trying to solve the world’s problems.”

Innovation in education is especially significant, considering the young minds molded by the education system today will be those leading the charge for innovation tomorrow. And if the rapidly changing needs of the current workforce are any indication of what’s to come for future generations, this investment will be necessary in order to continue making progress at the speed and quality that we are today.

“Industry is moving at a rapid pace,” Reiss Medwed explains. “We’re living in the space of digital transformation. There are needs in business and in [other] industries that ten years ago, we never anticipated for the workforce, and as that rate of change takes off…we must [work to] catch up.” 

To catch up, educators must update the outdated processes and approaches defining schools and universities across the country, and introduce practices that better prepare students to function in the future. This includes, most prominently, changes in curricula and hands-on exposure to the expansive digital tools being used across industries today.

How to Innovate in the Education Sector

Many professionals have ideas about how they might improve the educational system, yet very few possess the tools and support needed to turn their passion from an abstract idea into a reality.

Reiss Medwed believes that innovation in education includes three key steps:

  • Examine your current situation. This should include an examination of your experience followed by a mental exploration of how that experience could be improved upon. Ask yourself three questions to get this process going, including, “What is the problem?” “How can I address this problem to make it better?” and “What tools do I have at my disposal to assist in this process?”
  • Make Small-Scale Changes. Once you’ve explored the above questions and the answers are formalized, you should try to make that change on a small-scale within your own world.
  • Broaden Your Approach & Accept to Feedback. Analyze the outcomes of that experiment and identify what further support might be needed to either hone the idea or restructure it all together.

This final step is perhaps the most important and will require the most time and effort. Within it, you will likely lean on existing data about your subject, which might include examining past artifacts, doing research, speaking with those who have tried to innovate in this space before you, and, perhaps most importantly, identifying your stakeholders.

“One of the big [components] of innovation in education is making sure students and parents are at the table,” Reiss Medwed says. “There’s hierarchy [in place] to keep those stakeholders out, but how can you innovate without the people who are your learners sitting with you in the process of design?”

To properly innovate with all the appropriate voices being heard, Reiss Medwed suggests “rolling out a broader-scale experience with all of the stakeholders engaged,” followed by a feedback loop. She similarly stresses the importance of self-reflection, including acknowledging when you need to “re-tool,” pivot in your process, cancel it altogether, or bring your idea to scale.

“We always want to be able to try something new [as educators],” Reiss Medwed stresses, “but we also have to be willing to fail at it, let it go, and move onto the next thing. Because innovation without the capacity of sustainability is just another experiment.”

Pursuing an EdD as an Aspiring Innovator

Innovators who have the experience and skills necessary to self-regulate this process will likely be able to make an impact in their industry. However, not all educators have attained this advanced ability by the time they are ready to start effecting change. For these individuals, obtaining an advanced degree such as a Doctor of Education (EdD) will provide the necessary training and guidance needed to innovate in this complex sector.

Learn More: EdD vs. Phd in Education

Many students in EdD programs work full-time as education professionals, bringing with them problems that they’re excited to solve and ideas about how to begin that process. In these scenarios, faculty in a program like Northeastern’s EdD provide a set of courses and feedback processes through which these ideas can develop.

“In the [Northeastern’s] Graduate School of Education, you’ll see both explicit courses on innovation and experiential learning, but also courses such as curriculum engaging with design thinking methodology,” Reiss Medwed says. “This approach to [the] integration of these competencies across the curriculum is part of what I think helps us advance students who are then prepared in their practice to apply this to their own work and see immediate results.”

Northeastern’s EdD program strategically incorporates these two vital aspects of training through an “experiential lens.” As working professionals already functioning in the education sector, students in this program can take what they’re learning in the classroom and immediately apply it hands-on to real-world scenarios. This is an incredibly beneficial approach, as the industry-leading professors in this program can offer useful feedback and insight to students as they work, strategically guiding them toward a successful innovation experience.

Reiss Medwed recalls one specific example of a student who came through a program within Northeastern’s Graduate School of Education and left with a full innovation plan in place. The student’s idea was to “develop a website that could connect educators to one another around the subject area she was teaching,” Reiss Medwed says.

During this student’s time at Northeastern, the faculty within the Graduate School of Education connected the aspiring innovator with peers who asked her targeted questions about her idea and faculty who gave her feedback about legal issues, budget considerations, and other advanced insights. She was then able to use “design thinking to prototype an idea and turn it into a plan that she could actually take back with her into her work,” Reiss Medwed says. Today, this student has a “fully launched community of practice” that she was able to create through her work at Northeastern.

