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Network learning for sustainable development in education: How to create collective impact

Melanie Ehren, James Keevy and Tom Kaye (May 2019) write: This week (28-29 May) will see the launch of the National Association of Social Change Entities in Education (NASCEE) in Johannesburg. NASCEE aims to establish a collaborative structure to support NGOs in addressing the challenges in education and to deliver on their mandates. The association hopes to assist non-profit organisations in networking and communication, accessing funders and government, and developing their internal capacity. This collective approach should help to improve South Africa’s standard of education and ensure a more effective and efficient practice and delivery in the education space. Critically the approach also provides a platform for the professionalisation of practitioners in the sector.

The initiative is particularly relevant for low and middle income countries who have seen an influx of developmental partners, NGOs and private companies all aiming to improve access to, and quality of education through a series of disparate reforms and interventions. As these organisations all have their improvement agenda, collaboration and alignment of initiatives is often fraught with difficulties, leading to a fragmented system overloaded with short term, disconnected interventions. In an attempt to find the ‘silver bullet’ of educational improvement, and chasing after financial opportunities as and when they present themselves, educators struggle to work towards long-term goals in an efficient and consistent manner. Tablets with online materials to teach literacy skills end up in a drawer when support for their use is terminated, while long term educational change only ever comes about when integrated into the wider education system: through teacher training, school funding, accountability structures and policy planning. 

NASCEE is expected to address the lack of alignment in, and sustainability of, change by creating a network of leaders and organisations across public, private and not-for-profit entities. These partners are expected to collaboratively address complex problems and cultivate collective intelligence. How valid is this assumption? Similar initiatives can be found elsewhere, such as METIS in Kenya, or CAMPE in Bangladesh. Can these networks lead to sustainable system change and what conditions are needed to ensure the collective impact of their individual members? We argue that bringing organisations and people together is a good starting point, but creating coalitions that traverse the system requires leadership and role models, trust, enabling technology, collaboration, and evaluation and monitoring: 

  1. Leadership and role models. Networks are devolved structures which often lack a central coordinating authority. Particularly in large networks, leadership is essential to structure the collaborative work, bring partners together and work towards a common goal. The best network leaders are those who are seen as role models with high moral integrity and exemplary behaviour in improving education and serving the public good. Given the crucial role of leaders to support and coordinate the collaboration, adequate succession planning needs to ensure that high-quality leadership is sustained when leaders transition out of the network. 
  2. Trust is a lubricant for collaboration. Only when partners trust each other will they share ideas and resources. Trust requires a mutual understanding of problems that need to be addressed, values and how to work together. Trust is built when partners positively evaluate each other’s competence, benevolence and integrity in improving outcomes of learners across the system. Various tools can support the process of building trust, such as Muethel’s cross cultural trust game[1], or Williams’[2] (2012) activities of ‘perspective-taking’. Trust between partners is not self-evident and needs to be managed; these tools can be used to do so.
  3. Enabling technology. Networks, particularly the ones exemplified here, are often constituted of many partners who are located in various parts of a city or country and have little opportunities to see each other on a day to day basis. Technology can enable their communication and allow partners to share and understand good practice and communicate and develop solutions together. Technology, particularly in the age of ‘big data’ and the ‘platform revolution’[3], is also vital in supporting network members in analysing available data to understand the problems that need to be addressed.
  4. Collaboration: working on a set of shared activities provides a purpose to the network and ensures the network has meaning and engages participants in working towards a common goal. As Mulgan[4] explains, ‘it is much harder to get a disparate group to agree on underlying principles and values than it is to get them to agree on actions’. Even when there is no shared purpose, having a set of activities to work on can create a common vision or goal to work towards. It also prevents a group from ‘over-analysing’ a problem without taking any action. Given the ‘wicked’ nature of how to ensure access to high quality education in developing contexts, any analysis will, by definition be incomplete, contradictory or address requirements that will have changed during the analysis.
  5. Sharing resources: members of the network need to fund the collaborative work of the network. Resources can help organize joint activities and provide some back office support. But more importantly, having members have "skin" in the game, can often help to add to the perceived importance of a network. Even if it is just small running costs to engage one staff member to run a secretariat or something similar. 
  6. Evaluation and monitoring. Collaboration is not without problems and various authors talk about the unintended consequences of networks, such as group think, high transaction costs or power struggle over values and prioritization of goals. Evaluation and monitoring can support in identifying effective solutions to identified problems, but can also bring order in the relations between partners and prevent fragmented collaboration. Evaluation and monitoring needs to be agile and address a small number of key indicators which keep partners on track in working towards improved learning outcomes. Less relevant are evaluations of the collaborative processes (number of meetings, events organized) as these reduce time and energy for more meaningful activities and divert people’s focus on what really matters. 

The first conference of the South African NASCEE, with a purposefully inspired theme From Promise to Practice, is an opportune moment in bringing organisations and people together. Our six points offer an agenda for the association to make a real impact on the South African education system and set an example for other countries who aim to ensure a purposeful and long-term approach for collaboration and improvement.


[1] In: F. Lyon, G. Mőllering, and M. Saunders (Eds). Handbook of Research methods on Trust. Cheltenham/Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing.


[3] Platform Revolution, 2018, by Professors Geoffrey G. Parker of Dartmouth College and Marshall W. Van Alstyne, of Boston University, research fellows at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and industry expert Sangeet Paul Choudary founded Platform Thinking Labs, a strategic consultancy.


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