A conference turned ‘Solveathon’ to tackle post-COVID-19 education challenges

Joining hands and minds to develop a virtual conference of a novel kind, the Jacobs Foundation and MIT Solve teamed up to deliver a 3-day “Solveathon” in April 2021 to develop viable solutions to four key global education challenges.

May 31, 2021 by Laura Metzger, Jacobs Foundation, Gelgia Fetz Fernandes, Jacobs Foundation, and Sara Monteabaro, MIT Solve
4 minutes read
A conference turned ‘Solveathon’ to tackle post-COVID-19 education challenges

The Jacobs Foundation biannual Conference is always a highlight at the Jacobs Foundation. Since 1991, leading international scholars invited by the Foundation gather at Marbach Castle on Lake Constance, to discuss key issues and emerging evidence in child and youth development.

Fast forward to 2021, and the pandemic turned our plans upside down for this year’s conference. Rather than standing still and wait for better days to meet in person, we embraced the opportunity to think outside the box, push boundaries and innovate on what would be our first ever virtual conference.

Recognizing the global education challenges amplified by COVID-19, we designed the conference as a space where education stakeholders from across the world could come together to address pressing issues facing education, such as how to scale blended learning solutions or how to ensure that all children have access to quality, safe, and equitable learning environments.

We wanted to do more than talk about these issues, and actually contribute actionable ideas and solutions. The idea of a collaboration between the Jacobs Foundation and Massachusetts-based social innovation marketplace MIT Solve emerged based on complementary expertise and led to a 3-day Solveathon workshop last April.

The aim was to encourage the co-creation of effective, cross-sectoral and scalable solutions that can provide children around the world between the ages of 2 and 12 with equitable learning opportunities.

Tackling our global education challenges

We set ourselves the challenge to generate solutions around 4 key issues, each hosted by a sector-leading challenge partner committed to helping implement the best solutions:

We capitalized on our experience supporting projects that combine implementation and evidence generation: we wanted solutions to be developed by project teams consisting of different types of stakeholders - such as academics and education entrepreneurs - working in an eye-level partnership. And we wanted the interventions to be spearheaded by schools and practitioners in the field.

We further expected solutions to have a research component supported by academic expertise already in place, or to define pathways for incorporating research. Our broader aim was to create new partnerships and cross-sectoral collaboration groups that drive new ideas and solutions around human learning.

As an agile philanthropic foundation with long-standing expertise in research funding and policy work and a strong stakeholder network, we were well placed to use the Solveathon to do just that: quickly mobilize resources, partners, and individuals to work on innovative, technically sound, and solution-oriented projects to respond to pressing global needs in child development and education.

We were guided by the following principles:

  • First, aim to address education challenges that are both urgent and relevant in a post-pandemic world.
  • Second, build momentum that enables problem solving to continue after the conference to create positive, sustainable change for children.
  • Third, facilitate a post-conference support process to assist the selected teams of innovators in further developing their solutions towards increased applicability for a post-crisis context, better potential for scale, appropriateness for the target group, and transferability to other locations.

The overwhelming wealth of ideas, creativity, and propositions from the 302 registered participants gathered in 19 teams was both inspiring and humbling!

Solutions ranged from crowdsourced peer mentoring for underserved communities operationalized using Social Capital Credits (SoCCs) to a light-weight, AI-chat driven learning data management system for under-resourced schools.

Screenshot of a presentation made during the conference
Screenshot of a presentation made during the conference.

A jury of experts, eight Prize winners, and four Audience Awards

Out of the 19 teams who participated in the Solveathon, a jury of 12 leading international experts in education selected 8 solutions from Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, the US, Finland, India, and the UK to receive innovation prizes totaling 1 million Swiss Francs.

The 8 teams -- including an SMS/WhatsApp-based platform for curriculum-aligned interactive quizzes and a free platform for teachers to discover, share, rate and implement validated solutions in any classroom -- are now entering a post-conference development and support phase, which will include mentoring, technical assistance and partnership support.

Judges based their selection on a set of key criteria, including alignment, potential for impact, feasibility, innovative approach, research component, scalability, and technical feasibility. The audience furthermore voted for and awarded four Audience Awards to solutions from Uganda, the US, India, and Switzerland.

Audience Award recipients can use their funding to start implementing their work right away and do not enter the post-conference development and support phase.

Screenshot of a presentation made during the conference.
Screenshot of a presentation made during the conference.

What happens next?

The 8 selected teams are now embarking into a new phase of further development of their solution, receiving support from MIT Solve and the Jacobs Foundation to further shape their ideas.

In September 2021, they will present their progress to the same panel of judges for a final round of feedback before continuing to implement their projects in partnership with the challenge partners.

We are eager to see all these innovative solutions grow and will be following the teams’ future work closely. Stay tuned for the journey!

*The Jacobs Foundation and MIT Solve are grateful to everyone involved in making this event a success, especially our challenge partners, esteemed judges, and participants-

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