“I think that everyone who [applies to] a graduate school of education is looking to make a difference in the world,” Reiss Medwed says. “But…if you’re coming to Northeastern as a student in the Graduate School of Education , you’re seeking out the tools and the support to make that change more explicit.”

Learn more about how a Doctor of Education from Northeastern can assist in your path toward educational innovation today.

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About shayna joubert, related articles.

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Imagine you were planning a trek across Death Valley. Would you be better off setting out on foot with just a bottle of water in your hand, or in a vehicle loaded with supplies and a full tank of gas?

That’s one of the metaphors Leon Sandler uses to describe the work of the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation — giving MIT researchers and aspiring entrepreneurs the tools they need to successfully spin out their technologies and have an impact on the greater world.

As executive director of the center, Sandler has been at the heart of helping teams pack those figurative vehicles. Now, after 18 years of guiding hundreds of MIT researchers, he is retiring from the role.

“I have had great fun, learned a lot, and met wonderful and interesting people,” Sandler says. “Interacting with MIT faculty and students and watching them learn and grow has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.”

The Deshpande Center was founded in 2002 to support faculty as they move their research out of the lab. Its motto, “From innovation to impact,” describes the center itself as well as its mission. Some 550 researchers have benefited from the center’s program, which provides funding and mentoring to projects that have the potential to spin out. More than 50 of those projects have gone on to become startup companies.

“Those companies have made a difference in a wide array of areas, from health care to energy to environment to communications,” Sandler says.

For example: There’s Taris Bio, which developed a drug delivery platform to treat bladder cancer and sold it to Johnson & Johnson. Early results from clinical trials appear promising, and last December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated it as a Breakthrough Device.

There’s Eta Devices, which early in 2023 sold its handset chip business to electronics manufacturer Murata. The technology is reducing power consumption in hundreds of millions of mobile phones.

And there’s the rapidly expanding Gradient, which 10 years after its founding is cleaning wastewater in more than 33 countries. Last spring it was valued at over $1 billion.

Faculty director Angela Koehler, the Kathleen and Curtis Marble Professor in Cancer Research, is herself a former grantee, having spun out a novel cancer therapy into Kronos Bio with help from Sandler and the center. He has also spoken to her undergraduate courses over the years, and his dedication to educating others stands out, she says.

“He is passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship and genuinely cares about both finding the right marketplace for technologies while educating the next generation,” Koehler says. “My colleagues really respect Leon as an educator.

“I just think that Leon is one of the most delightful, funny, and genuine characters that I have come across … He also knows how to throw a good party!”

Setting a mission

Back in 2006, Sandler didn’t expect to stay with the Deshpande Center for long. A startup CEO with a background in chemical engineering, he had been helping entrepreneurs through MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service. When he learned Deshpande was seeking its second executive director, he thought it would be interesting work for a couple of years.

But before long he was hooked, and a couple of years turned into 18.

“I like interacting with people and building relationships, learning about a wide range of topics, and intellectual stimulation and challenge. This job has provided all of them,” Sandler says. “The people and relationships — very bright, very interesting people — I learn from all of them.”

The education works both ways. Sandler came to the Deshpande Center with a strong resume including senior management positions at Texas Instruments, Eastman Kodak, and Digital Equipment before turning to startups and business consulting. He willingly shares his experiences and lessons learned.

Still, he is an engineer first. Sandler often advises anyone starting a new venture — project teams, visitors, colleagues — to start from the essentials. “The question is: What is the problem you’re trying to solve?” he will often say.

That was in essence the first question he asked upon joining the center, determining the mission and core customer base. The answer: advancing MIT research to the point where it could spin out of MIT, attract outside funding, and have an impact on the world.

Unlike other innovation and entrepreneurship programs on campus that guide students, the Deshpande Center focuses on serving faculty members, along with their graduate and postdoc research teams. It accomplishes this by providing grants, but more importantly, mentoring to help projects hoping to form startups.

“ We also discovered that we have a secondary mission of educating faculty and their graduate students on how to commercialize MIT research. They learn by doing,” says Sandler.

A critical part of the Deshpande Center’s success is its corps of volunteer mentors. These mentors, known as catalysts, are as diverse in their technical and industry expertise as the projects that come through the center.

Roughly 25 percent of the projects supported by the center have turned into startups so far, with more on the horizon. Others have made an impact through licensing to existing companies. While some technologies don’t spin out, the researchers still make positive strides. 

“The teams all learn a tremendous amount about the process and about markets and customers.  Some have come back to the Deshpande Center for subsequent projects that have spun out, and others have spun out new research without coming back to us,” Sandler says.

