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Convening the Changemakers

To kick off Worldwide Week at Harvard, Professor Fernando Reimers brought together alumni from around the world for a virtual gathering examining the problems facing education in the wake of COVID-19.
Crinkled map of the world

Since March, schools on every continent have closed due to concerns related to COVID-19,  affecting 94% of all students and 99% of students in low and lower-middle income countries.

“This is a crucible moment for education, one that will test our resolve and collective commitment to the idea that education is indeed a universal human right,” writes Professor Fernando Reimers in the introduction to the new book, Leading Education Through COVID-19: Upholding the Right to Education.

To examine the problems now facing education globally, Reimers convened a conference of current students and alumni from HGSE’s International Education Policy master’s program — gathering a generation of leaders trained at HGSE and working in the education around the world.

In the book Leading Education Through COVID-19: Upholding the Right to Education, Reimers compiled essays on the global impact of COVID-19 from 50 graduates of the International Education Program working in the field around the world.

A panel of alumni discussed the book and their highlighted work at the event.

Although “Convening the Changemakers” was initially scheduled to take place in person, it was moved online when HGSE shifted to a remote program this fall. Taking advantage of the virtual nature of the event, the conference ran from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., accommodating over 300 registered participants from more than 50 countries and many time zones.

“We thought it was especially important to maintain the event, rather than postpone it, because many of our students are playing crucial roles supporting school systems around the world at this time. We thought they would benefit from the opportunity to discuss the challenges they were facing, and to exchange ideas on how they were doing so, with colleagues working in different parts of the world,” explained Reimers.

Conference speakers came from high-impact policymaking organizations around the world — as well as from the ranks of HGSE faculty. Many speakers focused their presentations on the COVID-19 crisis. Sahle-Work Zewde, president of Ethiopia and chairwoman of UNESCO’s Commission on the Futures of Education, began the conference with a recorded address where she declared COVID-19 to be “the greatest test of our time.”

“Due to the pandemic, learners from across the world have faced major challenges in pursuing their education. Countries from the global south, like mine, have felt the impact of the crisis to a higher degree due to the limited access to internet connectivity and remote learning resources,” Zewde said.

She also emphasized the unexpected impact the pandemic might have on vulnerable populations, especially young girls. Indeed, according to Zewde, the crisis “might result in an addition 13.9 million child marriages globally over the next decade as families struggle to maintain their livelihoods.”

But Zewde did not dwell on the negative. Rather, her words provided fuel for conference participants as they kicked off a remarkably energetic 15 hours of uniting for change.

“This must be a turning point for us. We must use this opportunity to build back better.

Led by both HGSE faculty and IEP Program alumni, conference sessions propelled participants into urgent discussions about our current education crisis. Notable keynote speakers dotted the schedule, including Stefania Giannini, director of education at UNESCO, Jaime Saavedra, director of education at World Bank, and HGSE Professor Emeritus Noel McGinn. Alumni-led programming explored timely topics such as bridging inequity gaps in times of crisis, maintaining resilience during COVID, and the transformed role of IT in education. Throughout, participants sought to define their collective values and build a community of changemakers.

“Figure It Out”: A Close-Up on Global Challenges and Responses

In one panel hosted by Reimers, alumni spoke candidly about their struggles and successes last spring, when the pandemic first hit. Many, like Janhvi Kanoria, Ed.M.’10, director of innovation at Education Above All in Qatar, faced immense challenges.

“The children we work with have no internet or technology or devices, no resources, textbooks, or books at all. And their parents are semi-literate or illiterate,” explained Kanoria. “We were given this challenge and told, ‘Now figure it out.’”

Idia Irele on a computer monitor Idia Irele, Ed.M.'18, director of curriculum and strategic relations at Latin America Leadership Academy, particpates in the Convening the Changemakers virtual event on October 3, 2020

For Kanoria and her team, “figuring it out” meant trusting their instincts – and working day and night for three months straight. At the end of three months, she and a partner had produced 108 “projects” for their students. Each project contained a week-long, internet-free set of interdisciplinary activities. In between the demands of navigating life in a pandemic and calling their students daily, they had designed and delivered an accessible, functional product in record time.

“If you asked me six months ago, I don’t think I could have told you I’m capable of that,” Kanoria explained in disbelief, looking back at her achievement. “We were just connected by this mission to do something for these children.”

Kanoria isn’t the only IEP graduate who overcame seemingly insurmountable barriers to sustain education for her students. Both Mine Ekinci, Ed.M.’16, working in Turkey, and Angela Hernandez, Ed.M.’19, working in Brazil, faced student populations who lacked access to traditional educational resources. To meet this challenge, both alums turned to the popular social communications app “What’s App” to deliver content.

“We had to adapt the tools we had locally to our contexts,” explained Hernandez. “Here in Brazil, that meant using What’s App, which is one of the only tools that is free of charge.”

Her team was faced with building a program through the app that was both simple enough to be used by parents with no background in education and engaging enough for families to actually use. The result was a set of educational “trails” for students of different age groups. Through What’s App, students could access these trails, which contained multiple activities, assessments, and tips for families.

“The response was phenomenal,” explained Hernandez to conference participants. “In the first month, we reached over 1000 families in 20 different states across Brazil, with over 65,000 messages being sent.”

Similarly, Ekinci turned to What’s App when it became apparent that it was the best way to reach students and families in rural communities. After trying radio programming with little success, her app-based programing took off and was able to help teachers meet their students’ needs.

For Kevin Kalra, Ed.M.’13, it wasn’t just innovation that allowed him to sustain his school during the initial, frightening stage of the pandemic — it was preparation.

“I learned that one way to maintain during a crisis is to ensure that you have a very strong organizational culture,” explained Kalra, head of school at Montessori North Cypress in Houston. “In our schools, we closed everything in April 2020. That meant no revenue to pay my teachers and no revenue to support the property taxes we have to pay. What helped is that we have an amazing organizational culture in our schools. Our parents continued to pay, even though we weren’t teaching.”

Although 2020 has been a tumultuous — even traumatic — year, the conference left educators feeling optimistic. Reimers saw his inbox flooded with emails from participants expressing their gratitude in the conference’s wake.

“I feel so inspired and honored to be part of this special IEP community,” wrote one student afterwards. “I now feel an even stronger conviction about the work that I am pursuing.”