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How Can Innovation Improve Access to Quality Learning?

UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Yoka Brandt speaks at the event. Beside her are (left-right) UNICEF Representative in Uganda Sharad Sapra, Ms. Titus, Ms. Oke, Ms. Bourne and H.E. Mr. Friis Bach.

This article originally appeared on UNICEF's Basic Education and Gender Equality site on 6 May 2013.

NEW YORK, United States of America, 3 May 2013 – Last week, the Government of Denmark and UNICEF hosted the interactive discussion ‘Breaking barriers: Innovative partnerships creating exponential change in access to quality learning’. Moderated by journalist Femi Oke, the lively discussion brought together government representatives, leaders from the private sector, civil society and others to explore how innovations can surmount barriers for children in fulfilling their right to access to a quality education and, more importantly, quality learning.

The session was in ‘clinic’ format – that is, audience participation and dialogue were encouraged. A large part of the discussion focused on defining innovation for education and for children and young people.

Video: "Be bold": Innovation and access to quality learning

The discussion was part of a day of events hosted by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) around the theme ‘Partnering for innovative solutions for sustainable development’. Over 500 guests attended. The day was opened by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at United Nations headquarters in New York.

President of Frog design Doreen Lorenzo remarked that the technology and knowledge coming from the private sector can be powerful in helping social innovation by working with partners like UNICEF. Frog has been working with UNICEF on Project Mwana, a major initiative to improve maternal and infant health and welfare in peri-urban Malawi and rural Zambia. “We are at the very beginning of something that is incredibly exciting and can truly bring a lot of change and a lot of good,” she said.

Vice President of Industry Affairs Sven Leirvaag explained their model of a ‘partnership of four’ to utilize technology to support development. The partners include the donor, the traveller; the beneficiary, UNICEF; the travel partner, the agencies who provide the reach to customers; and the technology, the Amadeus platform. This system allows travel booking engines to collect micro-donations from travellers when they book flights, giving travellers the chance to donate money to UNICEF.

Innovative thinking and learning
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Yoka Brandt opened the afternoon session and framed the discussion: “New technologies are already helping accelerate the education of children,” she said, “but innovation is not only just about technology – it is also about innovations in programmes.”

Minister for Development Cooperation of Denmark H.E. Mr. Christian Friis Bach talked about the need to find innovative solutions for learning. “If you engage students in…innovative thinking, you’ll get better results and more innovative citizens,” he said. “And that’s what we should strive for. Quality learning and quality education for all has to be part of our future goal setting and, there, innovation is needed.”

UNICEF Associate Director of Programmes and Chief of Education Josephine Bourne explained that it was important to keep sight of learning objectives when investing in new technology and ideas in education. Technology, in itself, may not be the best solution for children to learn. “What is it that you want to achieve?” she asked. “Will this work? Will this actually create improvement in learning achievement?”

Technology for every girl and boy
As an example of technological innovation, UNICEF Uganda Representative Dr. Sharad Sapra presented Digital-School-In-A-Box, a device that could help bring learning materials and Internet access to remote areas around the world. Dr. Sapra also emphasized that innovative approaches to education that promote learning are even more important: “I want to see that, every moment that this child is in school or is in the community, there is an opportunity so they can learn…[it’s] not just about an education system that operates in a school, we are talking about a learning environment.”

Venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith talked about entrepreneurship and innovation in education. “In the last two years,” he said, “you’ve seen this emergence of the most capable, most motivated, most exceptional entrepreneurs to change the face of education.” He highlighted the popularity of Khan Academy, a website that offers video lessons on a wide range of topics for students of all ages. According to Mr. Dintersmith, approximately six million students a month access content from Khan Academy.

Executive Director of Girls Who Code Kristen Titus emphasized the importance of technology as a necessity for basic work skills and for the empowerment of girls. “Seventy per cent of students in New York City reported they have zero hours of training in computers…0.3 per cent of girls express any interest in in studying technology or science education,” she said. Through Girls Who Code, young women are being taught how to build websites, mobile applications and more.

UNICEF: Innovation for all
The work and ideas discussed reinforce the principles behind UNICEF’s innovation work: A commitment to open-source engagements, determination to learn from failure and realization that local talent must be front and centre in creating successful local solutions have positioned UNICEF as a global leader in innovation for development. Panellists and participants showed their support and commitment to achieving the best results for children and for the world, no matter where they live or who they are.

“I encourage all of us to be bold,” said Ms. Brandt. “Let us work together and let us settle not for incremental improvements that reach the lucky few.”

Watch the discussion


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