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:
- WISE, under the leadership and patronage of Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, moves beyond Silicon Valley education hype to real resource allocation for systemic innovation.
- The largest education-focused annual award, $500,000 WISE Prize, to raise the profile and prominence of education innovators who are improving the lives of individuals from around the world.
- Annual WISE Awards – winners have mentioned that it is not the dollars that matter so much as the exposure provided by the WISE platform and what appears to be a well-connected media team
- As well as a range of globally-funded projects and activities aimed at increasing access to education.
- Wise Innovation Fund – this is still a bit unclear, but it appears to be startup funding as well as support and mentorship
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.