The Magic of Thinking Big

04/27/2015 04:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2015

"Technology has the power to drive equity, but it can also widen the lead of those who have an advantage. If the technology revolution only happens for families who have money - I don't think it's a revolution."

These are not the words of a local activist, a Silicon Valley "guru," or a tech entrepreneur. They are, instead, straight from the mouth of the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. The Secretary was speaking at the annual Arizona State University + Global Silicon Valley (ASU-GSV) Education Innovation Summit, held in Scottsdale. Each year, the summit succeeds in bringing together an eclectic group drawn from government, private business, and the non-profit world, all united by the belief that technology and entrepreneurship can change a student's trajectory no matter their income or zip code.

The event is now in its sixth year, and growing fast. I first attended in 2011, when it attracted some 200 people; today, it draws more than 2,500 participants, and features robust and unapologetic conversations about how private investors and private companies can impact the education sector.

Over the course of the two day conference, more than 300 new education companies presented on what they do. These newcomers were joined by more established global players like Pearson, McGraw Hill, DeVry. Successful business leaders like Howard Schulz, CEO of Starbucks, detailed the partnership between his company and Arizona State University to offer online college courses to all of his employees. Also in attendance were the likes of Virgin's Richard Branson, private equity mogul Vinod Khosla, and Alberto Carvalho, the rock star-like Superintendent of the Miami-Dade school system.

This year, the discussions were dominated by one topic above all: the future of the university. A number of debates between college deans, investors, foundation heads, and entrepreneurs focused on how technology and the growth of competition are changing post-secondary education. Here again, the ability of the United States to reinvent itself never fails to amaze. The country already boasts the best universities in the world, with a steady stream of foreign students arriving to take advantage of their coursework - but nonetheless its leaders in both the public and private sectors are haunted by the system's failures and any sign that the United States is falling behind in its global leadership.

One of these is Jaime Casap, who holds the title of Google's "Chief Education Evangelist." As he pointed out, by 2020 nearly 60 percent of all jobs will require post-secondary education, meaning we need more people to graduate with more skills. That requires changing the direction of the current system. As Casap puts it, "Education is doing exactly what it was designed for...its doing great things for an economic model that doesn't exist anymore."

The eagerness of U.S. entrepreneurs to be constantly improving their country's education system holds an important lesson for Latin America, where the need for deep changes to education are even greater. The region's education systems, which have long been dominated by top-down bureaucracies, need more private activity and investment. Its leaders need to understand that companies, private equity, and motivated entrepreneurs can together make a huge difference. There is a critical need for more pioneers like Amelia Vicini, a Dominican businesswoman that runs the Inicia Foundation social investment fund, or Carlos Rodriguez Pastor, an investor responsible for Colegios Innova, the largest network of private schools in Peru.

In the United States, the potential for productive collaboration between the public and private sectors is also better understood. The driving force for these innovators is the sense that improving education can't wait on politicians, and that they will jump in themselves to do it right. Yet they are also fortunate to have the backing of an education secretary that understands the limits of government and is open to encouraging this entrepreneurial spirit.

Secretary Duncan's advice - and even his criticism - is constructive, and very interesting for a Latin American audience. He is supportive of new approaches, arguing that "we have to make learning more personalized - no solution fits everyone," and expressing hopefulness in particular for tools that can deliver personalized feedback for teachers, thus improving the classroom experience.

At the same time, the Secretary challenges entrepreneurs to think outside the box. "What can you invent to make low income students able to access the best education?" he asks. He also exhorts entrepreneurs to maintain a certain level of humility, to "listen, focus on outcomes...and look to fix a real need, a real necessity." Too often innovators tout a new piece of software or a technological breakthrough without any real clarity about what need it is addressing, or what problem it is solving. The focus needs to be on the real impact on the classroom life of students.

All of this requires a broader vision of what makes education successful, as Michael Moe and Deborah Quazzo, the organizers of the ASU-GSV conference, argue. "We need to return to the fundamentals of the United States' success in education - innovation, entrepreneurship, immigration, and opportunity," Moe says. For education to provide everyone with an equal opportunity to participate in the economy of the future, "we need to go back to the magic of thinking big!"