We sat down with Emma Dorn, McKinsey & Company's Global Education Practice Manager, to discuss our shared interests in education policy 🏫, McKinsey's work with UNESCO, other global partners and governments on Covid responses 🌐 and Emma's views on EdTech and the future of the education sector 🦾.
McKinsey serves around 100 clients on education topics every year, covering every continent- clients sit across public, private and social sectors and the company advises clients on everything from early childhood education and K-12, to vocational, higher education and lifelong learning.
- How governments should be prioritising their Covid responses
- How education providers should approach developing a learning strategy with tech as an enabler
- Visions for the classroom and workplace in 10 years
Watch the highlights here, or read the full interview below!
The interview in full! 👇
Brighteye: Emma, we are delighted to speak with you. Would you mind giving us a short overview of your career to date?
Emma: I joined McKinsey about 20 years ago in London and since then I’ve moved progressively west to Boston and then to Silicon Valley which is where I’m currently based. My focus is on improving educational outcomes and equity and there are a few threads that pull my work together: the first is the role of EdTech in learning outcomes, the second is how philanthropy and donors can impact education for good, and the third, newer thread has been how we can help school systems through the current crisis and emerge as improved systems. I work across different types of clients, including with governments on system reforms, with foundation and donors on strategy and also with private companies on how and where to play.
Brighteye: Would you mind telling us about McKinsey’s education practice, including your key client groups and your typical questions or projects both pre and during the pandemic?
Emma: We service about 100 clients every year on education topics. These clients sit across the public, private and social sectors. We advise clients on everything from early childhood education and K-12, to vocational, higher education and lifelong learning. These clients cover every continent. I would estimate that 30% of our projects touch EdTech in a meaningful way.
The kinds of questions we address depend on the type of client. For example, for systems and institutions, some of the questions might include ‘how can we recruit, support and develop talented teachers and leaders to serve our students?’, or ‘how do we align our resources and organisations to drive better outcomes?’, or ‘how can we better harness tech to improve access and quality?’. You won’t be surprised to hear that more recently, questions from governments have centred on ‘how do we reopen schools?’ and ‘how do we improve remote learning?’. The questions can be quite different on the corporate side and might include ‘where and what are the best market opportunities for our expansion?’, ‘how do we design our offerings to overcome barriers to adoption?’, and ‘who can we partner with to increase our reach and impact?’.
Brighteye: We’ve been following your world-leading work with UNESCO over the past year or so. Could you tell us about this work?
As well as our client work, we invest significantly in knowledge and sometimes that can be in partnership with organisations like UNESCO. When the pandemic hit, UNESCO very quickly set up the Global Education Coalition and we then partnered with them as part of that Coalition to create a series of toolkits on how education systems should be responding to the crisis, along the whole arc of the crisis.
This started with the initial response on rapidly setting up and implementing effective remote and hybrid learning practices, but soon got into longer term issues like re-enrolling students who had dropped out of formal learning back into the classroom and supporting students to accelerate their learning and catch-up unfinished learning. A central part of our focus was looking at how governments should best organise their responses, which is often forgotten but critical for the collaboration that’s needed across different types of agencies and across different levels of education.
"(Our work with UNESCO) started with the initial response on rapidly setting up and implementing effective remote and hybrid learning practices, but soon got into longer term issues like re-enrolling students who had dropped out of formal learning back into the classroom and supporting students to accelerate their learning…"
We built this collaborative knowledge-building approach in partnership with UNESCO but also in partnership with many individual governments via workshops and interviews, as well as incorporating findings from client work we were doing at the time.
Brighteye: And were the governments you engaged during this work representing low-, middle- or higher-income countries?
A mix! Our work attracted representatives from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Given the appetite for this work, we did deep-dives in Latin America and the Middle East. In addition to this, we also did some work at a sub-national level- for example, I personally worked with several US states and school districts and (McKinsey) Partners have also worked at the sub-national level in other countries.
Brighteye: With this in mind, where do you think governments should be prioritising their response?
