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WISE: The world’s most important education conference

Education is constantly confronted with a dual threat:
1. Acknowledgement that it is a foundation for all human progress and able to lift regions and society out of poverty,
2. Public policy and investment that denies the value of education.
When society faces a problem, whether racism, violence, or inequality, education is the first scapegoat and the first solution. Report after report validates the role of education in improving the personal lives of individuals and the public sphere of highly educated regions. Politicians and reformers point to international comparisons to laud or condemn performance of local education systems.

Unfortunately, when economic pressures hit, one of the first casualties is public education – at all levels. We are experiencing this in Alberta now where our well-coiffed, but ill-informed and short-sited education, minister Thomas Lukaszuk is slashing funding. I have a hard time resolving the tension between “education is critical” and “let’s cut it when we have budget issues”. Education is essentially an investment in the future. It is a politically soft target where people shake their heads, protest somewhat loudly (unless you’re from Quebec), but then go about their day. Other areas of government funding, such as healthcare, are harder to raid from future generations because people feel the impact of cuts almost immediately. In education, we can have decades of erosion before it impacts the daily lives of most members of society.

I attend somewhere in the range of 30-50 education/technology/learning conferences annually. These conferences range from local conferences with a 100 or so attendees to large international events with over 2000 attendees. While I’ve enjoyed the personal learning experience, the overall message is disheartening. Frequently, if it’s a university’s annual learning event, I’ll be introduced by a senior leader who will then a) leave immediately after the introduction or b) when seated in too conspicuous location, will stay for the session and immediately leave. These annual “celebrations of teaching and learning” send the wrong message to faculty. The real message should not be “here is a speaker who doesn’t know much about our system to tell us how we should teach” but rather should be “I’m committed to teaching and learning and I have cleared my schedule for the next two days to learn from and with you so our university community is stronger and more able to address the challenges we face”.

Last week I attended the WISE conference in Doha, Qatar. This event has been on my radar for a few years as it causes a significant splash in social and mainstream media annually. When I received an invitation to attend, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m glad I did.

WISE is a global event, though the organizers describe it as a movement and platform rather than a conference. Where else will you meet former prime ministers such as Gordon Brown, Julia Gillard, heads of UNESCO, World Bank, university presidents, leaders of NGOs, prominent academics, students, and startups that represent all regions of the world? I’ll posit: WISE is the most important annual education conference in assessing global education trends, connecting with peers, and observing a strong economic commitment to education in action.

A few examples:

I am not aware of the total investment in WISE conference and related education projects by the Qatar Foundation. A back of the napkin calculation puts it in the range of hundreds of millions. Unlike other notable foundations with an education focus, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Qatar Foundation does not only target specific outcomes or specific projects. Their investment, especially with WISE, is in long term conceptual areas such as “innovation in education” and “education for all”. Creating a forum to share innovations, outside of prescribed criteria established in advance, is urgently needed. In times of rapid change and uncertainty, experimentation, action, and discourse are needed, rather than following status quo solutions. After a decade of attending and presenting at learning, technology, education, and innovation conferences, WISE is the best forum that I have encountered for having the most important global education conversations.

As I’m writing this, I’m torn between excitement about, and support for, the innovative work happening in Qatar in education and sadness around the monochromatic education conversations and reduced funding happening in Alberta, Canada, and most other western countries. It does make sense, however, that in a global world, I would find brilliant innovations outside of my province and country. I’d be encouraged if there was a prospect of seeing WISE-like innovations developing in Canada. Unfortunately, we value talk about the importance of education over long-term visionary investment.


  1. John S Green wrote:

    WISE platform is another positive step for making eduction a global priority. We all can make our contributions in our own way. Grass roots advocacy of early childhood education and development is my contribution. Does the WISE movement consider “Birth to three”?

    Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  2. Thinking of moving?

    Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  3. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Dan – While I enjoyed WISE, not thought of moving to Doha!

    Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  4. Esther Jackson wrote:

    I agree with your statement about the use of education as a source of blame as well as the ideal solution to society’s problems. However, in many ways this is actually true and it shows that we have our work cut out for us. Thanks for sharing.

    Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  5. George, appreciate your thoughtful comments about WISE, and it was a pleasure meeting you in person.
    As an educator who worked in Qatar in the past, and as someone who attended WISE 2009, 2012 and now 2013 I have seen the evolution of purposeful planning and considered monetary allocations to this event. Yes it is a stupendous boost for all concerned to attend, and to those amazing award winners, much deserved recognition and opportunities to share their achievements.
    Not meant as criticism, but I would love to see WISE evolve into an event where we can have more meaningful conversations in smaller groupings. I would also like the opportunity to work with others while at WISE to build something together that can be implemented afterwards across different systems – as a global collaboration perhaps. I have yet to write my blog post…..thanks George for your contribution to the MOOC session, very provocative.

    Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Permalink
  6. Alex wrote:

    Spent quite a few years in education across Canada and came up with one idea. To increase quality of the education you need to decrease the number of officials, to decrease all these intermediate levels between scientists and educators and students.

    Look at the latest trends ath the UofA and UofC – new VPs, UofA president with the annual salary more than 600,000 CAD (even Obama has less) – and those salaries for universities which are subsidized by more than 80 percent by the government. Take these money and give somebody who is worthwhile – teachers and Profs.

    Tuesday, November 5, 2013 at 12:16 am | Permalink
  7. Julio Muñoz wrote:

    I attended WISE 2012 and 2013, I believe these are great opportunities to learn, share and replicate these initiatives in our countries and regions. We, the Latin American entities and individuals who have attended WISE, have organized WISE LATAM (LA tin AMerican) network to boost WISE initiative and contribute to discussion and rethinking of education in our local and regional educational systems. Why not organizing a WISE NORTHAM (NORTH AMerica) network to start talking about education with educator in your locations, counties, countries, regions? —- I am a consultant for the Senior Higher Education Council for Central America located in Guatemala.

    Tuesday, November 5, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  8. Mark McGuire wrote:

    It is sad to see the extent to which our traditional institutions of higher education suffer from goal displacement (Objective #1: Survive; Objective #2: Expand and become more competitive; Objective #3: Ah, can I get back to you on that?). Pulling the rug out from under yourself is difficult, and possibly not in your personal best interest. Visitors are more likely to notice when it is time to renovate.

    Friday, November 8, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink