How overlooked innovations can streamline education systems

Editor’s note: As part of the Skills for a Changing World project, this blog series explores opportunities for innovation in education to develop breadth of skills.

In recent weeks we have been exploring innovations in education like employing a hands-on, minds-on approach to teaching and learning and unburdening teachers of non-teaching related tasks—that can accelerate progress and deliver the breadth of skills all young people need to be successful today and in the future. But one challenge can impede the success of those innovations—paper.

In particular, this problem takes the form of paper-based systems of recording and the inherent administrative inefficiencies they represent. Inefficient methods for collecting and reporting data and for communicating within and to communities outside schools waste precious human and financial resources that could be better used to accomplish improvements in learning. Replacing archaic paper-based systems with more efficient ones, while less disruptive than other innovations, will help streamline schools so they can achieve the transformation we aspire to in our education systems.

Consider, for example, a school located in a rural, remote area. The systematic recording and reporting of student attendance, teacher absences, examination scores, inventories, and so forth is essential for monitoring and evaluation. But documentation of this nature is often done with photocopied paper forms. An education officer must collect the forms and personally transport them to the ministry of education. The stack of reports is then entered into a database by an administrator so that the information can later be interpreted. In an era when Rwanda is using drones to deliver blood to its remote hospitals, the administrative systems of education are archaic and inherently inefficient. Even in the best of circumstances, these administrative processes present a huge gap between the time of reporting, analysis, and action. In such systems, education stakeholders are unable to understand and respond to local needs in real time.

Such administrative challenges are emblematic of a broader set of inefficiencies facing many education systems around the world. From our ongoing research into education innovations, we have encountered schools and education systems that are working to develop and pioneer new ways to transform and improve administrative efficiency.

For instance, paper makes real-time data collection and dissemination nearly impossible, but innovations on the ground are using mobile phones to overcome this challenge. EduTrac is a mobile phone based data collection system operated through the ministries of education in Uganda and Peru that crowdsources data from parents, teachers, and school leaders. EduTrac uses an open source software program to function as a real-time, easy-to-use information management system. For example, a head teacher may receive the question, “Did your first grade teacher attend school today?” or “Has your school received its grant allocation for this term.”  Text responses are pinged back to a web-based dashboard. By utilizing mobile phones, EduTrac is using a device that most education stakeholders likely own already, even in remote contexts.

Bridge International Academies, a for-profit chain of low-fee private schools with a “school-in-a-box” model, has introduced pioneering approaches to improving administrative efficiency and effectiveness. Bridge, along with other low-cost private school models, has been the subject of heated debates especially around the role of for-profit actors in delivering primary education as well as the place of scripted lessons for teachers. While these debates are important, it is Bridge’s back-office innovations that have caught our eye as perhaps the most overlooked yet the most promising part of their model, which has the potential to be adapted to other schools or contexts.

One of the core elements of Bridge is the use of technology. Data on attendance, assessment, lessons, school fee collection, and other administrative processes are recorded on teacher’s tablets and automatically uploaded to Bridge’s central office, allowing for real-time data collection and analysis. If a teacher is absent, a substitute teacher is immediately sent to the school to fill in. Bridge also uses text messages to communicate between students, parents, and teachers. Parents are notified when they owe fees or when their children are absent from school. Instead of using cash, all financial transactions are made using mobile money, which increases efficiency, allows for immediate tracking, and reduces the chance for corruption or misuse. They’ve also set up an automated 24-hour hotline for parents to call with questions and concerns. Such centralized administrative features are some of the reasons why Bridge only employs one administrator per school and has been able to keep its operating costs low.

Streamlining schools through improved administrative efficiency also enables us to consider how administrative services may be restructured. In some cases, educational supports may need to be centralized in order to be run better. In other cases, decentralization may be the best option for responding to local needs. What’s more, a cost-savings component is often a natural effect of improving administrative processes because it leads to better targeted financial and human resources that can improve teaching and learning environments. While these types of innovations aimed at streamlining schools may not always be visible or high profile, they may indeed be one of the most powerful ways in which education can capitalize on new technological advancements. For this reason, they should never be overlooked.