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Learning without borders

Digital education’s global reach can bring us together and affirm our shared humanity.
Kurt Hahn
Founder of the United World College, Kurt Hahn was a remarkable education innovator. Photo courtesy BBC.
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Stanford Digital Education recently welcomed a distinguished delegation of education and philanthropy leaders from Germany for a weeklong visit to campus and Silicon Valley. Led by the Robert Bosch Foundation, the visit brought back memories of a fellowship year I spent in Berlin, 10 years ago, when I found myself in shoes that were similar to our visitors’. I was an American educator in Germany, trying to understand what ideas we could exchange about the digital transformation that would benefit education systems on both sides of the Atlantic.

One of the most remarkable education startups I encountered during my time in Germany did not fit the mold of what we usually think of as “innovation.” It was Robert Bosch College, which, with support from the Robert Bosch Foundation, was just getting started in Freiburg. It was the newest high school in the United World College network, which now consists of 18 high schools around the world, serving students from more than 150 countries.

The principles of the United World College (UWC) are rooted in the effort to build more peaceful societies in the wake of the world wars of the 20th century. In their words, “Education can be about more than just personal advancement, or securing a place at university. It can inspire students to discover what connects us all as humans, and to act as champions for a world of peace, collaboration and understanding.”

Atlantic College, the first UWC, was founded in Wales in 1962, “on the idea that if young people from different backgrounds were educated together, they could build an understanding which could prevent future conflicts.” It and the other schools in the network feature experiential learning, in which students learn from doing, as opposed to a singular focus on students consuming information from teachers.

The founder, Kurt Hahn, was a remarkable education innovator. He took the same principles from UWC and later expanded on them as co-founder of the International Baccalaureate program, as well as the co-founder of the experiential learning program Outward Bound. One book described Hahn’s philosophy as “a unique blend of two traditions: the Greco-Roman way of tenacity, physical challenge, courage, and perseverance, and the Judeo-Christian way of compassion, self-sacrifice, love, and tolerance.”

Kurt Hahn’s ideas about compassion, resilience, and mutual understanding across cultural barriers still have great relevance today, as we see Europe fractured by war and democratic societies polarized by extremism and fragmentation. What would it mean to scale the humanistic approaches to education that Hahn pioneered to meet the global educational needs of today?

I want to offer an example of an educational innovation that is making progress on scaling education with humanity. Code in Place is a Stanford computer science course that is offered to learners worldwide at no cost. Launched during the pandemic, it has just relaunched this spring, and will run each year for the next two years. Led by Stanford Assistant Professor of Computer Science Chris Piech, the course covers the first half of CS 106A, the introductory course in Python programming at Stanford. So it’s a skills program, right? How does that connect to the United World College philosophy of education?

Code in Place is about more than coding. It enlists hundreds of volunteer section leaders, and scores of teachers of section leaders, to build a human-centered global learning experience that gives thousands of students social connections and interactions. For many section leaders, it’s also their first experience of teaching, though likely not the last. 

Another Stanford colleague, Prof. Noah Goodman, said recently, “Many species learn, but human beings are the only species that deliberately teaches,” and Code in Place scales that fundamentally human activity. The course builds learning relationships that transcend national borders. So it should probably not be a surprise that two of the Stanford student leaders of Code in Place are graduates of the United World Colleges in South East Asia and in New Mexico. 

The visit from the German delegation, and my own time abroad, remind me of an important lesson that is easy to forget. While education systems are national, learning is part of our shared humanity. While the U.S. and German education systems have some significant differences, my American colleagues and I had fruitful conversations with our guests and benefited from hearing their questions and ideas. There is a shared core that transcends national differences. So when we are trying to innovate in education, and especially when we are trying to exchange ideas about education, we have to hold a dialectic in our heads. We have to balance the challenges of translating ideas from one context to another with the opportunities that arise from the recognition that, at the level of our minds, we are the same, and we have much to learn from one another.


Published May 15, 2023

Matthew Rascoff is vice provost for digital education at Stanford.

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