Emma: When thinking about what governments should be doing in response to Covid, you have to first appreciate that there’s a lot going on and many different, competing priorities: you’re in the middle of a health crisis; you’re in the middle of an economic crisis; and then you’re also in an education crisis where most students are experiencing significant disruptions to their learning. It’s important to realise some students are in the midst of parents losing jobs and others might not have access to food as some meal programmes were put on hold.
You have to first appreciate that there’s a lot going on and many different, competing priorities: you’re in the middle of a health crisis; you’re in the middle of an economic crisis; and then you’re also in an education crisis…
Our overarching focus is equity across the board, meaning prioritising helping the students that need it most. This involves thinking about how you can impact students’ mental health, nutrition, and social connections as well as academic learning. Indeed, the pandemic has re-enforced schools’ status as a central point in the community.
With this in mind, we turn to our tactical priorities of which there are many, including: how we get kids back into schools safely, how we prioritise schooling in the context of broader economic priorities, how we roll out vaccinations to teachers to get students back to classrooms, how we prioritise learning across modalities where it’s not possible to return to the classroom, and how we support students to recover emotionally.
These aren’t simple issues- arguably one of the most important is addressing the social and emotional heath piece. Linked to this is how you support teachers and staff. The current circumstances are tremendously difficult. I realise this seems like a lot of issues to consider, but it’s important to make sure you address each of them to make sure responses are coherent and to help us future-proof systems against future shocks.
Finally, systems need to be thinking forward to reimagine the future of education: the responses should not just be tactical but should be about future models of learning that address long-standing education inequities and challenges. Systems need to think about how they can build back better and take this opportunity to reimagine systems so they deliver the future we want to see for every student.
"Systems need to be thinking forward to reimagine the future of education: the responses should not just be tactical but should be about future models of learning that address long-standing education inequities and challenges."
Brighteye: Are there examples or areas in which you’ve observed particularly effective public-private partnerships?
Emma: One area I am particularly excited about is the potential of innovative financing in lower- and middle-income countries. There are a range of investors taking an interest, including those focused on pure philanthropy, impact investing and more traditional investing. As we look to implement and expand this financing, we need to make sure it is leveraged to achieve desirable financial and social outcomes and that those deals are structured in a way that prioritises the student. There are a number of different approaches that can be used, including development impact bonds, income share agreements and creative remittances. USAID just launched a ‘catalyse’ initiative to build a community of practice across investors and implementers and even during Covid, UNESCO and the Global Education Coalition brought together private, public and social sector players. This has led to more openness to the role that private sector capital can play in helping to achieve better education outcomes.
"I am particularly excited about is the potential of innovative financing in lower- and middle-income countries. There are a range of investors taking an interest, including those focused on pure philanthropy, impact investing and more traditional investing."
Brighteye: That’s promising! Are there other EdTech opportunities you consider exciting?
Emma: Maybe, before I jump in, I will offer a short definition of how I think about the EdTech space. I think there are many different elements!
The first piece is around direct student learning, which has two components. The more narrow definition would be digital skills – tech for coding or tech for typing or other digital skills demanded by today’s employers. Another skill in this category I am personally very curious about is digital literacy – and especially how we can help students to search the internet better and tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. The broader definition of student-focused tech would be using tech to improve student learning across the board – for example adaptive personalised learning programs for math.
"I am personally very curious about digital literacy – and especially how we can help students to search the internet better and tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not."
The second piece is around tech for teachers – for example how we can improve collaboration with and between teachers, how we can save teachers’ time and reduce the admin burden, and how we can enable teachers to become even more effective at impacting learning.
The third piece is around tech for whole systems, which includes tech for performance management, administrative systems and digitisation of your currently analogue functions where it makes sense.
And across those three pieces, some of the things I find exciting include:
1) Tech for literacy and numeracy in low-income countries that really struggle with the human capital requirements of quality teaching.
Here I refer to countries in which systems can’t find teachers that speak the relevant language, or where class sizes are over 50 due to limited supply of teachers. An example initiative I find exciting is Imagine Worldwide (IW) – IW is a non-profit that has done RCT trials looking at the impact of tablets that are pre-loaded with high quality literacy and numeracy content. This means that the students don’t need internet access- they’re also solar-powered and deliberately robust. The intervention showed an improvement of 5 months of additional literacy learning across a single year (compared to a control group). But implementation is critical here – just dropping a bunch of tablets into classrooms without the right software and curriculum-aligned content isn’t going to achieve the same impact. Our analysis of PISA data shows that in general students who use tablets in their classrooms perform about half a year behind students that don’t. Hardware may be a pre-requisite, but you also need the right software, the instructional content, teacher training, and effective integration into the school day.
