06/19/2013 01:27 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2013

Education 3.0 and the Future of Quality

Education is a hot topic these days, with a plethora of institutions -- including branches of the UN such as UNESCO, the OECD, and the Millennium Development Corporation -- focusing on the need to improve education quality. Foundations, scholars, and opinion columnists all continue to mount public arguments for reform. So why is it so hard to improve quality?

Education is too often static in the midst of a world in flux. Our modern economies are always transforming themselves as they grow, with new firms and entire new industries surging or disappearing. Thus, the human capital needs of this type of economy are changing almost as quickly, without the education system keeping up.

A new book, Redesigning Education: Shaping Learning Systems Around the Globe, produced by the Innovation Unit of the Global Education Leaders' Program (GELP), addresses exactly this conundrum. Indeed, the very existence of a group like GELP -- which consists of former education leaders from nine different countries on five continents that takes account of investors, private sector and practitioners -- is a welcome addition to the education debate. Beyond simple calls for reforming institutions or specific policies, a better system involves opening itself to an array of new participants that were previously on the outside.

As the authors of Redesigning Education put it, theirs "is a book about system leaders who acknowledge that the arrangements for learning over which they preside on behalf of citizens no longer work for the vast majority of young people, and who seek to change that." They go on to argue that any effort to truly reform education should include alternative forms of learning. This vision of innovative education, grounded in well-tested alternative education models, is what the authors call "Education 3.0."

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Education 3.0 is its assertion that the recent wave of social and political changes have not emanated from any government policy, but have, rather, grown out of the organic participation of new actors, participating through new formats. And the public sector needs to adapt and catch up. The education sector is one in which this adaptation has taken place the least, in which new approaches have been welcomed the least, even given the intense demand for higher quality education, from all sectors - all agitating for a more rapid transformation.

The book cites a number of actors that are contributing to the transformation of social life, albeit slowly in the case of education. Philanthropic organizations are a prime example. According to UNESCO, US Fortune 500 companies gave philanthropic contributions to education projects in developing countries of nearly $500 million. In the United States, approximately $39 billion is donated from such organizations, according to Giving USA.

Then there are the social entrepreneurs. One leader in this space is BRAC, an organization that began in Bangladesh in 1972 and now works in countries across the globe to develop projects relating to education as well as technology, microfinance, environmental maintenance, and gender parity. Groups like the Creative Partnership, in the UK, Kuopio in Finland, and the Smithsonian in Washington, are pushing the issue of education reform further. The private sector, as well, is bringing other innovations to the sector, as advocates, investors, and in a growing role as administrators of schools, content generating companies, and producers of alternative educational offerings.

Redesigning Education points to "the emergence of game changers, radical shifts, and new factors that dramatically influence systems." It adds that "our research indicates that in most contexts these are: the transfer of ownership to the learner, and the optimal use of powerful digital technologies." As students, families, communities, and entrepreneurs begin to create their own learning models, changes to the broader system will continue to come from below, rather than imposed in a top-down process. Students and families are "voting with their feet", and choosing alternatives that guarantee educational quality without regard to geographical location -- such as in the case of so-called "blended learning" which adds online components to coursework.

Government has to realize its role in being a platform that promotes innovation, even if it means stepping back at times to allow other players to provide education. It should develop a vision of the future, based on the needs of a "knowledge society" of high skill jobs, and a path for achieving it. It means policies that reduce the barriers to entry in education, creating incentives for social entrepreneurs, as well as for NGOs and the private sector, and distributing more accurate information to students regard their available options.

It is most crucial that we, are, in the authors words, "providing learning with the capabilities to thrive in an increasingly networked world, where adaptability and the skill of learning are essential." Given that this challenge is made harder by the acceleration of the transference of new methods of learning, and the rise of technologies that enable new forms of collaborative and online learning, this book on "Education 3.0" is a must-read for anyone interested in truly improving education quality.