Business models in international education: what is possible? How local is education in your view?



In No education crisis wasted: On Bridge’s “business model in Africa (July 13, 2017), Hengeveld criticizes the way Bridge International Academies (Bridge) organizes their educational model in countries like Kenya (2009), Uganda (2014), Nigeria (2015), Liberia (2016) and India (2017). At their own website, they describe their Academy-in-a-Box: We re-engineered every part of the education system, from teacher training and support, to lesson delivery, construction and financial administration, as well as pupil and teacher feedback to monitor progress, to make it as efficient, effective – and very affordable for the communities we serve….The global education crisis means that it’s essential our education model is sustainable and scalable, that’s why we aren’t an NGO. The model includes 24/7 support of the teachers; following the national curriculum of the countries, incorporating the local context and standards, collaborate with local education ministries; personalized instructions using Wi-Fi handhelds, recording student data, freeing teachers to concentrate on teaching instead of administrative functions; streamlining managerial tasks, freeing managers to concentrate on teachers, families and communities.

According to a report of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GIESCR),  Bridge uses “school in a box” model, employing a highly-standardized approach to education. At BIA, every school looks the same, the material used is the same in each classroom, and most importantly, the lessons are the same across all the academies of the same country. BIA uses a system of scripted lessons, and its teachers – who are mostly secondary school leavers without formal teaching qualifications – receive lesson plans on an e-tablet, which they have to follow word by word”. This report criticizes Bridge for several reasons. Firstly, they show that the tuition fees are such that poorer students cannot participate. Secondly, they dispute the compliance with local legal and educational standards. The report points towards research in Kenya(*), that “the majority of BIA students are taught by unqualifed, overworked, teachers using teaching scripts (developed in the US) read from tablets. The school infrastructure is basic and viewed by many as inadequate. [..]. Regular payments are strictly enforced and students who are behind with payments are excluded from the classroom. Both GIESCR and Hengeveld argue that public investors, as the Dutch government and the World Bank should reconsider their contributions.

Whether Bridge International Academies does violate national legal educational and labor regulations is something which I cannot determinate.  The arguments in the contra-Bridge rapports are convincing, but Bridge of course deny the observations mentioned above.

A different question is whether the business model of Bridge is viable altogether. Taking the strategic paradox De Wit and Meyer (2014**) on internationalization of organizations, they distinguish two perspectives, the global convergence perspective and the international diversity perspective. The first builds on international centralization of management, economies of scale in purchasing policies and sales, increasing efficiency. The second perspective accepts that there are fundamental differences between local markets, customers and governments.

Education is a sector which is certainly characterized by international administrative and legal diversity. So each organization which wants to operate on a global scale should take account of the local rules and regulations with respect to curricula, but also to privacy legislation and labor market regulations. react severely when –in their experiences- an organization disrespects or even violates these national laws. Especially when the organization offers formal degrees, local accreditation is essential for recognition.

Another question is how general is ‘education’. Is it possible to develop educational materials for the teachers or even for the students which can be used globally? To profit from the economies of scale, there has to be some synergy between either resources (reallocation, specialization), activities (pooling, specialization or competitive local advantages) and in the product offering (standardization, cross-border competition). For example, by designing an international oriented MOOC, the assumption is that the didactical methods are internationally usable. Whether it is an American textbook on sociology, a MOOC on global pollution or a distance course on chemistry, the designers/authors use a didactical method, specific examples and language. What makes some materials broader usable than others; what makes authors think that their materials are internationally usable? For example, starting European students of economics in the 80’s knew more about the American Federal Reserve than of the monetary systems of other European countries.

Bridge, but also MOOCs and OER implicitly assume that educational materials are broader adaptable than the development environment. Bridge even states that the material they make available through their tablets can be supplemented by the advice of central organized experts. Of course, the materials made available by Bridge are their own resources. MOOCs are available under creative common copyrights, but are often not adjustable, taking the form of a static text book for use in other environments. Only OER available under the most flexible creatives commons are adjustable and reusable by third parties (teachers). Yet, adjusting these resources, translating them in other languages, subtitling and adding local examples will be a lot of work. If the critique on Bridge’s central approach is right and local education is more effective with local teaching, this also removes the arguments of the possibility to provide less costly education, available for all social classes and incomes. If Bridge’s education isn’t more effective, more accessible and of a higher quality than the local teachings, the business model of this kind of education disappears.

But if the central globalization approach doesn’t work for Bridge, will MOOCs and OER be usable outside of the developers’ environment. Three of the shortcomings of MOOCs as listed on the website Online Course Report (OCR, 2016) are the teaching methods, the way content is presented and their Anglo-Saxon orientation. And these are listed as general limitations, not specifically because of local methodology.

I would like the opinion of teachers among my readers, How local is education in your view?

* Bridge versus Reality: A study of Bridge International Academies’ for profit schooling in Kenya; Report, Education International/Kenya National Union of Teachers, December 2016

** De Wit, B., & Meyer, R. (2014). Strategy synthesis: Resolving strategy paradoxes to create competitive advantage. Cengage Learning EMEA.




Openness, lessons from innovation for education



In two seminal papers, Dahlander and Gann (2010) and Huizingh (2011) try to define openness as used in open innovation.  Here, I try to use these definitions of openness in describing openness in education, drawing some lessons for both sectors.

Definitions on openness in innovation

Although Huizingh (2011) bases its definitions on Dahlander and Gann (2010), it is easier to start with his distinction between the innovation process and the innovation outcome. Openness in terms of the process is determined by the amount of knowledge which is obtained externally, or developed internally. The openness of the outcome is determined by the fact if the resulting process or product is proprietary or made freely available for external partners.

