Monday, November 04, 2013

WISE 2013 – Reinventing education

The World Summit on Education in Doha, Qatar brings together educators from around the globe. They literally fly you in, put you up in a fine hotel, feed you and let you rip. Networking here, and that is its strength, is as global as you can get, as you’re guaranteed to speak to people from every continent. It is arguably, as George Siemens says, “world’s most important education conference”.
Reinventing education’ was this year’s theme, an admirable goal and badly needed as we know that the Millennium goals will be missed, that the existing model is flawed, costs too high and that demand is exceeds supply. So what happened?
As I said when I blogged the last WISE conference I attended (this is my 3rd), “Education’s a slow learner - it may be more accurate to say that education has learning difficulties. The system is fixed, fossilised and, above all, institutionalised, so the rate of change is glacial. People are, by and large, trapped in the mindset of their institution and sector. In truth, small pools of innovative practice are patchy and stand little chance of wide scale adoption. Many of the speakers repeated platitudes about education being the answer to all of the world’s problems. What they were short on were solutions. Education is always seen as the solution to all problems. The problem with all this utopian talk is that it dispenses with realism.
4 pillars of education
The plenaries were, well, institutionalised, UNESCO, in my opinion, have become part of the problem and low on solutions. They dominated many of the sessions and regurgitated old reports, clichés and truisms, none worse that their 4 Pillars of Education ‘to be, to know, to do, to live together’. This is fine, but fails on a number of counts. ‘To be’ is a banal abstraction that has no real purchase in education. ‘To know’ is an obvious truism – of course education is about knowing – but knowing what? ‘To live together’ is better but not best taught in school and classrooms. The last, ‘To do’ is good but largely ignored as education gets ever more abstract and academic, treating vocational learning as an afterthought. What we needed was the Samson of innovation to push over the UNESCO pillars and enter the temple of institutional thought to upturn a few tables that have been selling the same tired, old stuff for decades. Sorry - I’ve mixed up two parables in one sentence!
Morin – disappointing ‘discourse’
Morin opened the conference with an abstract, rambling précis of his old UNESCO paper. He’s 92 and struggled to handle his notes and microphone. It was stratospheric, a piece of French philosophy, totally detached from the real world. It’s a type of ‘discourse’ (as French philosophers like to call it) that remains rooted in dualist abstractions and dialectic, with the occasional apercu. But this approach fails to deliver concrete ideas that one could take away and apply in the real world. When asked for some real suggestions and detail, he couldn’t and fumbled through with some more discourse on ‘strategy’. Worse, it set the wrong tone for the summit. One of abstractions and a failure to address real problems.
Literacy & numeracy
But things got much better with a hard hitting session which delivered some surprises for me. First some brilliant insights from Helen Abadzi, that around 18 our minds become less plastic and open to learning literacies. You can learn the letters but it is difficult to see them come together as words. You can experience this for yourself when you learn a new language as an adult. As you rarely reach a reasonable reading speed, of around 60-80 words a minute, you forget the start of sentences before you’ve reached the end. The implications of this research are huge, that we may be wasting too much time and money trying to solve an insoluble problem. The second was that the whole literacy push in Africa and the developed world is being thwarted by poor textbooks and teaching. I have seen this for myself in Cambodia, where a literally unusable textbook was being used in a country classroom. There was a call for the abandonment of traditional ‘English’ and ‘Middle-class’ teaching methods and texts for a literal ‘letter by letter’ approach in the local language, which is rarely as irregular a English. When done well it takes around 100 days. The other issue is teacher feedback, which is often poor and misdirected in schools, focussing on the best not the worst performers in the class. As for numeracy, it’s a different class of problem, as we are all born numerate. New born babies are numerate but not literate. In truth this side of the debate wasn’t covered at all.
Small-minded debate on Big Data
This session bordered on the bizarre. As one of the most important current topics in education it deserved better. What we got were idiosyncratic, personal and to be frank, not very informed, views on the subject. John Fallon, of Pearson, was reasonably articulate and tried to keep to topic, but the other three were amateurish. I saw one ‘analytics’ expert in the room leave after 15 minutes.