Reflecting on the Deshpande Center’s success over the years, Sandler points to the focus on that core mission and dedication to faculty. Although the staff has historically been small, just three or four people, with the aid of the outstanding mentor corps the center has had a huge impact.

Above all, the relationships forged along the way have been the most satisfying aspect of the job, Sandler says. That includes faculty, mentors, students, and people in different industries or from around the globe seeking to learn more about the center. And after more than 800 grantee project update meetings, he can truly be said to have drunk from the proverbial MIT fire hose.

“It’s been very intellectually stimulating, and I learned so much about so many areas from all the experts, continuously learning for 18 years,” says Sandler.

Even as he prepares for retirement, Sandler is continuing to educate. Over the next few months he will be sticking around the center in an advisory role to help the next executive director into the role.

Sandler is packing a less-figurative vehicle now, loading his own car up with golf clubs and hiking gear. He’s looking forward to spending more time outdoors.

He also offers general advice for faculty, staff and students: Keep learning.

“Read very broadly, well outside of your domain of expertise and comfort zone, and continue to learn,” Sandler advises. “Think critically and apply common sense, yet be open to think ‘out of the box’ and try new approaches.

“Time is your scarcest asset. Spend it on what is meaningful to you. Care about people and behave decently — it will make you feel a lot better.”

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Seven Inspiring Innovations In Education From Around the Globe

American schools, start taking notes! There may be some things to learn from these successful programs

Emily Matchar

Emily Matchar

Innovation Correspondent


Summer break is often a needed respite from school, but it’s also a natural time to think about how the classroom experience might be improved. Here’s a look at seven educational innovations from around the world. Should America consider adopting any of these? Some of these innovations are technological, while others are philosophical. Some are brand-new, while others have been around for a few decades. All are enhancing student learning in interesting and sometimes counterintuitive ways.  

South Korea: Robot Teachers


In some South Korean classrooms, students learn English from Engkey, an egg-shaped  robot English teacher  with a cute humanoid face. Engkey is controlled remotely by a native English-speaker (at home in, say, Australia or the U.S.), whose face is projected on Engkey’s screen. Known as a “telepresence” robot, Engkey helps address shortages of native English teachers in South Korea. Other types of robots help students check in for class, inquire about their moods or teach them to dance. 

Denmark: Forest Kindergartens


While American parents fret over the increasing amounts of testing and homework for young children, in much of Scandinavia, kindergartners aren’t expected to do much more than run around outside. The “ forest kindergarten” model , popularized in Northern Europe in the 1960s, gives young children unstructured playtime in a natural setting. Proponents say free play develops young children’s natural curiosity and prepares them for learning better than sitting in a classroom. Americans are beginning to agree. Forest kindergartens have been  popping up in the U.S . over the past few years.

Germany: Free University Education

innovations in education

File this under “fat chance.” But still, we can dream. While the average four-year university in the U.S. costs about  $24,000 a year  in tuition, fees and living expenses, Germany  did away with university fees  entirely last year. The move was meant to make sure all Germans, regardless of their financial situation, can access higher education. Of course, German universities are much more  frills-free  than their U.S. counterparts. No fancy student unions, Olympic pools or five-star dining halls. But hey, for $0 we could live without make-your-own waffle stations. Germany’s free college scheme is open to foreigners as well, so those unwilling to hold their breath for free tuition in the U.S. can start practicing their  Deutsch .

United Arab Emirates: 3D Learning


Imagine a lecture hall full of students in 3D glasses, watching a hologram of the human brain or the planets in the solar system. This is the reality at  GEMS Modern Academy  in Dubai, where classrooms and labs are connected by a super-high-speed fiber optic network and science lessons are delivered on a 3D platform.  3D learning  draws student attention, and can help make abstract concepts easier to grasp. Sure beats watching a grainy video on a rolled-in television cart.

Cuba: Literacy Brigades

innovations in education

At the dawn of the Cuban Revolution, Cuba’s rural literacy rate was just 59 percent. In 1961, Fidel Castro sent out “ literacy brigades ” of teachers into the island’s hinterlands. In just a year, these teachers reduced the nation’s illiteracy rate to less than 4 percent. The program inspired a method of community-based intensive literacy education called “Yo Si Puedo” (Yes I Can), which has since been  replicated in countries around the world , recently among the indigenous population of Australia. While the vast majority of Americans (about 99 percent) are considered literate, 36 million adults read at only a  third grade level . Perhaps it’s time for a literacy “revolution” of our own?

