By Priya Lakhani OBE, Founder & CEO, CENTURY Tech
On January 29th, I landed at Zurich airport to a message from my team asking if we can give our product away for free. To everyone. Everywhere.
This isn’t exactly what they teach at business school. We spent years and millions of pounds developing CENTURY. My team of engineers, teachers and neuroscientists worked long days and nights building technology that combined AI, learning science and neuroscience to provide the user with the most effective way of learning any content. Schools each pay us thousands of pounds for our services, while many governments procure our platforms for hundreds of their schools at one time.But these are not standard times, and social impact entrepreneurs are not standard businesspeople. At present, UNESCO says that 1.3 billion people are prevented from attending school or university due to the coronavirus outbreak. Over 130 countries — with 80% of all students — have closed schools completely, while many others have enforced localised closures that could soon become nationwide.
Since I received that message in late January, we’ve opened up our platform for free to any school and family who wants our help. In the early days of the crisis, when it seemed to be confined to East Asia, we set out helping closed schools in China and Hong Kong. The requests then came in from schools in Thailand, Vietnam, from across the Middle East, then Italy, then the US, then the UK — and now from every corner of the world. We then received hundreds of requests from parents, so we worked for three days and nights to create a seamless direct-to-parent application, which thousands of families signed up for on its first day.
We’ve been able to reach thousands of schools and families, with hundreds of thousands of children across the world now learning with the help of our artificial intelligence platform. Students are available to learn effectively from home by using our award-winning content, personalised to them by our AI engine. The data on their progress is provided to their teachers to inform their video call catchups with students.
So why did we do this? As a social impact company we have an obligation to help as many people as we possibly can. CENTURY was built to transform education. We’ve spent a lot of time helping Syrian refugees in the Middle East, which showed us how technology can be used to help during times of emergency.
We also decided to move swiftly because all crises require swift action to mitigate their harmful effects. These effects compound each day that they are not addressed. Each day of learning that a child loses can stay with them forever. The UK government claims that missing just a handful of days in a school year can damage a child’s exam results, affecting their future life chances. Without deploying a rapid and effective solution, we risk damaging the life chances of a whole generation.
Agile and nimble tech startups are well-placed to act as first responders in crises like these. We were able to make the decision to help immediately, with no bureaucratic hurdles to overcome. It only takes us minutes to set a new closed school up with our technology. Despite not being able to train each school in person, which is our usual approach, we’ve started delivering mass webinars that allow us to train dozens of teachers at once.
Crisis expert Steven Fink worked closely on the aftermath of the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, an incident that sparked global panic over nuclear power, setting the industry back decades. In his book ‘Crisis Management’, he advises that each crisis should be seen as a “runaway stagecoach”, with you as a passenger. You can either sit at the back, being “bumped and jostled and tossed from side to side”, or you can ride on top and take the reigns. While you might not stop it, you will be able to influence the “speed, the direction and the duration” of the crisis.
Education during the coronavirus is nothing short of a crisis. Entrepreneurs will not solve it alone — but we all have a social duty to use our innovations to help in whatever way we can.