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How can innovation improve access to quality learning?

By Malli Kamimura

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.

UNICEF correspondent Bob Coen reports on an interactive discussion on ‘Breaking barriers: Innovative partnerships creating exponential change in access to quality learning’ held at United Nations New York headquarters. Watch in RealPlayer

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.


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.

More on Project Mwana

More on UNICEF Partnerships

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."

Some of the brightest entrepreneurs of our time are investing in education. In the past year, there have been over 300 startups focusing on education in the United States alone. But with this flurry of activity and new innovation, will technology alone help kids learn? Watch in RealPlayer

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.”

Only 0.3 per cent of girls want to study technology or science, says Kristen Titus, the Executive Director of "Girls Who Code". Find out how this organization is helping to introduce more girls to the world of science and technology. Watch in RealPlayer

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 

More on the ECOSOC partnership event

More on UNICEF innovation:

UNICEF Innovate for Children

UNICEF stories on tech innovations



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