01 Jun 2013

Five Bright Ideas

From pushing the envelope to updating the tried and true, HBS alumni are influencing the way education does business



Bright Idea #1
Training the Global Workforce, Gratis
Mike Feerick (MBA 1993)

Education is a human right. So says Article 26 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a driving force behind the founding of ALISON.com, the online education company Mike Feerick launched in 2007. Based in Ireland, ALISON (Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online) is a for-profit social enterprise that offers some 500 free online courses in basic education and workplace skills—essentially a community college curriculum—that can lead to global training certificates and diplomas for its 2 million students around the world. (For example, ALISON offers certification at no charge for a competing course to the European Computer Driving License, a basic requirement for any IT job in Europe, which otherwise can cost as much as $500 per course.) English language, computer skills, and business management curricula are especially popular. Explains Feerick, "For individuals, access to our courses is free. When an organization is involved, we charge. Advertising also brings in revenue."

ALISON enables potential employers to immediately test the skill of certificate-holding ALISON graduates through 20-question "flash tests" that assess their knowledge and exper- tise. "It's a tough standard," notes Feerick, "because unlike a Harvard degree, you must be open to being tested on something you profess to know at a moment's notice—long after you've graduated."

Feerick believes that facts are delivered most effectively online, but at some point in the process, human interaction (via Skype or more advanced technologies to come) is needed to develop that knowledge. "Education is a $3 trillion industry globally, and no player in the world controls even 1 percent of it," he says. "I think there will be a Facebook or Google in learning. I'd like it to be us."

Bright Idea #2
Back to the Future
Carl Bistany (OPM 17, 1991)

Its schools are found in some of the world's toughest neighborhoods—in Iraq, India, and the United States—because SABIS and its president, Carl Bistany, believe every child deserves a chance. SABIS is a for-profit education management organization originally founded in 1886 as a school for girls in a village near Beirut. Today, with Bistany at the helm, SABIS educates some 62,000 students in 60 K–1­2 nondenominational schools (including 15 in the United States) in 15 countries on four continents, and is hoping to enroll more than 5 million students by 2020. With its mix of charter, licensed, and private schools, SABIS grosses around $50 million annually.

"We focus on math and English, which are gateways to other subjects, and on 'soft skills' that enable students to reengineer their knowledge to meet unforeseen challenges," says Bistany, a French-Lebanese citizen who joined the company in 1992. The long-standing SABIS method, a cycle of Teach, Class Practice, Individual Practice, and Check, involves the teacher presenting one point at a time, with students mastering it via repeated examples of use, various written activities, and different teaching approaches, until all students "get it."

Bistany decries four "myths" in education: The smaller the class size, the better (when what matters is the right structure for teaching and assessing a concept effectively); The profit motive will undermine educational quality (SABIS's enrollment—and profits—will decline if its graduates emerge ill-educated, Bistany counters); Investing money in education and schools raises quality (when what's important is how many books a student reads, not how big the library is); and Learning by memorizing is bad (rote learning is bad, but memorization coupled with deep understanding is essential). SABIS uses computerized learning assessment systems and online learning to reinforce, not disrupt, the traditional SABIS classroom process. Says Bistany, "It's an approach, honed by decades of practice, that holds powerful promise for learning in the 21st century."

Bright Idea #3
Marketing Opportunities for Schools
Mickey Freeman (MBA 1993)

Name your high-school gym after a sneaker company? Go for it, says Education Funding Partners president and CEO Mickey Freeman. For-profit EFP matches Fortune 500 companies with large public school districts that agree to accept financial compensation in return for allowing marketing programs through school websites and on campus, including on-premise signage, naming rights, and branded items.

Colorado-based EFP, founded in 2010 by Brad Greenwald (MBA 1990), now its chairman, is a "B corporation" with a goal of delivering $100 million to major public school districts by 2015. "Today, with the public no longer fully funding public education, even 'wealthy' school districts need funds to increase achievement," says Freeman. "EFP helps arrange ethical, appropriate, and sustainable marketing sponsorships that are sanctioned by each participating school district. Public education is thus able to benefit from corporate America's annual $150 billion in advertising expenditures. It's a positive marriage of the corporate sector and public education."

Bright Idea #4
Your Personal Learning Guide
Jose Ferreira (MBA 1997)

"What motivated me to start my company," says Jose Ferreira, "was to solve the twin problems of access to education and educational achievement. Only 22 percent of the world finishes high school; that is a preventable tragedy."

In 2008, Ferreira founded New York–based Knewton, an "adaptive learning" online platform. Knewton uses algorithms and data collected from the individual student (and from other students previously) to create, according to that student's needs and knowledge, a customized road map for arriving at the individual's educational objective. Knewton does this by assessing in real time what the student needs to learn (or review) and then points to what the student should next master to proceed most efficiently to his or her knowledge goal.

Bright Idea #5
A Toolkit for Teachers
Doug Lemov (MBA 2004)

Doug Lemov is passionate about "getting teachers to teach better faster" by helping them use best-practice classroom techniques to engage with students. And teachers eat it up: His book, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, has sold more than 500,000 copies in America and been translated into eight languages.

Lemov is a managing director of the charter school organization Uncommon Schools, which runs 32 schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. When hiring a teacher, Lemov says, "I look for a growth mindset, someone who is eager to learn, incorporates feedback, embraces challenge, and is humble. That's the kind of individual who over time will surpass the teacher who is seemingly more proficient but resists feedback, wants to 'freelance,' or lacks humility."

Paying outstanding teachers more is always desirable, Lemov says, but to achieve a better educational system, "We need to grow the pie—the amount of skill all across the teaching profession—because every student needs and deserves a great teacher. Training people better is the only way to do that."

A self-described "implementation guy," Lemov believes that data and measurement illuminate the path to better education and teaching, just as he arrived at his "49 techniques" by observing, analyzing, and quantifying the performance of highly effective teachers. Says Lemov, "The last thing we need is a new idea. Every one of the gaps that matter—the achievement gap, for example, or the gap between who we are as educators and who we might be—somewhere, some teacher has already developed a solution to that. Almost every major historical innovation has been preceded by an advance in measurement, and I believe we are living on the cusp of a golden age of educational measurement. I'm optimistic that we will use it to find, replicate, and scale up the best ideas that already exist."

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1993, Section G
follow @MikeFeerick
Class of OPM 17
follow @CBistany
Class of MBA 1993, Section B
Class of MBA 1997, Section D
follow @Knewton_Jose
Class of MBA 2004, Section J

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