A Free Education Portal: An Education Strategy for the 21st Century
This case was submitted as part of the Call for Innovations, an annual partnership initiative between OPSI and the UAE Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Government Innovation (MBRCGI)
The Free Education platform is an open and collaborative learning space that seeks to awake the interest of Brazilian youth in their personal and professional development. It is a free, open platform, and its practical, interactive content is especially directed at lower income youths (between the ages of 16-24), that have not completed high school and do not have the necessary skills to find employment or interest in continuing their studies through formal education.
42% of Brazilian youth do not graduate from school and lack the necessary skills and/or interest in continuing formal education that will help them become employed or entrepreneurs. This makes youth more vulnerable to poverty, entering illegal activities, emotional difficulties, among other issues. From the private-sector's perspective, Brazilian growth in the last decade has created new employment opportunities, but companies face significant difficulties recruiting minimally qualified youth. Without dramatic improvements in education and skills training, the country’s economic and social gains could be undermined.
To address this challenge, the government, industry and non-for profit sector are working together to close this skills gap, innovating the way educational contents are designed, produced, shared and learned.
The Free Education platform is an online-learning community. Its contents have been developed after carrying out several investigations regarding youth's interests, learning and social challenges, as well as skills gaps identified by various companies.
The lead organization, Industrial Social Service, has the advantage of working within the formal educational sector closely related to various government agencies and non-for profit organizations, but also being part of the Brazilian National Industrial System, a confederation of medium and large industries. It therefore has close ties with companies' employment processes, challenges and future prospects, which is a key element in identifying skills gaps and linking learning processes to real market needs.
There was a great deal of trial and error regarding content design and production and technological issues. After researching national and international current online learning platforms, nothing quite fit Brazilian youths’ and the industry's needs. Either the platforms were too complex, the contents were not related to specific skills gaps or were too similar to "formal educational formats" that were not attractive to youth.
This research enabled the project not only to identify exactly the pool of necessary skills that is need to improve personal and professional development, and the way these skills can be related in "learning trails or routes", but also the right formats and language to effectively engage target youth groups.
In this regard, the project experimented with developing its own contents with universities students, target youth groups, teachers and even theatre performers. The idea being that the platform increasingly becomes an open system where people can produce, curate, upload and interact around innovative contents produced from multiple sources, particularly young people themselves.
The platform was officially launched mid-2017 with a mixture of self-produced contents and existing contents curated through what is already freely available on the internet in primarily on YouTube channels. The contents are mainly short videos and small questionnaires, organised in specific learning "trails". Alternatively, these can be viewed freely by searching specific skills, making it simple to navigate the platform according to each person's needs and learning rhythm. The platform can collect data on each user's progress and direct content according to their needs.
As a collaborative community, the platform can engage volunteers, people of all ages that are interested in producing or curating contents or mentoring youths. A face-to-face mentoring scheme between company directors and target youth was piloted in 2017, as a useful tool to complement online learning with face-to-face learning a workplace environment.
In collaboration with companies, different job or apprentice opportunities are posted and users must pass custom-designed learning trails to be able to apply to that post. This has developed into an innovative selection process for companies that usefully have difficulties identifying and selecting this target group.
There are a number of future challenges:
1. Scaling-up the use of the platform. Today around 10.000 youths use the platform regularly. The goal is to reach at least 200.000 through a number of public-private sector partnerships and enhancing interaction with social media as the principle means of access and engagement.
2. Expanding learning resources, especially the custom-made learning trails associated to specific opportunities (scholarships, apprenticeships, jobs) and include tools for more collaborative learning and interaction.
3. Expand the content-producing community to include a wide range of people, and give target group youths tools to develop and share their own contents.
4. Guarantee financial and institutional sustainability through public-private partnerships. Today the project in financed by the Industrial Social Service, but as a useful tool for companies, NGOs and government agencies, the idea is for it to diversify is funding through projects and customised services that the platform can develop.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
It is a non-formal, free and open educational tool that has been developed after researching specific needs of youths, companies and a network of governmental and social organizations. Although it was inspired by innovative platforms world-wide (i.e. Khan Academy), the project sought the need to develop its own design, functionalities and contents. There was a great deal of trial and error, involving several pilots where target youth groups actively participated. It is expanding into an open learning community where contents are uploaded from various sources, within a framework that ensures quality and defined learning objectives. The self-produced and curated contents are customised according to specific needs, linked into real job and study opportunities through public-private partnerships. It challenges the formal educational system to innovate learning in terms of content and methods. It uses a combination of open source software, making it flexible and able to rapidly evolve.
What is the current status of your innovation?
After several pilot projects, the platform is currently working with an ample pool of creative contents and learning trails associated with specific opportunities. It is now at the stage where these experiences need to be scaled up in terms of number of users and number of posted opportunities (which depend on increasing the number of public-private partnerships in several regions in Brazil).
We are developing the software necessary to retrieve data and evaluate the platform’s quantitative and qualitative use to understand youths learning process and develop new contents and tools. Furthermore, to measure impact in terms of 1. overall skills improvement, 2. access to opportunities, 3. improved attitudes regarding their future.
