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.