Winners of this year's Yidan Prize Prof. Anant Agarwal (right), Prof. Larry V. Hedges (middle) being interviewed by moderator Tom Blackwell of EM Communications


THE 2018 YIDAN PRIZE was awarded to winners during a gala event followed by the Yidan Prize Summit in Hong Kong on the 10th of December. The Prize which was being awarded for the second year has been founded by Dr. Charles Chen Yidan in 2016. 

This year’s winners are Professor Larry V. Hedges of Northwestern University and Professor Anant Agarwal of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Larry Hedges is the Board of Trustees Professor of Statistics and Education and Social Policy, Professor of Psychology and Professor of Medical Social Sciences at the Northwestern University in Chicago.

He holds a PhD in Mathematical Methods in Educational Research from Stanford University. He was awarded the Yidan prize for his groundbreaking research on statistical methods in meta-analysis and research synthesis, which were conducted and published as early as 1985. The method has been widely used in not only education research but also all other fields of research such as medicine and economics.

“I was trained as a physicist and a mathematician, but I became interested in education as it was a life changing thing for me,” says Prof. Hedges. “I grew up near a small town in one of the poorest areas of California. Both of my parents worked in unskilled jobs; my father earned the minimum legal wage until his retirement. When I was a child, my family didn't even know anyone who went to college.”

Professor Morton Shapiro, the president of Northwestern University who nominated Hedges for the prize, introduced his colleague as a great mathematician who continued educating himself relentlessly. As for the importance of Prof. Hedges’ research he mentioned that scientists who have published research papers check their citations frequently, as the more a paper or result is cited, the more important it is: “In my filed in economic, if you get cited a 100 times you did something, if you are cited five hundred times you really did something, if you get cited a thousand times, that’s the definitive work of your carrier. His (Prof. Hedges’) work on meta-analysis has been cited 50 000 times.” Explaining what the meta-analysis means, Prof. Shapiro said: “What Larry figured out was that all of us when we do a study we have our different datasets and different statistical techniques, meta-analysis is to step back and do a study of studies.”

As an example of how the method changed the field of education research, Prof. Larry Hedges mentioned the classic case when numerous research papers had come to the same conclusion, that the amount of funding given to a school does not affect its outcome. When the studies were put under scrutiny using the meta-analysis method invented by Prof. Hedges, the result happened to be exactly the opposite, i.e. amount of funding is directly related to the outcome schools produce.

Prof. Anant Agarwal’s work, that got him the nomination and eventually the prize for education development, was the establishment of edX, a nonprofit, open source platform for online education. “Ed is for education and X is for whatever you could think of,” he explained the name. “Education is a right and everybody has to have access to it as the air we breathe, but you look around the world and you see that is not the case.” says Prof. Agarwal, “Digital technology is transforming everything, so what we decided to do is to apply digital technology and try to completely transform education around the world, and we did so by forming a non-profit called edX.”

EdX is a platform build by MIT and Harvard Universities with the aim of democratising education. Courses from the best universities in the world are provided on the platform for free for anyone to learn from any place in the world. The platform was established in 2012 and got 10,000 subscriptions in its first hour. The software of the platform, “Open edX” is also an open source, i.e. it is offered to the public for free. “So any of you who wants to launch a competitor platform, you are welcome to use our software and become a competitor,” says Prof. Agarwal. “Today there are 1800 educational platforms around the world that use our software. One example is the Chinese national platform, XuetangX, and that platform itself has 40 million learners.” EdX has grown to over 19 million learners form all around the wold and has more than 2400 courses online.

Despite its short history, the Yidan Prize deserves to be called “The Noble Prize in Education”. The prize is divided into two categories: The Yidan Prize for Education Research, which recognises outstanding research that contributes in significant ways to education, and the Yidan Prize for Education Development, which recognises innovative ideas that tackle important challenges in the field of education. Each Yidan Prize Laureate receives a gold medal and HK$30 million (around US$3.9 million) worth of awards, which include a cash prize of HK$15 million (around US$1.9 million) and a project fund of HK$15 million. The awarded sums are thus about 4 times larger than the Noble Prize and give the laureates an incentive to develop their projects further, and not to rest on their achievement, as is mostly in the case with the Nobel Prize.

Conditions for nomination and the selection process are strict. Nominees must have two letters of recommendation and published and peer-reviewed research to present. This year the prize committee received more than one thousand nominations. The final winners were selected by a judging committee chaired by Dr Koichiro Matsuura, former director-general of UNESCO, the Judging Committee comprises of two independent judging panels who screen all the valid nominations and select one candidate for each category. Mr Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, heads the judging panel for the Yidan Prize for Education Research, and Ms Dorothy K. Gordon, chair of the UNESCO Information For All programme, leads the panel for the Yidan Prize for Education Development. The panels consist of top gear experts in education from different universities and organisations around the world. The full list of judges can be found here.

Nominations for The Yidan Prize can come from government bodies, non-governmental organisations, professional associations and thought leaders, and only in exceptional cases from the nominees themselves. Basically, anyone can nominate a candidate through the nomination platform of the prize. Judging Committee members and Global Advisory Board members of the Yidan Prize are not eligible to make nominations or be nominated. In addition, nominators and supporters should not be family members of the nominee(s) or anyone who would possibly lead to a perceived, potential or actual conflict of interest.  

“The education system for tomorrow needs to be more fair, more efficient and more inclusive. That is why we ask the question: How? How can we achieve better education outcomes? How do we ensure that education can be made to work for all? How should we leverage education research and put theory into practice? To answer these questions, we must learn from each other and act together.” said the founder of the prize, Dr. Charles Yidan in his opening remarks of the summit.  Other keynote speakers included HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands; and the former Prime Minister of UK, Gordon Brown, who now functions as UN Special Envoy for Global Education.

Dr. Charles Chen Yidan, founder of the Yidan Prize speaking at the summit, on 10 Dec. 2018

Dr. Charles Chen Yidan is the core founder of Tencent Group (腾讯), the largest and most popular internet portal group in Mainland China and a company well known for the widely used Wechat messaging platform and investing in some of the most profitable gaming and internet companies, among others the Finnish Supercell. After stepping down from the role of CAO of Tencent, he founded the Yidan Prize Foundation and by 2016 had donated US $45 million to charitable causes earning him the title of “China’s top philanthropist” on the Forbes list of Asia’s 2017 Heroes of Philanthropy.

Alexis Kouros - HT

Image: The Yidan Prize