#9 Summer 2017

Why social impact educators should disrupt their own systems

Esona Makinana, a Raymond Ackerman Academy student, during a brainstorming session in the MTN Solution Space. Photo Bev Meldrum.

Changing how universities teach social innovation offers unprecedented learning opportunities for students, and the potential to create greater social impact.

In the last decade, business, management, and leadership schools have increased their focus on social impact education. Social entrepreneurship and related courses are most visibly offered in the West, and mostly at universities that represent a homogeny of privilege, power, wealth, and exclusion. These institutions are taking on the task of teaching adaptive thinking – often focused on an approach to solving global poverty issues – even though they are not necessarily the most adaptive or innovative institutions themselves, and even though most of their students are more often the elite than the underprivileged.

It is hardly surprising, then, that social impact educators are increasingly coming up against the limitations of their existing systems, which were built in an era of increasing specialisation and to serve the production of knowledge, not its application. The time has come for educators to start changing these systems – to start disrupting and innovating from within.
After all, social innovation requires that we challenge the rules and status quo of power and exclusion by building new products, processes, and models that: a) deliver greater social value, and b) challenge established belief systems, cultures, behaviours, flows of resources, and positions of power. If we are teaching disruptive approaches to our students, why shouldn’t we apply them to how our own higher education institutions deliver social impact education?

In South Africa, waves of protests around inequality and access to education have been sweeping the country, and this question has come vividly into the public domain, forcing universities to reflect on their role and responsibilities. At the UCT Graduate School of Business, the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship was established in partnership with the Bertha Foundation, a family foundation explicitly supporting social justice and activism, rooting our ideals and values in using social innovation to realise rights. Thus, we have identified numerous areas in which we can start experimenting and exploring ways to address these challenges, including who participates and where we teach.

Who is in the classroom?

As university educators, many of us have grown complacent with the fact that most students pay to be in our classrooms. But if you think about it, this really limits the learning experience. Put a self-selected, relatively homogeneous group in a room to talk about solutions to poverty, for example (something very few of them have experienced), and the ideas that emerge are going to be limited to a fairly narrow band of possibilities. At the Bertha Centre, we have started to experiment with inviting non-paying students, practitioners, and executives – not only as guest speakers, but also as participants – into the room to shake things up and broaden the conversation. This is simple enough to do, and it is often enough to tip the scales so that really interesting – and often unpredictable – learning emerges. Though some paying students may react poorly to having their classroom “invaded” in this way, it also gives students an opening to check and challenge their own and each other’s assumptions of privilege.

Letting go of our expectations of what “should” happen in a classroom opens us to other possibilities, including the co-creation of what we teach. Currently, most university classes are based on the assumption that professors know what students need and want; we are supposedly the experts after all. But things change fast, and cultural and economic divides are deep and wide in this day and age. What is stopping us from engaging with students, asking them what they need to know, and then shaping the curriculum accordingly, or going even further to encourage self-directed learning and support their learning journeys?

Where is the classroom?

In South Africa, where historic geographic divides prevail, a further interesting question arises about where we locate our classrooms. In general, universities expect that students will travel to the classroom – but poor public transport and long distances separating economically divided communities present a significant barrier for many people. So what can we do about this?
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) offer an obvious solution to reaching a broader audience, but research shows that the vast majority of people who access MOOCs are privileged and already hold degrees. At the Bertha Centre, we decided to keep the physical classroom in place and – through a partnership with R-Labs, a youth-focussed multinational social enterprise headquartered in Cape Town – developed a MOOC that students can access offline. This enables R-Labs trainers to facilitate social innovation courses for citizens in community halls, schools, and homes, in areas that have limited access to technology.

More recently, we have taken the bold step of bringing the classroom out into the world, rather than expecting everyone to come to us. We established a facility in Philippi Village – in the heart of one of Cape Town’s disadvantaged township communities – with the long-term purpose of getting all students, faculty, and stakeholders to engage and interact with each other beyond the traditional spaces of the university.

As social innovators and educators, we need to better understand the contexts in which we operate. Innovating our offerings does not have to mean moving the campus; finding other ways to shift the centre of gravity of our institutions can unlock startling new possibilities. We have learned to begin at home. For us, walking the talk means starting, as poet David Whyte might say, “close in”. We don’t have to travel to the other side of the world to engage with social entrepreneurship. As educators, beginning at home also means understanding ourselves and our own prejudices. As Parker Palmer writes in his book The Courage to Teach, “Authority comes when [we] reclaim [our] identity and integrity… ”

Taking action to learn

Experiments like these are not disruption for the sake of disruption. By challenging who is in the classroom and who teaches, as well as where and what we teach, we can introduce students to much more than a narrative of social change and some insights from afar. We can help them experience what change feels like by walking the talk. To do this, we must step out of our comfort zones and into the zone of action. We need to take our place as actors in society and break out of the bubble of our discipline, and we must learn from each other’s experiences taking social impact education beyond university walls.

At the Bertha Centre, we foresee opportunities for social innovation and look to be active players in the process of change. Our efforts include the establishment of a marketplace for social impact bonds and social franchising; building new spaces for social innovation on campus, in hospitals, and in Philippi; and designing new partnerships for social impact in health and education sectors.

Walking the talk is a fine line to tread; if we stray too far beyond the bounds of the university, we risk losing our relative neutrality and credibility. But I believe it is a risk worth taking, not only because disrupting our own systems offers unprecedented learning opportunities for our students, but because it makes us better educators.

The process of evolving and disrupting our own education systems is not a one-off event. We need to embed a reflective practice into our daily operation as we challenge ourselves to continually find better ways of co-creating social value. It isn’t enough to teach by simply reflecting what we believe is happening in practice. By adopting and living the philosophy of social innovation, social impact education may be able to make significant gains.

This embedded process, which sheds the idea of social innovation as a discipline and turns it into a verb, could become one of a set of critical approaches for the evolution of universities, and us as educators within them.

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