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Education Without Borders – Nina Kolleck investigates how NGOs are changing education systems worldwide

Prof. Dr. Nina Kolleck
Education Without Borders
Photo : Thomas Roese
Prof. Dr. Nina Kolleck
Image : Andreas Töpfer
Education Without Borders

Across borders, more digital, and more private – how is education changing against the backdrop of globalization? Does education stop at national borders, or does it rather connect people throughout the world? Potsdam education and political scientist Nina Kolleck researches the influence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on education systems worldwide and across national borders. Kolleck, who is Professor of Education and Socialization Theory has been awarded a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) totaling 1.33 million euros for a funding period of five years.

Education is not only becoming more digital but also more global. The “global turn in education”, as it is called in academia, is reflected in the collaboration of an increasing number of educational institutions, stakeholders, and politicians on a global level. According to Kolleck, the Bologna Reform, with which the European states have attempted to create a common higher education area, is just one example. Other instances encompass global influences on curricula, the promotion of intercultural education, and the introduction of international educational standards.

NGOs on a mission for more education

Parallel to globalization, however, she is observing a second profound change. “Particularly in the field of education, states are increasingly withdrawing and other players are filling this gap, such as international organizations, multinational companies, and NGOs,” Prof. Kolleck says. The work of international organisations such as the UNESCO or the OECD in the education sector has already been well researched, in contrast to NGOs at a global level. “We still hardly know what role they play and how they influence education,” Kolleck says. It is clear that in the course of this “global turn”, NGOs are increasingly establishing transnational networks to design and implement education together. They are working at various levels with different and sometimes contradictory aims – for example, to reduce educational inequality, introduce innovative teaching methods, provide educational resources, or support neoliberalism or businesses through influencing education.

One example is “Teach For All,” a network of NGOs from over 50 countries that have joined forces with the aim of “radically transforming education systems around the world by focusing on the provision of educational concepts in various countries,” as Kolleck stated. Their locally operated and funded partner organizations train university graduates and executives who then teach in classrooms within their countries for two years – precisely where they are needed most. Additionally, “Teach For All” ambassadors continue to advocate for the improvement of educational opportunities for children worldwide throughout their careers.

How exactly these networks influence the education systems is still largely unexplored. Education and political scientist Nina Kolleck plans to investigate this change in more detail with the help of the ERC Starting Grant. “In times of increasing inequality, I hope that the project will help to shed light on the work of new players in the education system and strengthen equal opportunities worldwide. This is also of crucial importance for stable democracies.”

The project does not focus on individual NGOs but on their association to form so-called transnational networks. In addition to “Teach For All”, there are, for example, “Education International” and “Global Environmental Education Partnership (GEEP)”. “These networks have the common aim to change education worldwide. However, they differ in terms of their geographical and content focus, their methods, and the key areas they focus on,” she says. “Sometimes the focus is on climate education, for example, sometimes it’s on human rights."

New methods for new networks

To be able to measure the “global non-governmental spaces” emerging in education, Prof. Kolleck has developed a new methodological approach. With the help of quantitative surveys, the researchers want to investigate the structure of the networks and what content they specifically deal with. They also collect extensive text data and data from social media platforms. This data is then analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively in order to identify patterns, trends, and effects. The researchers primarily use natural language processing and social network analysis methods. “The social media data provide us with insights into public information, communication and influence flows, interactions between different actors, networks, discussions, and reactions,” Kolleck explains. They are able to analyze both the structures of these interactions, i.e., the social network structures, as well as the content of the discourses and debates. “I believe that we will only be able to understand the changing significance of NGOs for the education sector if we combine both levels,” she says.

Social media data has a decisive advantage: As so-called natural data, it is generated without the intervention of the researchers – in contrast to data from scientific surveys. Although not all relevant actors are represented on these platforms, it creates a good starting point for a valuable, complex longitudinal analysis. Large data sets covering a longer period and natural communication flows are thus analyzed using social network analysis methods. Prof. Kolleck sees enormous potential for her new interdisciplinary methodological approach. “I think that it will also be applicable in other policy and research areas in the future, such as health policy, global environmental policy, and human rights. That is why I want to use my project to show directly how beneficial it is to work in an interdisciplinary way, especially in such innovative fields.”

As a first step, Kolleck hopes to be able to better explain the work of NGOs such as “Teach For All”, so that it forms a precedent and “we can do something about growing global educational inequality.”

The Researcher

Prof. Dr. Nina Kolleck has been Professor for Education and Socialization Theory at the University of Potsdam since 2023.
Email: nina.kolleckuni-potsdamde

The Project

EmergEd – The Emergence of Global Non-Governmental Spaces in Education: Non-Governmental Organizations and the Global Turn in Education
Funding: European Union / ERC Grant
Duration: 2023–2027

The European Research Council (ERC) supports excellent researchers and their teams with innovative and progressive project and research ideas in all fields of research. Projects are funded for up to five years with grants between 1.5 – 2.5 million euros. ERC funding is open-topic. The sole criterion for funding is excellence. The funded project has to be conducted at a scientific institution of the researchers’ choice in Europe or one of the partner institutions.


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Eins 2024 „Bildung:digital“ (PDF).