My children are in public school in France. Last week at WISE @ Paris I learned that "French students spend 2/3 of their time taking notes. 70% of students have not worked in a group until they are 15 years old." (Yann Algan, Sciences Po). This confirmed my own impressions, and added to my parental angst about how to prepare my children for an uncertain future. However, it wasn't all bad news. I didn’t go to the confernece specifically for the discussions on rethinking modern education delivery in France, the disruptive potential of artificial intelligence (AI), or the future of work but these are topics that kept me engaged. I went to this conference as a delegate from RTI's International Education group, where I am involved in programs that support education system improvement in developing countries. I haven’t had the opportunity to go to Doha for the biennial summits, although I always keep an eye on the speakers and themes. So as a resident of France, this was a feasible opportunity on the one hand; on the other hand, the topics of the conference were well suited to several recent projects I’ve been working on, in particular an edited volume of case studies on teacher behavior change in low resource environments, and development of a framework for understanding ecosystems in which EdTech innovations scale equitably (forthcoming). The WISE Initiative, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, describes itself as “promoting innovation and building the future of education through collaboration.” It does this through a range of activities including a biennial summit and regional events (WISE@ NewYork, WISE@ Paris, WISE@ Accra), prizes, surveys and research agenda. Although education technology (EdTech) is addressed, WISE goes beyond the immediate association of innovation as technology to promote ways in which education stakeholders are rethinking how education is designed and delivered to be more relevant and effective in today’s world.
The theme of WISE @ Paris 2019, which took place February 20 and 21, was “Fostering Learning Societies”. Four specific conference themes were: rethinking K-12 education; empowering teachers and education leaders; decrypting the future of work and cultivating global citizenship. Many of the sessions I attended focused on the critical need to disrupt our current education systems to meet the needs of a future dominated by AI and other high tech fields. Coincidentally, I'd been reading about these themes already in the book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, by Yuval Noah Harari. The prospect of mass unemployment in the near future as many skills and jobs become irrelevant due to technology automation and AI has been keeping me up at night worrying about the future for my children, the oldest entering high school next year in a country where one is generally expected to choose an occupation by grade 10 and orient all high school coursework in that direction. Many of the same issues Harari writes about were a recurring theme in this conference. Although the prospects are potentially frightening according to Harari, the WISE Speakers were not sensationalist or catastrophic about these changes in society, but rather emphasizing the possibilities ushered in by collective intelligence and connectedness. They highlighted the critical need for global citizenship and increased collaboration, made possible in part through technology, but only if we start to transform the discourse on education--and action that follows- from a focus on “what to learn” to “how to learn” and how to live with one another.
“We don’t need any more knowledge transmission. None.”
Perhaps the most provocative statement of the conference tracks that I attended was from Nicolas Sadirac, a technologist and entrepreneur, who claimed that “We don’t need any more knowledge transmission. None.” Meaning that ‘knowledge’ and information can now be found in an instant, on demand. What we need ‘teaching’ to do is show us how to ask the right questions, how to remain curious, how to be human and how to channel what we know and do for the collective good. We need to “know what we don’t know and find to what we want to know” (an idea also promoted by Francois Teddei, Director of CRI, through concepts of knowledge mapping and the citizen science of learning) so that we can manage the potential of machine learning and AI. That AI challenges us to cultivate our own humanity and to know ourselves better was a recurring theme in the conference and is common in AI debates. The concept of “hybrid intelligence”, for example, is a vision in which machines and humans work together ways that augment human capacity rather than replacing human skills altogether. This means knowing what we, as humans, bring to the table. Nicolas' statement challenges us to consider the following: because we have computers that can store and retrieve near infinite amounts of information quickly we no longer need to fill our "empty vessels" with information that can be memorized and passed on to others. In stead, by focusing on higher-level learning objectives we can free cognitive space that can be used to activate our physical and mental potential and be channeled into greater human endeavors.
While this all sounds very esoteric and somewhat out of touch with the realities in contexts where I work, there were plenty of practical presentations and interactive sessions proposing ways in which educators might accomplish this. For example, many presenters spoke enthusiastically about online and distance education, especially for training a digital workforce in coding (42, OpenClassroom, Andela, Pitchworthy, etc.). I’ve been working in the field of distance and connected learning for 20 years now, so in a conference like this I was waiting for the ‘so what’—what is innovative and what is actually more disruptive now than before? The answer to that lies in the exponential growth in availability of high quality and affordable—even free, through peer-to-peer cascading—content, coupled with increased acceptance by employers for non-traditional learning pathways (and also irrelevance of employers in an age of entrepreneuship and microwork). There are innovations in instructional design, content distribution, and blended learning that make use of big data and connectedness for social good rather than knowledge transmission. Access to today’s online learning models increasingly fosters proactive learning connected to immediate opportunities for application of knowledge in a range of revenue-generating fields—mostly linked to the digital economy, but not always. Having written quite a bit about MOOCs, (see here and here), my favorite description of this trend was from David Munir Nabti of Pitchworthy who spoke of a move from MOOCs to MODEs (Massive Online Doing Experience). This idea of ‘doing’ together echoes the first big theme of increasing global citizenship through connected technologies, with a goal of increased empathy and understanding as much as individual skilling.
