There’s a huge need for low-cost education in the developing world. Many countries in Africa and Latin America have large school-age populations, but not nearly enough schools, teachers, and resources to cater for them.
That’s why some of the most radical education innovation could happen in poorer markets, not rich ones. While we’ve seen many impressive startups like Khan Academy and Udacity come out of the American education system, it’s the developing world that has the greatest unmet demand, and the least cause to turn to traditional models.
“The urgency is the demographic dividend,” says Pablo Jenkins, an education entrepreneur from Costa Rica. “We are at a time when we have more young people of school and working age than we’ll ever see in our lives. We have to make sure these people are at a high level of human capital and education.”
The “demographic dividend” refers to the benefit countries can get from having greater numbers of workers than “dependents” (the young and old who need support). Economists attribute East Asia’s surge in the 20th century partly to demographics, and say Latin America could be entering a sweet spot of its own. The question is whether it has a workforce to take advantage.
Jenkins sees two main gaps at the moment. One that the Costa Rican system isn’t attracting enough students, because school isn’t relevant or connected enough. And two, that teachers are not trained to a high enough standard. Most English teachers in the country have only intermediate level language skills, he says.
Rather than doubling-down on what hasn’t worked, Jenkins says his country should look to alternatives. “We cannot wait to train a new generation of English teachers, so in 20 years time, they’re training the kids at school. In turn, we can’t complement [today’s] teachers and hope they learn a bit more, so they can train the students.”
One option is to rely less on teachers. Jenkins and his partner Melissa Monge are currently working on a pilot with Duolingo, the popular free language-learning site. It gathers students to a classroom to learn collaboratively, instead of sitting in rows listening to a lecture. Each student works independently, going through Duolingo’s stages. The teachers are more “companions” than leaders.
“It’s less about someone teaching and more about many people learning at their own pace,” Jenkins says. “The teachers stop lecturing and become facilitators, helping the students become fluent in using the tool. Then they’re often pairing kids with each other, so they can learn from one another.”
The concept is a version of the “flipped” classroom, where students get core information on their own (perhaps through an online tutorial) then work out problems in class. Homework exercises become classwork exercises. Jenkins and Monge’s version has added “gamified” elements taken from Duolingo, which has 500,000 users in Costa Rica alone. “There are certain elements of video games that make people very resilient. It’s like there’s this sense of quest in learning,” Jenkins says.
Only 600 kids (and 15 teachers) have been through the pilot so far. But it could offer a way to expand access to language learning, especially for kids aged 10 and up, the entrepreneurs say. Jenkins points to its low-cost ($10-$20 a month) because the software is free.
The approach has similarities with other big initiatives in Latin America, like Innova Schools, backed by Peruvian billionaire Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor. It already has 60,000 students for its “blended” model, which sees students learn both on their own, using a laptop, and together in group sessions (it uses Khan Academy content). Tuition is about $100 a month, making it affordable to the middle class.
“Our idea is to slowly shift the way school classes work,” Jenkins says. “When you have the professors with limited knowledge of English, and students at different levels, individualized self-paced learning can be very powerful, at least in [the language learning] context.”