MIT Solve: Coordinating the Future of Learning

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Written by Jacksón Smith

Imagine giving every teacher in the world a day back in their time—what would they do? Priya Lakhani, CEO of Century Tech and thirty-five year old mother, posed this question to a room filled shoulder-to-shoulder in New York for the 2018 MIT Solve Challenge, a yearly collaboration to coordinate between the public, private, nonprofit, and academic sectors to reward creative and compelling initiatives for solving some of the world’s greatest challenges in sustainable development: looming climate change, equitable access to healthcare, the transformation of work, and the future of learning.

I sat, notebook poised, imbibing the swirling energy of pioneers like Priya whose company uses AI and data mining to allow any educator in the world to learn the unique learning fingerprint of each of their students. Her software saves time by alleviating the administrative overhead of identifying which curriculum is engaging for which students— empowering teachers to quickly understand precisely where students are lagging and offer real-time supplementary lessons, which adapt to the learners so they never fall behind. “Teachers are an incredible workforce,” Priya told me, “Because they don’t spend that [extra] day going to the pub or going to the bar. They actually spend that time making better, timely targeted interventions for the children. And that has, as you can imagine, a huge impact on children’s outcomes.”

Alongside Priya, 15 finalists from around the world pitched their ideas for positive disruption in education. Ultimately, judges narrowed this group of EdTech teams down to eight: including UK-based Century Tech; Nairobi-based Eneza Education, which connects schools and students to relevant, affordable courses over SMS; Brazilian-based Livox, which enables millions of non-verbal disabled people to communicate and learn; and Ghana-based Practical Education Network, which trains and supports West African teachers through hands-on science courses regardless of resource constraints. Winners unlocked access to $1 million in Solver funding—and a surprise $150,000 anonymous donation during the closing ceremony—to accelerate and grow their projects for maximum impact for more students and teachers around the globe. Each of their founders leveraged their entrepreneurial persistence to pierce the familiar air of status-quo cynicism and insist that everyone—no matter class, race, geography, or age—ought to have access to personal, creative, and world-class learning experiences. And technology, wielded like a surgeon’s scalpel, is bringing that world to reality.

I side-barred with Sara Monteabaro, MIT’s Senior Learning Community Officer, to understand the toughest challenges facing education. According to her, there are four big bucket problems that emerge year after year: refugee education, preparing youth for the workforce of the future, female empowerment, and twenty-first century skills development. “This year,” she said. “We are looking at these issues from the perspective of teachers and educators.”

To solve these problems, the convening cultivated a simple, yet profound ethos: crucial innovation comes from everywhere. “We know that there are innovators on the far corners of the Earth,” Sara’s passion gave life to her words. “It’s really our responsibility to tap into that ingenuity and talent. Open innovation extends beyond those on the MIT campus who have an MIT ID card. We had a finalist who just pitched today—it was his first time ever leaving Uganda.” Absent coordinating devices like MIT Solve, the impact of these brilliant, world-changing minds and their solutions are often limited, if not outright suffocated from lack of support.

“The Solve model” Sara explained, “uses open innovation to drive the exchange of knowledge between communities where these big global challenges are impacting people the most and then bring that knowledge back to the MIT campus, making sure that we’re providing the resources that only MIT has to offer to those innovators.”

MIT Solve thus presents a compelling model for convening innovators and rewarding their impact on the problems that matter to all of us—so what’s next?

“We have high hopes,” Sara’s eyes lit up. “We would love to see Solve have a presence on all six, if not seven, continents around the world, to continue our challenges year after year with input from our community, and to have an anchor at home for our Solver alums to stay connected with our partners, members, other alumni, and potential applicants.”

As MIT Solve continues to coordinate around sustainable development, Sara raised an important challenge moving forward: communication. “For me, what I always struggle with” she said, “is how do we bring this sort of new age thinking about problem solving and leveraging new age technology to areas around the world who are still using 18th century learning models and have no concept of blockchain, they have no concept of AI, they have no concept of machine learning—how do we bring awareness, how do we build that capacity from a teacher level, how do we disseminate that to students?”

It’s a difficult problem to solve—even if you’ve built a better mousetrap for teaching students, it’s not always easy to convince people to change their behavior. “Changing the world means getting everyone else to change too,” Priya said, contemplating the pace of technology. “And that’s challenging. But it’s crazy that one of the most important sectors of the world, education, doesn’t benefit from it.”

Blockchain, in particular, did not seem to make a presence at the competition. “We had a blockchain prize this year,” Sara said. “But none of our finalists were eligible for it because none of them incorporated blockchain. It was a little surprising to me because from where we stand at MIT, blockchain has changed everything.” Whether it’s a dearth of understanding, pre-regulation markets, or lack of standardization, one thing is clear: there is a gap between what MIT knows and what is translated to the innovators that are the prime candidates for the Solve network.

Because of this, Sara urged the larger Solve community and its network partners to work with them in figuring out how to bridge the gap between these new, advanced technologies and to the innovators generating solutions. “Something’s not quite connecting,” she said.

Despite difficulties in communicating blockchain, MIT Solve is committed to identifying, championing, and scaling the changemakers in society who are disrupting old models and leveraging new tools to really impact lives. Among other things, that means bolstering their support program for Solver teams, tracking their progress, and potentially building out new funds for them long-term.

For Priya, that means she will be spending the next year working closely with the Solve community to scale her intelligent learning program. Our conversation finished on a powerful note. “We’re up for the challenge,” she said. “We’re game. Because it’s worth it—if you look at this system today and you’ve got kids, you know how important this is. Every parent writes to me and says, ‘I want that.’”

If Priya’s software really can save teachers a day every week, that’s good for all of our children. Now, with further support from MIT Solve, she can save even more days for many more teachers—making the future of learning that much brighter.

About the author: Jackson Smith is the Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder of the Learning Economy and a Senior Correspondent and Editor with the Diplomatic Courier.