Finland: Teacher Autonomy


Low pay and low autonomy (think “teaching to the test”) have long made it difficult for American schools to recruit and keep talented teachers. Finland, on the other hand, has moved towards  greater and greater teacher freedom  in the past several decades. Teachers, who are highly trained (all must have master’s degrees) and well-respected, are given generous latitude to help their students learn in the way they feel is best. So there’s very little standardized testing and no punishments for failing to meet specific standards. The system seems to be working—Finnish schools consistently rank among the best in the world.

England: The Paperless Classroom

At the  Essa Academy  in Bolton, outside Manchester, all students are given an iPad and classrooms are equipped with cutting-edge digital projectors. The technology has helped the once-failing school become  one of the highest achieving in the region . All classes are organized through Apple’s iTunes U, which lets students keep their digital materials all in one place. Students can even design their own digital courses, which then become available worldwide. Technically, the school is not entirely paperless—students still take their exams the old-fashioned way.

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Emily Matchar

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Emily Matchar is a writer based in Hong Kong and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her work has appeared in The New York Times , The Atlantic , The New Republic , The Washington Post and other publications. She is the author of Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity .

Top 7 Innovations in K-12 Education

Top 7 Innovations in K-12 Education

The education sector has seen transformative changes over the past decade, primarily through the integration of digital aids into classrooms. This evolution aims to enhance the teaching and learning experience in schools and universities. The adoption of innovative teaching methods and technologies has been pivotal in fostering a deeper understanding of subjects among students and improving classroom engagement.

Top 7 Innovations in K-12 Education -

  • Flipped Classroom Approach
  • Audiobooks and Dictation Software
  • Digital Content Libraries
  • Social Media for Collaborative Learning
  • Simulation Games
  • Augmented Reality
  • Virtual Reality

1. Flipped Classroom Approach:

This model reverses traditional learning by having students study materials at home and engage in assignments and discussions in class. It utilizes digital content like video lectures and interactive eBooks to foster a more engaging and practical learning environment, encouraging active participation and collaboration.

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2. Audiobooks and Dictation Software:

These tools support students with disabilities or those looking to improve language skills. Audiobooks enhance vocabulary and comprehension through auditory learning, while dictation software assists those unable to write or type, making learning accessible to all.

3. Digital Content Libraries:

Virtual repositories of learning materials, including videos, audiobooks, and interactive assignments, cater to diverse learning needs and styles. These libraries support teachers in delivering concepts more effectively and students in engaging deeply with content.

4. Social Media for Collaborative Learning:

Leveraging social media platforms facilitates collaboration and interaction among students and teachers, fostering a supportive educational community. It enables sharing, discussion, and feedback outside the traditional classroom setting.

5. Simulation Games:

These digital simulations offer virtual scenarios that mimic real-life situations, enhancing understanding and application of concepts in a risk-free environment. They promote problem-solving and critical thinking skills through experiential learning.

6. Augmented Reality:

AR adds digital overlays to the physical world, making learning interactive and fun. VR offers immersive experiences, transporting students to different settings, such as historical sites or scientific explorations, without leaving the classroom. Both technologies provide dynamic and engaging ways to grasp complex subjects.

7. Virtual Reality:

Virtual reality goes a level beyond augmented reality. It not only displays enhanced visuals, but makes the user believe that they are present in different world altogether. Virtual reality replaces the physical world with a digital experience. This technology is best used to show places of geographical or historic importance. Instead of arranging a field trip for the students, teachers can make them wear head mounted displays which gives them a view of the real location.

Although the equipment used for virtual reality display might be a little costly, you get to provide your students an immersive learning experience which will benefit them. Teach them about the pyramids of Egypt, show them the interiors of the pyramids without stepping out of the classroom.

This style of teaching helps students to grasp concepts more effectively and retain the information. With 3D visuals and audio, the wearer of the VR display would be transported to an artificial world, providing a highly sensory experience.

The recent years have seen many innovations in the field of technology. A lot of these innovations can be leveraged effectively in K-12 education . Today, the curriculum is designed in such a way that the concepts that are taught can be applied not only in classrooms but also in real-lives. K-12 students now have the opportunity to explore and enhance their knowledge with multiple digital resources to support them in their learning journey.

Educational institutes are incorporating the top trends in technology in order to improve the way subjects are taught as well to enhance the learning experience. By using multiple digital techniques that can provide an intuitive and immersive learning experience, you can provide the best opportunities for effective learning.

