Monday, July 9, 2012

Week in Review: Kiva and the customization of the classroom

Democratization, globalization, interconnectivity -- these big and vague ideas are often thrown around when discussing development goals and solutions to global problems, but their definitions and applications should be customized based on cultural, social and economic needs.

The thrill of customization has taken over everything -- from the way we listen to music in the form of services like Pandora and Spotify to education in the form of programs like Khan Academy and School of One. Computers and algorithms have made it easy to track, learn, and respond to people's preferences and offer tailored and immediate solutions.

Elite higher education institutions like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford have all started offering free online courses in the hopes of extending learning opportunities to students who have previously been excluded due to distance or cost.

While these classes are a step toward democratization, those who complete these courses get a grade, but no official credit. Should universities offer credit for these online courses and even allow students to obtain their degrees online? New York Times' Room For Debate posed that debate to five academics, each of whom approached this paradigm shift in education from a different perspective.

One of the debaters, Walter Lewin, a professor of physics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, touched on both sides of the issue. On one hand he writes, "It is a moral obligation to educate the billions of people in this world who are intellectually starved through no fault of their own." However, he strongly believes that there is no virtual alternative to experiencing campus culture and labs. 

When Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame tackled the topic of specialized education programs in their podcast, they likened the traditional public school system to a radio station. A radio station typically plays the most popular songs from a specific genre, but most people's musical tastes vary -- so this approach is just as likely to disappoint as it is to please. 

Classrooms are the same way, students learn in a variety of ways, but for centuries we have presented material and taught with little variation to accommodate specific students' needs.

The factory approach -- the one-size-fits all model -- is safer, but the possibility to do things better, more efficiently, and reach more people is too great to play it safe. Much like the Kiva entrepreneurs you help support, we fully embrace doing things differently and exploring new and innovative methods.

By partnering with organizations like Strathmore University in Kenya and Maharishi Education for Invincibility Trust (MEIT) we hope to support and encourage this shift in the way we finance education and think about learning. 

While we passionately believe in the power of technology to bridge opportunity gaps and forge new connections, nothing will ever replace face-to-face interactions. That's why we're building an active Meetup community worldwide. Check out our page to join or start a local chapter in your city, and if you happen to be in London you can attend an event Tuesday, July 24th at 6:30pm.

For more specifics on microfinance and education, check out Ian Matthews' Strategic Initiatives blog series.

Questions? Comments? Email us at

Photos courtesy of CGAP, Francisco Diez.