- Although it may just be a function of the particular setting in Paris, the majority of the conference—though interesting—was less relevant than others to my work in low income countries where children struggle to learn even the basics in primary school. The enthusiasm for the ability of technology and online learning to revolutionize and leapfrog learning for all seemed to miss the point that millions of people are still excluded from the benefits of technology for lack of access or ability to use them without functional literacy. The people arguing for an end to knowledge transmission and a renaissance of connected learning were themselves educated in systems that equipped them with, at minimum, the basics of literacy that, coupled with inquisitiveness and connectivity, allow them to pursue higher education and connectedness resulting in the very innovations they are proposing.
- That said, the same discussions made it clear that the efforts being made to improve education in the least developed countries, while effective in their own contexts, are simply too slow. The least educated are going to continue to be left behind in a global and digital economy shaped by forces from the global north unless there is a radical and rapid disruption in traditional systems. Two current projects that I am working on with RTI are looking at whether technology can accelerate learning for children excluded from school systems and in the absence of a teacher, and if so, what context-specific levers can be adjusted to help such innovations scale. Keep an eye on this space where we will share the results as soon as we are able to.
- The kind of disruption that is needed must be a collaboration between bottom-up individual and group efforts and top-down enabling environments and it requires a change in not just behaviors but also mindsets and a culture of learning. Interesting data presented by Andreas Schleicher from PISA 2015 showed evidence that education spending, reduced class sizes and increased instructional hours are not the solution to improved achievement (see slides at right, reproduced with permission). Improvement is linked to teachers who collaborate deeply through peer lesson observation, team teaching and networking—this is what we mean by "bottom up" individual and group efforts at school level. Yet, importantly, these activities are made possible through policy levers that professionalize the practice of teaching—what we mean by "top-down" enabling environment. This is a theme that we also addressed in the above-mentioned book of case studies on teacher behavior change in developing countries (see Chapter 1, Editorial Introduction or Chapter 7, a case study of peer learning in Indonesia).
- Another initiative under WISE is the Agile Leaders of Learning Innovation Network (ALL-IN) program aimed at designing school leadership programs. Delegates from ALL-IN, such as a friend and RTI collaborator, Deborah Kimathi of the Kenya-based NGO Dignitas, were at the conference and several sessions were dedicated to the importance of school leadership (see also Chapter 5 of the book for a case study of school leadership effects in Zambia) and designing strategies to make sure school leadership development is sustainable and scalable. This is a diverse group, more widely representative of a range of contexts and ostensibly more in touch with the most challenging learning environments. It is one to keep an eye on.
- I’ll assume it is also a consequence of the smaller format in Paris, but I know WISE can do better than a panel of 7 people talking about “Disruptive & Highly Scalable Innovations to Advance Education in African Continent”, in which only two people were from the content [and only North Africa at that] (>.<), and three were NOT white males (◔_◔). I’ll be looking out for better representation in future conference programs.
"Any revolution in education will go through three phases: ridiculous, dangerous, self-evident" were the closing words of the conference. If the relatively small-scale initiatives taking place in more developed countries represented at WISE can provide proof of concept for the education revoultion to come, perhaps we will be able to move more quickly elsewhere towards what will be self-evident: rapid acquisition of basic skills in the early grades needs to transition into collaborative, active and creative learning about 'how to learn' for a modern world.
About the conference
The first day’s activities held across various partner institutions including UNESCO, the Centre de Recherche Interdisciplinaire and SciencesPo and the second day at the Palais de Tokyo. I attended most of the first day at CRI, and only one session at UNESCO (due to the large distance between the two), and I found the setting of both CRI, an interdisciplinary research hub, makerspace, and gathering space, and the Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art museum, perfectly suited to foster collaboration and inspiration. Neither too big nor too small, both settings allowed for intimate breakout rooms and large plenaries, with plenty of space set aside for participant networking and spontaneous collaboration. It helped that the attendance was limited to a few hundred participants, by my estimate, and the panels and presenters were well matched in distinct themes, avoiding the common frustration at conferences of feeling like you have to be two or three places at once to not miss out. A few photos of the conference area below.
 Pouezevara, S. R. (Ed.) (2018). Cultivating dynamic educators: Case studies in teacher behavior change in Africa and Asia. (RTI Press Publication No. BK-0022-1809). Research Triangle Park, NC: RTI Press. https://doi.org/10.3768/rtipress.2018.bk.0022.1809
 Reference to the behaviorist theory of learning established in the early 20th century by American psychologist B. Skinner (1904 – 1990)
 Pouezevara, S., & Horn, L. (2016). MOOCs and online education: Exploring the potential for international educational development. (RTI Press Publication No. OP-0029-1603). Research Triangle Park, NC: RTI Press. DOI: 10.3768/rtipress.2016.OP.0029.1603