Key Takeways

  • The integration of digital technologies in education, such as flipped classrooms, audiobooks, and AR/VR, has significantly improved engagement and learning outcomes.
  • These innovations cater to diverse learning needs, making education more accessible and inclusive.
  • By leveraging digital content libraries and social media, educators can offer a more interactive and collaborative learning experience.
  • Simulation games, AR, and VR provide practical, immersive experiences that enhance understanding and retention of subject matter.
  • The continuous adoption of technology in education is pivotal in preparing students for a digital future, equipping them with the necessary skills and knowledge for real-life applications.

The evolution of educational technologies not only enriches the learning experience but also prepares students for the challenges of the modern world, making education a more effective, inclusive, and engaging process.

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More and more Americans are feeling less satisfied. Higher education offers a solution

In an era marked by challenges and uncertainties, higher education emerges as a vital source of hope and renewal for Americans seeking satisfaction and meaning in their lives.

  • Greg Jones is Belmont University president.

A recent Gallup poll revealed near-record lows in Americans' satisfaction with their personal lives (just 47% report feeling satisfied). In a world gripped by pandemics, political turmoil and widespread dissatisfaction, the search for hope becomes paramount. The question arises: Where can hope be found?   

The answer may lie within the institution of higher education.  

Institutions that articulate their mission and purposes clearly — then put those commitments into action — and who prioritize character development and whole-person formation are poised to address the countless challenges our communities are facing, including the growing dissatisfaction seen in the lives of so many Americans.  

These institutions have the power to inspire hope, and they are well-positioned to lead the way in shaping a better tomorrow in the following distinctive ways. 

Another column by Greg Jones: Embrace joy and build a hopeful future propelled by gratitude

Foster a culture of innovation  

When they foster a culture of innovation, universities committed to this work drive advancements in countless areas like healthcare, technology, sustainability and social welfare.

Units within these institutions develop treatments and technologies to improve healthcare outcomes and enhance overall well-being for communities all over the world.

When interdisciplinary collaboration informs data-based approaches to addressing poverty, inequality and other determinants of health and well-being, higher education institutions can encourage scientific and technological progress and create tangible benefits that improve the quality of life for people across communities. 

For example, Project WELL , led by the Belmont Data Collaborative, brings together experts from various fields and uses data analysis to understand how social factors affect mental health in young Nashvillians. By doing so, we can improve mental health services specifically for this population, offering a blueprint for addressing similar challenges in other communities nationwide.  

Engage in communities  

By encouraging active participation among their communities, universities can instill a sense of responsibility and agency. This involvement can take various forms, from partnering with local nonprofits to creating service-learning based projects.

Through civic engagement, universities can help cultivate servant leadership, unleash the power of collective action and effect positive change within their spheres of influence.  

Also, these universities can foster civil discourse and provide a platform for young people to learn dialogue across differences and divides. This is especially crucial in a world that is increasingly divisive and polarized, offering the chance to forge a new way forward rooted in understanding, empathy and cooperation. 

More: Tennessee universities and free speech policies: See how they rank in new report

Build a sense of belonging   

These institutions can and must cultivate inclusive environments where every person feels valued and supported. This involves promoting diversity, equity and inclusion across campus and implementing policies and programs that celebrate different identities and perspectives, on-campus and beyond.

When people feel a sense of belonging, they are more likely to thrive mentally, emotionally and socially, laying the foundation for a more hopeful future.  

We can promote equity by being good community partners and engaging with and addressing surrounding communities' needs. This may look like partnering with area school districts to provide resources and mentors for youth, offering outreach programs that provide access to workforce development opportunities and collaborating with local businesses and organizations to address pressing social and economic challenges.   

Enable lifelong learning anywhere  

By providing access to programs of learning throughout life, professional development resources and enrichment through online platforms, universities extend their impact beyond traditional boundaries.

This democratization of education empowers people of all ages and backgrounds to pursue knowledge, develop skills and realize their full potential. In doing so, higher education institutions play a vital role in fostering lifelong learning and enabling people to thrive in an ever-changing world.  

Through fostering innovation, encouraging civic engagement, promoting inclusivity and facilitating lifelong learning, these institutions have a unique role in educating minds, healing spirits and reweaving the social fabric of our communities.

By committing to these values, institutions can indeed offer more than just academic excellence; they can offer a pathway to a more hopeful, unified and satisfied society. As we look towards the future, it becomes increasingly clear that the power of education extends far beyond the classroom — it lies at the very heart of our collective quest for a brighter, more hopeful tomorrow. 

Greg Jones is Belmont University president.  


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  21. PDF Information and Communication Technologies in Secondary Education

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