Scaling up education innovations that have worked has become one of the main solutions for addressing issues of access and quality in the Global South. But doing so is not as simple as applying the proven approach to a new context. To scale successfully, innovations must adapt to unique settings and user needs while considering what elements of the original design should be maintained.
There is limited knowledge about what adaptation involves at a practical level, especially in contexts where resources, capacities and evidence are limited and progress in education is slow. Adaptation can be seen as a ‘black box’ in educational research and practice, which needs to be opened so that we can better translate innovations into improved policies and practice at scale.
Many projects funded through the Global Partnership for Education’s Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) have been trying to open up this black box, including eight that participated in a recent workshop at the Comparative and International Education Society conference. Three main lessons emerged during the workshop: the need for an adaptation mindset, the key elements for adapting innovations, and the importance of early and inclusive participation by relevant stakeholders. Each of this is underpinned by specific methodologies and tools.
What we learned from the experience of eight projects
1. Adaptation is a mindset. Successful adaptation, according to the workshop participants, requires embracing a mindset that will provide a foundation to the whole process. This mindset involves incorporating adaptation into the scaling process from the outset; being reflective and flexible; and viewing adaptation as ongoing.
For most of the eight projects presented, adaptation was incorporated in the design and considered from the outset. The Using Technology to Improve Literacy project, for example, has been using the ADDIE (assess, design, develop, implement and evaluate) model to create and refine its literacy software and support materials. Other projects periodically reflect on their field notes and other data to inform adaptation in a systematic way. All project teams believe that adaptation needs to happen at all stages of the scaling process and even after it is completed.
Embracing an adaptation mindset also means viewing adaptation as a culturally embedded social practice. The TPD@Scale project, for instance, chose to adopt a participatory and relational approach, positioning users—those responsible for teacher professional development, teacher union representatives and teachers themselves—as knowledge experts, and working together with them on adapting the innovation. The approach also means being aware that the knowledge and past experiences of both innovators and users shape the adaptation process, along with wider political, cultural and social processes. As such, an innovation can be viewed as the product of a collective process of adaptation between innovators and users.
2. Key elements for adapting innovation. The process of adapting an innovation, according to the participants, involves four key elements: assessing its relevance and effectiveness in new contexts; deciding which of its core elements need to be preserved and which can be adjusted or let go; contextualizing the innovation; and paying attention to the factors influencing its quality.
The War Child Holland project—which works on scaling education technology to improve literacy and numeracy among refugee and displaced children—notes that assessing the relevance of an innovation is a necessary first step for successful adaptation and scaling. The project uses a policy network analysis to identify both opportunities and obstacles for the scale-up in countries of focus. The assessment of relevance may involve showing how the innovation addresses the education priorities of the country; whether it has been implemented in similar contexts and proved to be successful; whether it can be easily transferred and adapted to new contexts, and how much it may cost.
As projects adapt innovations to new contexts, they need to distinguish between core elements of the innovation that need to be retained and those that can be simplified, adjusted or eliminated. The People Action Learning Network, for instance, first designed a common assessment framework for early literacy and numeracy skills to serve as a reference point across all contexts. With this framework in place, they began to develop means of assessment that were relevant at both the global and local levels. This is where they found room for adjustment and selection of assessment items.
To contextualize an innovation, projects may, among other things, develop culturally appropriate content and align it with national curriculum standards; translate content into local languages, and provide online and offline access, especially for technology-based innovations. For instance, as part of the adaptation process, the World Vision’s Unlock Literacy Learning Network project works with its country offices and community members to adapt its literacy toolkits to country contexts by translating them into local languages and including or excluding activities from the toolkits according to their cultural fit.
Some projects also develop tools to monitor the quality of an adapted innovation and its implementation so they can refine and adjust the innovation as needed. As an example, War Child Holland uses such tools to generate standardized implementation data across different settings and to apply minimum quality criteria and quality ‘correction’ mechanisms during implementation.
3. Involvement of relevant stakeholders. The more buy-in and ownership an innovation has from local stakeholders, the better its chances of success. When involved at an early stage, stakeholders like ministry officials, local authorities, school teachers and community members can become champions of the innovation. KIX projects have worked to involve relevant stakeholders in adaptation and scaling from the outset. Typically, they use a social network analysis to identify whom they need to engage.
The Data Must Speak project, for instance, uses a co-creation process that involves ministry of education officials, local researchers and other country stakeholders in the design and implementation of research. While the process is time- and resource-consuming, it ensures that research is aligned with the country’s education priorities and maximizes the usefulness of findings for policy design and implementation.
The Using Data to Improve Education Equity and Inclusion (MICS-EAGLE) project consults ministry of education officials prior to developing its statistics factsheet so that it can be tailored to the needs of the country. Other projects, such as Using Technology to Improve Literacy, have established technical working groups that bring relevant stakeholders to the table.
Involving relevant stakeholders in adaptation and scaling also helps to strengthen their capacity. The Data Use Innovations for Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) project, for instance, believes that investment in capacity building and community resources is key to the success of adaptation. It works to train EMIS teams within ministries of education so that they themselves can take ownership of the innovations, adapt them to local contexts, and participate in the co-creation of information system services.
Missing keys to the black box of innovation adaptation
There is still a long way to go before we can declare that the black box of innovation adaptation in the Global South has been opened. To open the box, we need to keep documenting the experiences of both researchers and practitioners who work on adapting and scaling education innovations in lower-income contexts.
While we often hear about the successes of innovations based on the results of randomized control trials, we hear less about the critical success factors that led to that impact being achieved and how the innovators accomplished it.
By listening to the experiences of projects such as GPE KIX and sharing their lessons, we can begin to open the black box of innovation adaptation and ultimately find the answers needed to accomplish the ultimate development goal: ensuring quality education for all.