For John Fallon we need to collect, analyse and interpret data give opportunities to look at education like never before and transform outcomes. We’re not short of data, it’s just that most of it is inputs such as spend, enrolments, millennium goals, broadband connectivity and so on. As I always say, to measure bums on seats is to measure the wrong end of the learner. Then there’s the outcomes; PISA PIAC, high stakes tests, artificial once year events. What we don’t use it for, said John, is to enhance learning. How do I know what’s going on in students’ minds. Big Data needs to scale. Thousands of individual interactions each and every day, across informal and formal learning. He was the only one on the panel who had any real grasp on the detail.
Divina Frau-Meigs, a sociologist, and self-styled activist for media literacies (stretching the meaning of the word activist), gave an idiosyncratic presentation based on her own flimsy research. At one point she included drawing mindmaps on paper as Big Data. It’s called BIG data for a reason. Her statement that it’s mostly dashboards and data mining missed the point. Emilio Porta an economist from Nicuaragua was obsessed with global data – UN, UNESCO, PISA and so on. He couldn’t see the flaws in having created a sort of arms race as the leaning Tower of PISA data is hopelessly skewed. htp:// Politicians distort and exaggerate these stats for their own ends. This was a very low level chit chat about a complex and serious subject. I’m not sure that any of the panel had the expertise to do it the justice it deserved.
Mindgraphs - Hans Rosling
Hans Rosling has a great TED talk on the animation of statistics. But what matters is what those statistics tell us. Rosling stunned us with his assertion that our common perceptions about population, poverty and education are worse than that of chimps! He did this with enthusiasm and humour.
What is the global literacy rate?
(answer at bottom)
Again and again he showed us that our common perceptions are misconceptions. Population is not increasing exponentially as birth rates have and are falling and the number of children in the world has stopped growing.
On education he also scotched a few myths around figures quoted by notables on the panels. What is worse, he asked POVERTY or GENDER in education? Poverty is the clear answer. Above all, we no longer have developed v developing nations but a range. Rosling should have been the opening keynote, he set the tone for a proper debate, based on real figures.
What if Finnish teachers taught in your schools?
Pasi Strahlberg posed a few questions to show that you must tackle improving your educational system holistically. It is not JUST about quality teachers, the mantra we so often hear. It’s a wide range of social issues around scrapping the private sector, not rushing things and avoiding early years ‘schooling’. Let them play until they’re 7 or 8. Don’t get obsessive about testing. This flies in the face of almost everything we do in education in the UK. We have become trapped in an arms race, where the solution to everything is more ‘competition’, more ‘schooling’, more ‘league tables’ and more ‘testing’. I also noticed that this was in direct contradiction to Julia Gillard’s prescriptive ‘testing’ approach.
Monsters and misconceptions
This was a revelation, quick fire talks on all sorts of topics and solutions, some good, some great, some awful. Let’s get the awful stuff out of the way. The talk by the Observer journalist was an anecdotal rant about how women rule the world and hapless men need to listen to them, as ‘men can’t collaborate, women do’. This was a statement so general and awful that it deserves a response. I played football nearly every night as a child, I’ve managed companies, worked in teams and have little to learn from a hackneyed journo, who has spent most of her life in solitary confinement typing out articles on subjects to a deadline. She obscured an interesting point about the feminisation of education in early years and primary by caricaturing men. OK, got that out of my system.
To counter this, we had superb presentations on hard hitting topics, like child marriages, self-sustaining schools in Uganda, MOOCs in China, Amazigh education in Morocco and the Khan Academy. This quick-fire stuff needs to be promoted and given more status, maybe themed. I particularly enjoyed the iThra talk, about an after school science programme. He had a stunning quote, “The education system is a monster, by fighting it we would have become monsters ourselves”.