"Just dropping a bunch of tablets into classrooms without the right software and curriculum-aligned content isn’t going to achieve (material) impact."
2) Tech that supports teachers to better understand what students know and can do.
At the core of a teacher’s job is understanding what each student can do and what they need to do next to progress their learning. Some of the current formative assessments can be really helpful in helping teachers to identify that quickly across a classroom, but tech solutions can also identify the next piece of content that should be prioritised and also predict the specific topics that students will find challenging.
3) Tech that enables personalised learning approaches.
There are many adaptive math programmes out there that show great outcomes by themselves, but the tricky part is integrating them into school systems and into classes. This is where I believe the public and private sectors need to collaborate more effectively. There are great companies producing adaptive math and public systems that have great standards and systems- but both need to work together to enable a real mastery-based learning approach in the classroom. School systems are looking out across this hugely fragmented landscape of EdTech providers and it’s very hard for them to decide the combination of tech that helps students learn in their own context, and making sure that they’re integrated smoothly so that we aren’t just giving a tablet to the student that finished early to keep them occupied, but actually using the tech to support the mastery-based learning of every child!
"School systems are looking out across this hugely fragmented landscape of EdTech providers and it’s very hard for them to decide the combination of tech that helps students learn in their own context."
Brighteye: We agree that effective integration is key. And so with this in mind, what should be the pillars of an education providers’ EdTech and learning strategy?
Emma: I wouldn’t want to create a digitisation strategy for schools. I want to create a teaching and learning strategy for schools for which tech is the enabler. It’s important to shift the frame and start with students, teachers, parents and principals and then work out where tech is useful in enabling effective practices and relationships.
"I wouldn’t want to create a digitisation strategy for schools. I want to create a teaching and learning strategy for schools for which tech is the enabler."
As you think forward, there are a couple of elements that are really important. The first is obviously access- there is an ongoing digital divide, both globally and within countries. The pandemic has shone a light on this access issue that existed historically both within the classroom and in the home. It’s simple to say, but you can’t have any tech for learning if you don’t have any access! But as I’ve just said, access really isn’t enough and won’t, by itself, lead to the learning and teaching outcomes that we want to see. The second element is effective integration with the broader curriculum, including a focus on teaching and learning goals, and integrating tech within teachers’ professional development.
"It’s simple to say, but you can’t have any tech for learning if you don’t have any access!"
Next, you should focus on understanding which specific products and solutions to use and base decisions on a clear evidence base that’s centred on what leads to improved student engagement and learning. When we looked at the PISA results, we were surprised to see that the most effective tech in the classroom, yielding the greatest differential in student learning, is a data projector! Of course, this might simply be correlation rather than causation. This is particularly interesting as it suggests that tech for teachers and teaching can be more effective than when devices are provided 1:1 to students (though we certainly haven’t optimised the 1:1 teaching and learning approach yet). It’s important to acknowledge that efficacy of devices and other tech for improving learning outcomes will vary significantly according to student age- it’s going to look quite different for second graders compared to high-schoolers! It’s important that we follow the evidence, while also remaining open to iteratively improving provision using new technologies.
There is also a need to combine what we know about learning science with where tech can bolster provision. Using quizzes is an interesting example of this: one of the things we know from learning science is that retrieval practice helps you better learn content. Tests are ‘stressful’ but quizzes are ‘fun’- so teachers can integrate fun quizzes into a classroom that don’t feel stressful, are generally short and quick, and help teachers to identify and correct the errors that students are making.
"There is also a need to combine what we know about learning science with where tech can bolster provision…. for example, we know that retrieval practice helps you better learn content. Tests are ‘stressful’ but quizzes are ‘fun’."
Brighteye: So lots of exciting opportunities in which tech can build on what we know about learning science and transform classrooms and lecture halls of the future. What does the classroom and workplace look like in 10 years?