Innovation process: Innovation outcome:  
  Closed Open
Closed Closed Innovation: proprietary innovation developed inhouse. Public Innovation: the outcome is available for others, whereas the innovation was developed inhouse.
Open Private Open Innovation: a proprietary innovation, developed with the input of external partners. Open Source Innovation: both the development as the result of the innovation are open.

Source: Huizingh (2011, p. 3)

Closed innovation is the traditional way innovations were developed. The aim of public innovation often is the development of a standard. For example, by making the PC the standard in computing during the 80’s, IBM could control part of the market for personal computers.

Another way to divide open innovation is to make a distinction between inbound and outbound innovation. In the definition of Huizingh (2011, p. 4): Inbound open innovation refers to internal use of external knowledge, while outbound open innovation refers to external exploitation of internal knowledge. Dahlander and Gann (2010) combined these types with the question whether there is money involved or not.

  Inbound Innovation Outbound Innovation
Pecuniary Acquiring Selling
Non-pecuniary Sourcing Revealing

Source: Dahlander and Gann (2010, p. 702)

Revealing seems to be used to attract collaboration, especially in situations without strong IPR regimes. It also resembles Public Innovation of Huizing (2011), in aiming to set a market standard. Sourcing refers to the absorption of external available knowledge to create new products and services. The literature suggests an inverted U-shaped curve: searching for external knowledge will be profitable up to a certain level, after which the “over-search” will become more costly than profitable.

There seems to be a paradox in openness: as Huizingh (2011) states, companies perform more inbound than outbound activities (which recently confirmed by studies of the open innovation network,, yet inbound activities of one organization should generate reciprocal outbound effects from other organizations?

Openness in education

As we noted elsewhere (De Langen, 2013), there are a lot of definitions of openness in education. Openness in the sense of free to obtain (MOOCs), free to use (OER) or the absence of entry barriers (Open Universities).

If we define the process as a measure of openness of the process, leading to the product, we can distinguish between free to access, free to use or even collaboration in design and production. The outcome is the education, the course or the program. Traditional education is mostly distributed in a closed form: it is exclusively for students of the institution. Traditional education is often designed and developed by a single teacher, by an internal group of teachers (both examples of closed process) and in some cases with developers outside of the own institution (often subsidy-led) or the usage of open resources and MOOCs. The Open Outcome-side describes the production of open educational products and services. The closed production of open outcomes are typically of the production of MOOCs. A situation of open production and open outcomes is found in situations where communities both develop and use educational resources. For example in the case of knowledge bases and portals, developed and exploited by communities of fellow teachers; two examples are MERLOT and FEmTechNet.

Educational process: Educational outcome:  
  Closed Open
Closed Closed Education: traditional education with an one-to-one relationship between students and teachers. Free to use: the outcome (courses, programs) are open to use, but the teaching/developing process is closed. We can distinguish different regimes:

a.       Traditional education without fees, as in large parts of Europe is practice; Open Universities

b.      MOOCs, where the product is free, but the process of developing the course is proprietary.

c.       Certain forms of Open Access, in the sense that the production process belongs to the researchers (holding the copyrights, sometimes having to pay a fee), whereas the published research results are free for the public.

Open Use of free: the use of free (open) resources to develop educational resources for traditional institutions; for example Lumen Learning offers to teach educators to use OER to develop courses and programs for usage within traditional institutions. Open Education: Open educational resources, DOCCs, communities of practice and alike.

If we look into the role of money in (open) education, than is the pecuniary side of the inbound knowledge acquisition the fact that most teachers use standard textbooks, produced and sold in a for-profit-business model by publishers. Of course, in traditional education teaching is one of the courses of income, however there are more opportunities. For example,

  Inbound education Outbound education
Pecuniary Acquiring textbooks and materials. Selling knowledge, texts and competences.
Non-pecuniary Sourcing: collaborating to acquire knowledge and resources. Revealing: collaborating to supply knowledge, competences and resources.

Another model

Another way to categorize education is based on Yunus et al. (2010). In their view, organizations optimize either financial profit or social value. On the other dimension, they distinguish the way organizations are financed: either they have to earn back the invested capital, or they don’t. In this last case, another organization will supply the funds necessary for the long term survival of the organization. Traditional HEI’s were placed either in the Not-for-profit category for public education; or in the For-profit-category for private educational firms. Interesting are those organizations (websites, portals, knowledge bases ect.) which resulted in the past years, as result of inter-organizational collaborations, subsidies or individual initiatives.

Financial Profit Maximization
No recovery of Not sustainable in the long term For profit organizations Repayment of
Invested capital

(depending on external funds)

(Traditional) Not-for-profit organizations Social businesses Invested capital


Social Profit Maximization

Next to the educational knowledge and competences, their survival will depend on the capability to generate funds to reimburse the capital used in the production and exploitation of open education.


Dahlander, L., & Gann, D. M. (2010). How open is innovation?. Research policy, 39(6), 699-709.

De Langen, F. H. T. (2013). Strategies for sustainable business models for open educational resources. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 14(2), 53-66.

Huizingh, E. K. (2011). Open innovation: State of the art and future perspectives. Technovation, 31(1), 2-9.

Open Innovation in European industries (2015), study for the European Commission,

Yunus, M., Moingeon, B., & Lehman-Ortega, L. (2010). Building social business models: lessons from the Grameen experience. Long Range Planning, 43, 308-325.