Better for less: education’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal

In his 1994 book ‘Built to Last’, Jim Collins introduced the world to BHAGs. Big Hairy Audacious Goals are those that have the capacity to move organisations from good to great. They are challenging but achievable if the entire organisation pulls together as one. They unite teams with the promise of great outcomes, and are both terrifying and exciting at the same time.

Education’s BHAG is this: how to improve student outcomes at lower cost. It’s the foundational principle of frugal innovation and will be coming soon to an education system near you. We have no choice: we need to make our schools better, but we have to be pragmatic about it. There’s simply less money available now.

Frugal innovation “sees resource constraints not as a liability but as an opportunity”. Rather than cutting corners by cutting costs, frugal innovation tasks organisations with designing innovative ways to save money whilst at the same time improving their offer. “Frugal organizations don’t seek to wow customers with technically sophisticated products, but instead strive to create good-quality solutions that deliver the greatest value to customers at the lowest cost.”

However, it’s not easy to frugally innovate in schools. That’s because a school’s cost-base is fixed by certain parameters that are tricky to alter without fundamentally altering the structure of the school.

In the next few years, as technologies such as AI and VR become mainstream, we will be able to challenge the current paradigm, and in so doing create opportunities to substantially reduce this cost-base.

If we take just two of the metrics used to determine “cost per pupil” – average teacher cost and class size – we will soon be able to innovate in these areas, ensuring that the maximum number of students are exposed to the very best teachers as often as possible. By having fewer, better teachers we can achieve this BHAG, but we will need tech to lend a helping hand. Here are two possible examples. Many more will follow as technology improves.

Virtual classes of a hundred, a thousand, or more. When we begin to properly leverage the power of virtual reality, we could create virtual classrooms where the very best teachers could teach several classes concurrently (and not necessarily even in the same school or the same country). The cost of these superstar teachers could be shared between schools.

In fact, these teachers might not even be direct employees of any school, but rather offer their services for a fee. After all, lots of other industries rely on consultancies. Why should teaching be exempt from this?

AI as a super efficient admin assistant as well as personal mentor. By automating a number of processes we could cut down on a good deal of admin time and staffing. Attendance, timetabling, organising cover: all of these could be handled using machine intelligence.

Equally, through offering tailored student feedback through AI bots, far larger classes could receive relevant feedback without over stretching the teacher. Particularly if they’re teaching a thousand kids across 20 different schools in 7 different countries.

We talk a lot about ed tech improving student outcomes, but what we spend less time on is exploring how it could reduce costs and add value at the same time. I think most of us would agree that this is a BHAG worth striving for.

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  1. Pingback: 5 Small Steps Towards Education's Holy Grail - re.Education

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