Mozilla – tinker, share, make
Mark Surman showed us how to present. Face the audience, stand up, look people in the eye, speak knowledgeably but from the heart, don’t use notes and deliver a clear message. Compare this to Morin and others on the many panels that delivered the same old platitudes. Motivate, engage and excite learners. Get them to tinker, share and make things. It’s a learn by doing model that allows young minds to understand the technological world in which they live and use that technology to learn, do things and make things. What gave his message clout was the fact that he was doing this through the Mozilla Foundation, around the world, in Mozfests and Maker events.
Educators are always going on about 21st C skills. For Surman the 4th literacy is web literacy, as the web is the new classroom, 21st century skills - 5 Cs (Classroom is not one of them)  communicate, create, culture, collaborate, community on the WEB. These skills are not well taught in schools and universities, where learners are herded into classrooms and lecture theatres, online communication tools and devices often banned and creativity rare, often squeezed by the obsession with STEM subjects. Educators are also always trying to force storytelling. Young people tell stories daily - it's called Facebook. Lifelong learning is Google, Wikipedia, Social networking and YouTube - life is not a course it's informal learning.
Excellent input from the knowledgeable George Siemens and the Chief Scientist for EdX. These guys know their stuff but the other two participants clearly knew nothing about MOOCs and astonishingly, had never taken a MOOC. How do I know this? I asked them and the chair. Neither had taken a MOOC. They both spoke like amateurs because they were amateurs, trotting out clichés about human interaction and drop-out without any grasp of the detail. Siemens was clearly frustrated by their uninformed negativity and explained why drop-out is not the problem people imagine it is, that pedagogy is varied and evolving and that the experience is richer than people imagine and, above all, people like them and use them. For the first time in 1000 years education that delivers quality education to massive numbers, at low cost, that people want and enjoy.
MOOCs are a wake-up call for Higher Education. MOOCs flip universities. Siemens is right, MOOCs are a supply response to a demand problem. We’ve seen more action in 1 year than last 1000 years and MOOCs will produce dramatic systemic and substantial change. Certification is NOT the point in MOOCs - only 33% wanted certification in Edinburgh MOOCs and there are plenty of ways they can be monetised.
Human interaction is an issue but in the 6 MOOCs I've taken this has been great - teaching seems intimate, peer-to-peer interaction strong, forums lively and physical meetups possible. Siemens got a little tetchy when drop-out was mentioned – rightly so. The sceptics seemed determined to look at everything within the deficit model. What about the hundreds of thousands of drop-ins? I’m absolutely amazed that so many have taken so many courses from so many places. Online experience need not be inferior. As Siemens said, let's hold classrooms and lectures to same standards as online!
There’s real fears around dominance by the private sector, but if that delivers cheaper, faster, better education, so be it. In my opinion, however, the future of MOOCs is: open platforms, open content, open pedagogies and the opening of minds. African MOOCs may unlock a billion more brains HOOKs VOOKs - High school and Vocational MOOCs are also being delivered as this is not just about HE and degrees. The MOOC session by far best at WISE talking about real reinvention and a real phenomenon.
This is my third WISE summit, and as usual, I met some amazing people. Thanks George Siemens, Mark Surman, Cathy Lewis Long, Derek Robertson, John Davitt, Davod Worley, Jef Staes and all of the new people I met in Doha. The Souk was a hoot (try the Iraqi restaurant there), the gala dinner hilarious (the lack of alcohol made us almost hysterical) and on the rides on the bus to and from the conference I had some of the best impromptu sessions.
Overall however, you can see the problem, a failure to engage with the real problems head-on; costs, relevance, technology, that faculty and existing teaching systems biggest barrier to progress in learning.  86% of the delegates want reinvention of education but time and time again the panels reflected and reinforced old ideas and practices, with the audience clapping every time the word ‘teacher’ was mentioned. Teachers matter, but until we recognise that teaching is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for learning and look for some other additional solutions, WISE will forever be focussing on the wrong thing – teachers, not learners. The fear, that students may ‘manage to learn without me’ and of technology in general, is holding us back. Next year, less administrators, more innovators. The good news is that the Qatar Fundation has been doing brilliant work across the globe and announced a focus on innovation this year, with financial support for such innovation. They may be on to something here.
Session on University Rankings was in Room 101!

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