Reporting back from WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education

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some new approaches to development were on display at WISE 2012 ...The World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) annually brings together "more than 1,000 prominent education, corporate, political and social leaders from over 100 countries to explore how collaboration in many forms and at many levels can become the driving force of efforts to inspire innovation in education and to design long-term strategies for its renewal". Now it its fourth year, WISE is one high profile example of how the small but natural gas-rich Middle Eastern nation of Qatar is seeking to establish itself as a locus for discussion and dialogue on a number of key global issues (another example is the hosting of next week's global climate change conference), with a particular interest in education (in addition to WISE, Qatar is also home to Education City) and sport (in addition to high profile Qatari sponsorship of the FC Barcelona jerseys and investment in the French soccer club PSG, the country will host the 2022 World Cup.)

The annual WISE Prize for Education, which comes with a gold medal and USD $500,000 and was awarded this year to Madhav Chavan of the Indian NGO Pratham, is an attempt to, in the words of the sponsoring Qatar Foundation, "[raise the] status of education by giving it similar prestige to other areas for which major international awards exist such as science, literature, peace and economics". (Think of the WISE Prize as a sort of Nobel Prize or Fields Medal for education and you'll get a sense of the ambition at work here.)

The use of new technologies to help meet various challenges in education is, rightly or wrongly, labeled 'innovative' in an almost de facto way these days, and so perhaps it is not surprising that an event focusing on innovations in education should attract people and organizations with decided interests in technology-related issues. Walking the halls at WISE you could bump into people from the public, private and NGO sectors who are leading efforts, large and small, seeking to introduce and sustain new educational practices through the use of ICTs. As with many such events that I attend, I found that serendipitous collisions with such people were often more interesting than the official program -- even when such people were on the program itself! This is not to say that the sessions themselves were not of interest -- far from it! -- but WISE does a fantastic job of archiving video from many of the individual sessions on the WISE web site, which meant that I didn't have to choose between attending a session and continuing a conversation, as I knew I could always catch a session in full via the web at a later date. (WISE also did a great job of providing quite robust, and free, wi-fi throughout the conference venue, which made integration of streaming video feeds and tools like Twitter and Facebook during individual sessions quite seamless. Other conferences would do well to emulate this!) Smaller 'spotlight sessions' on things like Uruguay's Plan Ceibal offered the opportunity to interact with the people actually running various interesting initiatives and research projects. A special address by Conrad Wolfram on Stop Teaching Calculating, Start Learning Maths was particularly well received by many in the WISE crowd, who were intrigued by the call for a re-thinking of the way mathematics is typically taught, and learned, in schools (many people, I suspect, were familiar with his related TED Talk on Teaching kids real math with computers).

While, 'ICT' was not an explicit specific focus of any of the individual sessions at WISE this year, the heavy presence and accent of the technology crowd could not be missed. Six initiatives were presented with WISE Awards in recognition of their "innovative approach[es] to solving important global problems", and programs as diverse as PSU Educarchile and Robobraille highlighted the diverse ways that new technologies are transforming education practices in various parts of the world. While not itself an educational technology project, one of the evaluations of ICT use in education that I have recommended that people read is of a program sponsored by Pratham itself (see Linden, Banerjeet, Duflo: Computer-Assisted Learning: Evidence from A Randomized Experiment [pdf]. 'Tech' was certainly a recurrent theme in the two WISE Debates that I helped moderate, on Education and the Workforce: Matching Skills and Needs?  and New Entrants: Diversifying Providers.

Generally speaking, there was a decided oversampling at WISE 2012 of government and policy types -- a group to which I guess I belong -- and underrepresentation of the venture capital-seeking (or -providing) 'education innovation types' one often encounters in events of this sort elsewhere (especially as you get closer to Silicon Valley). Whether this was by conscious choice of the organizers, a consequence of geography, or just a coincidence, the energy (and, some critics would argue, the occasional vapor as well) that characterizes many in the (for lack of a better phrase) education start-up community was still evident in some of the smaller sessions. The New Entrants session, for example, attracted many folks to discuss some of the innovative approaches that a variety of 'new players' -- from high tech manufacturers to IT start-ups to social entrepreneurs and other 'new entrants' -- have been pursuing in the education sector.

What gaps are these sorts of providers seeking to fill?

What opportunities are there for these sorts of 'new entrants' to influence the broader education ecosystem (for lack of a better term), especially outside of formal school systems?

What are some of the key the emerging lessons that have emerged from this experience about what has worked, and just as importantly, what hasn't?

Like it or not (and many traditional providers of education, especially in government and in certain segments of civil society, are quite wary of the motives of many of these sorts of 'new entrants'), there is no denying that these groups are challenging many of the approaches that have long been established fact in education systems in many parts of the world. One expects that these sorts of questions will continue to provide rich material for WISE Debates for many years to come.

Also of potential interest:
My World Bank colleague Harry Patrinos has written on the general World Bank education blog about the session at WISE in which he participated, Education and Finance: Evaluating Innovative Models.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of many construction cranes dotting the skyline in Qatar's capital city ("some new approaches to development were on display at WISE 2012 ...") comes from Wikipedian Amjra via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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