Solutions that scale: Reflections from the ASU-GSV Summit

Children in Cameroon study on the computer.

Since 2010, the ASU-GSV Summit has connected people focused on transforming society and education. This year’s theme was “ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in the future.” It energized and focused the attention of more than 7,000 educators, philanthropists, and business leaders.

They know that the world has big problems—climate change, jobs and technology, peace and security, and inequality—and that young people will need a high level of education and skills to navigate the complex, interconnected world that they are inheriting.

Educators are trying to come to terms with what this means. How do they make education more widely available, relevant, and engaging for students? The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s education2030 program asks:

How can we prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, to tackle societal challenges that we can’t yet imagine, and to use technologies that have not yet been invented? How can we equip them to thrive in an interconnected world where they need to understand and appreciate different perspectives and world views, interact respectfully with others, and take responsible action towards sustainability and collective well-being?

Perhaps nowhere is the education challenge greater than in the least-resourced countries of Africa and Asia. They are trying to build their education systems while struggling with shortages of finance, teachers, materials, and connectivity. But as home to over 80 percent of the world’s young people, these regions are also the world’s best hope a better future.

The good news is that innovation abounds in education. Committed people around the world, especially innovators in Africa and Asia, are finding new ways to help 129 million out-of-school youth stay in education and to prevent 36.5 million displaced children from becoming a “lost generation.” They are using new technologies to expand educational options, lower costs, and personalize learning. They are creating engaging new curricula and lessons that build social skills, foster scientific inquiry, and help students apply their learning in the real world.

But how do good innovations like this scale? What are the conditions that help ideas spread and adapt? What does a successful growth strategy look like? I chaired a panel of educators at the ASU-GSV Summit who are making a real difference in some of the most challenging educational settings. Here is what they had to say.


Joseph Nsengimana of Mastercard Foundation and Amy Klement of Imaginable Futures represent two of the largest and most well-respected philanthropic funders of education in less-resourced countries. They see a world of opportunity, where many of the basic conditions needed to bring innovations to scale are improving. These include more open policies, better infrastructure (especially digital infrastructure), and a growing pool of talent that is both a consumer and producer of innovation. Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa, for example, have become hubs for ed tech and fintech. These countries are home to several of the recently announced ed tech fellows supported through the Mastercard Foundation’s Centre for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Governments are increasingly open to partnering with commercial and social sectors to evolve their education systems, as we see in Rwanda, Nigeria, Liberia, and more.  And Senegal is about to host the e-learning Africa conference, showcasing the work of hundreds of ed-tech innovators from around the continent and their global partners.


Anant Agarwal at edX (a 2U company), Geetha Murali at Room to Read, and Kathy Perkins at PhET Interactive Simulations are leaders who have figured out how to thrive in this environment. Each of their organizations impacts tens of millions of people.  A few key lessons stand out.

Each of the organizations puts teachers and learners first, giving them tools to make changes for themselves and for the world. It’s an intrinsically motivating approach. edX’s platform, for example, allows anyone who is up to the challenge to access courses from 230 partner institutions, anytime, anywhere. edX is changing the idea that higher education is “for some” to “for all” by providing pathways for individual self-improvement and mobility to 48 million learners.

Second, they build strong partnerships with local educators to create highly flexible resources that empower educators to customize use of the products based on their community’s learning objectives, language, available technology, and local context. PhET Interactive Simulations, for example, is an open-source project. Educators have translated simulations into more than 110 languages that can be used both online and offline. And each simulation comes with teaching tips and lessons, which have been contributed or co-created with users themselves.

Third, these organizations practice transparency internally and externally. Consumers and funders of their programs know and trust their work. Room to Read, for example, has built data systems and feedback loops that enable continuous program improvement and clear reporting to stakeholders. In 2018, results from evaluations showed that students in their literacy program had oral reading fluency rates nearly three times that of children in comparison schools. The 2021 survey of five-year alumnae from their Girls’ Education Program found that eighty-two percent were either in tertiary education or employed.

These conversations make me optimistic. I agree with Amy Klement when she says what we are really facing are “problem-tunities.” Overwhelming as the world’s problems may seem, we know that there is a path to resolving them if young people everywhere can develop their skills, talents, and values. We also know that while there are many challenges in education, the conditions for change at scale are falling into place: infrastructure, better policies, and widespread talent. Smart strategies for scaling take advantage of intrinsic motivation of learners to change their lives, co-construct products in partnership with local educators to meet the diversity of learning preferences and environments, and create continuous feedback loops that build transparency and trust. Big change is possible, and with it hope for a better future.

The Mastercard Foundation and Imaginable Futures provide financial support to the Brookings Institution. In addition, Christopher Thomas is employed by the Yidan Prize Foundation who previously provided funding to the Center for Universal Education at Brookings. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions posted in this piece are solely those of the author and are not influenced by any donation.