Emma: What’s interesting is that there are many aspects of current provision that we can reasonably expect to stay the same. I think the teacher will still be the centre of the classroom and still have a critical role. I’ve read things that say, “kids will just work it out on a tablet”. I disagree. Excellent teaching will continue to be at the centre of excellent education. When we look at the future of work, it’s increasingly accepted that the future is not memorising content- a knowledge base is critical, but the more important question is 'how do you apply that knowledge and expertise and collaborate effectively?' Human teachers are going to keep being the people that can help students develop collaborative relationships and critical thinking skills.
"When we look at the future of work, it’s increasingly accepted that the future is not memorising content- a knowledge base is critical, but the more important question is 'how do you apply that knowledge and expertise and collaborate effectively?'"
Though they will remain at the centre, there might be different models of how teachers and students engage with one another. I am also hoping that we can support teachers to do less admin through tech, including less manual grading, less searching for lesson content, and less time on preparation for their classes, to free them to provide more coaching-style support to students.
I also think we should encourage more peer interaction so that the classroom of the future isn’t a bunch of isolated teachers, but an active ecosystem of peer collaboration and connection of new teachers with ‘master’ teachers.
Beyond the teacher, there’s the subject content question. Again, I think there will be significant continuity. We aren’t going to throw out the importance of knowledge, or literacy or numeracy; for example, you can’t code if you can’t write and do math. What we need to do is broaden the aperture and help students understand how to apply their skills and knowledge in practical ways. We need to think about students as future citizens that will enter the workplace and wider society. This involves thinking about the whole child, including their social and emotional mindset- some schools and systems do this well, but others need a lot of improvement.
"I also think we should encourage more peer interaction so that the classroom of the future isn’t a bunch of isolated teachers, but an active ecosystem of peer collaboration and connection of new teachers with ‘master’ teachers."
Technology is an enabler for these priorities in two ways. The first is tech that enables full access to teachers and resources. This includes making minority subjects viable in classrooms without subject-expert teachers. And the second is tech for mastery- the central question here is ‘how do we crack the personalised learning nut so that we can challenge every child every day and help them work on meaningful problems and reach their potential?’.
But that’s not the end, we need to consider lifelong learning. We know that large portions of the population are going to need to shift jobs due to restructuring economies. We are going to need a much more agile workforce and we need ways to incentivise workers to continually improve and develop their skills.
And linked to this, we need to help people to show the skills that they have developed, not only through pieces of paper, but also through skills-based credentials. This is an important equity point. Often, as employers are looking for employees, they are looking at the piece of paper they have rather than the skills they can perform. So the more that we can shift towards a system that rewards people for what they know and can do rather than which tests they’ve passed, the more we are going to have a rewarding education system and a more equitable workforce.
"We need to help people to show the skills that they have developed, not only through pieces of paper, but also through skills-based credentials. This is an important equity point. Often, as employers are looking for employees, they are looking at the piece of paper they have rather than the skills they can perform."
Brighteye: This has been great! Thank you so much for joining us. Are there things you would like to highlight or that you are working on in the next 6 months?
Emma: You may have seen our work in recent months on opportunity and achievement gaps – we have a number of pieces in this strand due to be released in the coming months. We will also be publishing more on the implications of the pandemic on disruptions to learning and how systems can respond. We are also really doubling down on surveys of students, parents and teachers to understand how education demands are shifting during and post the pandemic.
So your readers should check it out if they haven’t already!
Brighteye: Speaking of which, what are you personally reading?
Emma: Well…I have three kids and a full-time job so I don’t read a lot! But I do enjoy podcasts, usually when I am running or biking or cooking dinner.
I’m a bit of a nerd, so I like listening to podcasts that feature some of the latest education research: Ednext, Edsurge, and various thinktanks. The other compelling podcast I’ve been listening to is the Odessa series that profiles a school in Texas and its experiences during the pandemic. It’s a heart-wrenching reminder of the human side of education which we can sometimes forget when we are focused on the evidence-base, tech questions and system-level priorities. The only down-side is that I can find myself totally streaming with tears as I’m listening to it as I careen down a hill at 25 mph on a bike! But I strongly recommend it as a reminder of what’s really at stake.