The project is also scaling up different volunteering schemes that were piloted, such as the face-to-face mentoring scheme between youths and company directives, and hundreds of volunteers that “curate” videos online according to their area of expertise.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The Industrial Social Service brought their expertise in formal educational system, professional training and business-sector needs and 80% of the funding. The Inter-American Development Bank, international expertise and 20% funding. UNESCO with expertise and networking capacities. Government agencies linking their programmes with the platform. Several local NGOs and schools piloting content design and appropriation of the platform. Companies (i.e Alpargatas) using the platform for youth employment opportunities.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Youth target group (aged 16-24) with access to free and creative educational contents linked to real opportunities for further study and employment.
Volunteers (individual citizens or groups within partner companies interested in using their knowledge to help others).
Government agencies, schools and NGOs using the platform as a tool within their social programmes with youth groups.
Companies using the platform to identify potential employees or develop social responsibility initiatives.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
We have conducted a qualitative survey with youth that have used the platform showing that the majority felt that that platform was an important everyday tool that could help them start their career and overcome some of the common obstacles. They recognise the language is “clear and simple”, the contents are diverse and “to the point” and related “to everyday life”, and navigating the platform was easy. Today there are 10.000 users and we are in the process of evaluating the quality of their use of the platform in terms of reaching learning objectives and access to opportunities, to adjust and scale-up to 200.000 users by mid 2019. We are already in conversations about linking the platform with the Bolsa Familia governmental programme that reaches 50 million families.
Through the pilot schemes we have developed with companies, approximately 2.000 young people have developed specific tailor-made lessons, and around 15% have obtained employment and/or apprentice opportunities.
Challenges and Failures
Initially, it is was difficult to identify contents that would really engage our target group and software that was easy to use and collaborative. There were previous versions of the platform that were unsuccessful, however important to gain more insights into where we needed to innovate.
Due to this we didn’t meet the Inter-American Development Bank's quantitative targets in the set times and it has taken longer to scale up.
It is an innovation with an organization (Industrial Social Service) that works within the traditional educational system. It has taken time to prove that the platform is a powerful tool to address a real problem in the current educational system and influence future changes within it.
When the programme was conceived Brazil was going through an economic boom and companies were in need of labour. The crisis in recent years has led to greater unemployment and companies are less able to hire youths that have not completed their basic schooling. We are working with them to overcome this challenge.
Conditions for Success
Support with the top management in the Brazilian Industrial System and operative directors. This is needed to scale the use of the platform, make sure it is fully integrated into the system’s needs and the institution’s vision and mission.
Diverse partnerships with government agencies, integrating the platform into large-scale policies and programmes such as digital learning centres, professional training and employment services, etc. Likewise, with community based organisations, NGOs and schools that can use face-to-face processes to enhance the platform’s use and appropriation. Purely online and individual use of the platform is still an obstacle and it needs to be complemented through blended learning schemes to achieve greater impact.
The platform should not be a tool for target youths but their tool, jointly built and in constant evolution by means of their participation. Although the pilots have enable this to some it extent, it one of the principal challenges we face.
The innovation is of interest to several international companies and governments and could be replicated in different social and economic contexts. More than replicate the platform, one of the most important lessons learned and that can be replicated is the process that was necessary (research, trial and error and co-creation with stakeholders) to develop a successful platform and appropriation model, in constant evaluation and evolution. Within the Industrial Social Service, there is now interest in seeing how the platform can be used within schools associated with the formal curriculum. Several companies that have piloted selection and training processes with the platform also want to see how it can be used as the main means of selecting personnel and training processes. Several private-sector foundations that have sought to develop their own online learning platforms have seen the platform as an opportunity to integrate their own contents, given its capacity to tail-make contents and functionalities.
These lessons learned are taken from errors and challenges the project faced and is responding to.
The importance of working with key stakeholders from the beginning, and understand the needs before thinking about the technological solutions. More emphasis must be given to the challenges regarding social appropriation of the use of technology, rather than the than the tool itself. In this sense, teams developing this innovation must be interdisciplinary and the areas of development should not be compartmentalized, for instance, between the technological development and social and educational processes. Every team member must have a holistic approach and in constant interaction with the stakeholders.
It is key to involve target youth groups in the design process. We tried producing and curating several videos with pedagogues and universities students, but the most successful curation process is when we hired several young apprentices that fit the target group criteria (low income youths aged 16-24 that are currently not studying or working). Under our educational team’s orientation, they were able to detect hundreds of creative YouTube channels and videos that are now included in the platform.
Although these is growing access to technological devices and the internet, it is difficult for youth to engage with online learning, particularly if one of their limitations is their lack of motivation. Online tools must interact with processes connected to their daily lives, for instance, cultural groups, and where they can access face-to-face support.
Rather than setting high quantitative targets in terms of number of users, it is better to focus on quality use and results in terms of consistency and outcome. Once the model has shown positive results and the ability to scale-up, then quantitative targets should be set and evaluated progressively. If not, the project may feel pressure to show more superficial results and scale up without measuring impact.
Using an artificial intelligence, we designed a bot that identifies videos daily through YouTube channels, previous identified by our youth apprentices as been pertinent for their learning. The bot sends the videos to a team of 200 volunteers working within the Industrial System that curate the videos according to set criteria and their area of expertise.
The contents of the platform are divided into competences according to international and national frameworks related to 21st century skills, as well as the skills gap identified with each partner company. An an image of these topics is attached in the following materials section.
The platform can currently produce material regarding the learning experience of each individual student: for instance, time spent on each content, difficulties, the number of times tries before passing, etc. This is key for selection processes but also to begin to create personalised learning paths and interact with the learner around these.