Unicef tells us that 101 million children worldwide don’t regularly attend school. High costs, lack of local availability, lack of uniforms and school supplies, disability and competing family priorities are among the many reasons for this devastating statistic.
Each of those children may grow up without the basic communication, math and reasoning skills that can help them earn a living wage to support their family and build their communities. And so the cycle of poverty continues.
Many students also face barriers to accessing higher education, which has long-term implications on their ability to find good jobs and improve their situation in life. Sixty-five percent of all jobs in the U.S. economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school by 2020. At the same time, 40 percent of students in four-year public universities do not complete their courses on time, and many of these do not complete their degree at all.
Low-income students, rural students, first-generation college students, students who don’t speak the area’s most widely used language, people with disabilities, underrepresented minorities and those facing other personal constraints are particularly vulnerable.
One company changing this global paradigm is Pearson, best known in the United States for its K-12, higher education, and professional products and services that are used in schools and private settings across the country. In the U.S., Pearson offers products like MyLab Foundational Skills which helps learners overcome challenges and gain the skills they need to continue their learning journey; the Q-interactive assessment app, which streamlines student assessments; and Smarthinking, which provides online tutoring access for more than 25 professional university and college-level topics.
America's Promise: Higher graduation rates
Every year in America, more than 1.2 million students drop out of high school. DoSomething.org says 7,000 students drop out of American high schools a day. And about 25 percent of high school freshmen don’t graduation on time.
For the last several years Pearson has partnered with America's Promise Alliance, a network of national, state, community organizations and individuals dedicated to creating better educational opportunities in the U.S. In this case, the goal was to find solutions for the economic and social issues that kept kids from graduating from U.S. high schools. The educational publisher provided funding for the project and America's Promise collaborated with experts to find the data and the answers.
"We partnered with America's Promise to do two things," said Shilpi Niyogi, Senior Vice President for Strategy at Pearson. The first was "to create a series of seed grants for very particular states to scale up innovative practices." She said America's Promise had "done great local work and they had a terrific fully focused national alliance." Where they needed assistance was in expanding their efforts in particular states that could benefit from their expertise.
Another goal was to create a national learning community in which public and private educational institutions could network.
The two-year commitment not only strengthened programs and alliances at America's Promise, but leveraged partners, something that Pearson has learned is critical to breaking down the barriers of illiteracy, both at home and across the globe.
Advancing education for rural students in India
In 2012, Pearson launched its ambitious Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) to make minority investments in low-cost private education in the developing world. It made an early investment in Avanti Learning Centers, a college test preparatory company in Mumbai, India with a mission of improving access of high potential, low-income students in India to higher education to top Indian universities.
Rural high school students in India are seven times less likely to get into college or university than urban students. Researchers found it wasn't just the economic challenges of attending school that kept rural, working kids from going on to college, it was a vacuum of talented teachers in rural India.
Approach, said Niyogi, was a large component of their success. "Thinking globally, but acting locally" allowed Avanti to target a diverse student base and tailor the education to fit the needs of the local populace. Avanti developed a blended curriculum allowing for both home and classroom study and combined it with high-quality mentoring, rigorous tutoring and a peer-to-peer learning. Their unique model allowed them to help decrease that rural-to-urban ratio, in an affordable way.
Since that time, Avanti and Pearson have gone on to pioneer other programs that have helped make it easier for students in India to reach and pass college exams. Success stories include one student who, with PALF and Avanti's support, went on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Reducing accessibility barriers inspires learning
Building global accessibility to education also means exploring new tools, and as the National Science Foundation recently reported, new advancements in educational technology are making it possible for people with disabilities to attain the skills they need to go on to higher education.
Pearson has a global commitment to supporting learners with disabilities and special needs. In 2016 the company announced a target to ensure that 100 percent of their digital products are accessible to people with disabilities by 2020. This commitment includes fully accounting for accessibility throughout product development, testing, marketing, and distribution processes. This is just one initiative aimed at addressing a large and complex problem. For one student, those technological advancements not only gave her the ability to complete her lessons more easily, but gave her a whole new educational passion.
In 2015 Pearson sent a group of experts to Texas to speak with visually impaired students about the challenges they faced learning math. They learned that often the true barrier was communication. In one student's case, completing the math problems wasn't the challenge. It was finding an easy way to communicate about assignments with her teachers, who often didn't know Braille.
With the students' assistance, the team designed an Accessible Education Editor, software and hardware that would do the translation to and from Braille and English automatically. It was a hallmark for Pearson, and an inspiration for the student, who told the developers that the process simplified her homework to such a degree that she found she actually liked studying math.
"Accessible design is just good design," Niyogi said.
Niyogi added that the lesson that Pearson has learned over the years from developing projects like the Accessible Education Editor is diligence. "We evaluate everything we do [as to] whether or not it advances our mission to be brave, creative and advance people's goals." And it's that deep analytical approach and it ability to harness the benefits of unique partnerships she said, that is key to Pearson's success in education.
Innovating to reach underserved groups
Today, many education products and services do not reach the more than 4 billion low-income and emerging middle-class consumers across the globe – a rapidly growing market segment estimated to be worth more than $5 trillion.
Pearson launched the Tomorrow’s Markets Incubator in 2016 to innovate new products and services that help meet the need for access to high-quality education and learning in low-income and underserved communities. The response far exceeded expectations. A total of 167 teams of Pearson employees submitted an original idea for a new product or service. Seventeen teams were picked to receive product development funding and coaching and present their business ideas to senior leadership.
Tackling illiteracy through partnerships
One recent Pearson initiative is a literacy accelerator called the Project Literacy Lab, which the company launched in partnership with Unreasonable Group in 2016. The Project Literacy Lab, (which is part of the wider Project Literacy Campaign) is Pearson's and Unreasonable Group's challenge to start-ups. The accelerator offers new opportunities for addressing some of the core challenges faced today when it comes to global illiteracy: language skills, math competency, vision and disability challenges, and educational and socioeconomic limitations.
According to Niyogi, the accelerator has also helped build a consortium of expertise from a wide range of backgrounds that in turn has helped craft a broader ability to "chip away" from the core barriers to learning in underserved communities.
The first phase of this accelerator brought together 16 ventures from five different continents. Their focus was as wide-ranging as the challenges and barriers faced in illiteracy today. Innovative solutions included a new app that would cut the cost of language learning to under $10 per person, inclusive technology for individuals with disabilities, a personalized literacy platform, and new approaches to illiteracy in Brazil's impoverished communities. Planning for a new accelerator is already in the works.
Through programs like these, Pearson demonstrates that providing access, helping prospective customers overcome barriers to participation, can be good business. Hopefully other companies will follow in their footsteps.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.