I’ve been home a few days now following a 2 week travel route that included the last week in Doha, Qatar to participate in the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). It was an unusual meeting/trip/experience on several fronts, and I’m baffled trying to find a coherent thread to pull together, so lacking that, I am winging it.
The event itself, was usual and unusual, and mostly what I can say the event happening itself was the real result. It was an audacious undertaking, daring, many said, for Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, an extremely articulate woman leader in a place where woman don’t often lead, to convene 1000 educators/business people/press/publishers/activists/one cogdog to focus on making education, on a global skill, a vital/necessary goal. Some said the aim was to make WISE the “Davos of Education”.
I did not really see much of Doha beyond car/bus windows passing by, as most of the time was spent in venues in 2 hotels; there was one night out with friends in the Souk Waqif, and I am really, really bummed I did not do enough to catch up with Jabiz (aka Intrepid Teacher), who I met last year in Shanghai.
So I cannot give any overall summary of what the place is like, besides it has a skyline of towers under construction that might make Shanghai look like a cow town. You really could not count the number of skyscrapers growing out of the sand, and there were even more things being built around, roads un-rolling, growing out of the sand.
And none of the buildings are “boring”
Unusual was the invitation to the event. Sometime last spring, I got an email from someone asking if I was going to respond to the invitation for the Doha event. Apparently, they sent them by postal mail to the NMC office in Austin, and they were not recognized as something urgent to forward. Of course I was interested (“travel? did someone say travel? to an exotic location?”). It was not exactly clear what I was supposed to do, and honestly I can see how some people might think it was not even real. If it were not for other colleagues emailing and asking if I got the “Doha Thing” I might have been doubtful (don’t question my methods, its my network). I heard later from a few people that never responded thinking it was a gimmick or scam, and one who decided not to follow through because he missed the part where it said they were paying all the travel expenses.
The foundation organizing the conference handled all of the travel arrangements, a little odd as we did not even get hotel assignments til less than a week before. Others who tried to make arrangements to go earlier or stay later found out any adjustments would cost them several thousand $. We’d fly in, conference for 3 days, and fly out.
In hindsight, it would have helped a lot of us if there was something before the conference to help orient us to the region and the culture (I did my own research). As is, we arrived at night, jet lagged trashed (it was a 20+ hour excursion to get there), and were whisked to a deluxe hotel. I do want to say that all of the people who provided help with the event and at the accommodations were most graceful and polite.
One weirdness was the constant passing through metal detectors coming and going from hotels, but eventually that just became part of the routine.
The conference itself was most usual- plenaries, and breakout presentation sessions. Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned welcomed in the opening (with a most human comment before about not having her glasses)
The main hall had top level media and sound, there were large projections on the side walls as well for people in the back. With such an international audience, they provided UN like headsets with live translations provided in like 8 languages. It was a little disconcerting that for most of the sessions, most of the speakers form non-English speaking countries spoke in English, which on one hand made it easier on me, but it seems unfair for ours to be the prominent tongue.
What was hurtfully lacking was any public wireless; I am hard pressed to see how one can invite people to a conference on innovation and have the basic element of communication. On day 1 in the plenary, I was able to connect over some Hum Le Catering wireless, but it got pounded. I was left to pay the hefty data charges to do bits on the iPhone (thanks AT&T love ya… not).
The “breakout” sessions (4 per round) were pretty much standard stand and talk over slides (or not). They were all organized as panels, with 3 or 4 speakers who did a presentation for about 12-15 minutes and then there was time for 30+ minutes of “Q&A”. I put that in quotes, because I found often the Q’s were not Q’s, but another chance for someone to make a long point/statement, etc.
It’s a topic for another post, but I felt something akin to PowerPoint Blunt Force Trauma
I guess I am a conference snob, but I was ready to throw open the windows, and scream Network like “I AM BORED AS HELL AND I AM NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE”.
But I don’t.
Its unfair to expect a conference to be organized on a level just for me. but I find it harder and harder each year (and it was hard way back in 1992, my first year in edtech game) to travel long distances to venues where people transmit content that can just as easily be done asynchronously. Conferences end up being this one to many communication pattern, where we relish the little bits in between where we can converse back and forth. But to have traveled 2000 miles to sit in a room and have people read to me, was deadly.
I find it a poor use of time, and would like a conference that flips the amount of time we sit passively with the informal time we communicate actively.
I am not saying that there were not worthy sessions, but I felt them few and far between, but had ti think again- it’s not about what is being said in the session- it was that so many educators where there in the first place. That was the purpose, it was a statement, of sorts.
Probably the most lively and energizing session was the 3rd day plenary on innovation. I had abot of a chortle when the moderator made a snide remark about “asking people not to twitter as it is ‘offputting'”
Now this ties into the whole Chronicle of Higher Ed’s singular focus on negativity on “tweckling”, and I can see some concern over these extreme cases where people lose their senses (no excusing their behavior) and go abusive on tweets during a conference. I’ve been at this a few years, and can say, the overwhelming majority of the activity is constructive, additive, and connects to an audience not present. And for me, it makes up a small bat for the primary communication mode at these fests being one to many.
The house came alive during the talk by Sugata Mitra (some say the inspiration for Slum-Dog Millionaire??) on the simple, but hihgly effective experiment of his Hole in the Wall Project. Basically, in the early days of the web, he was curious how children who never had seen a computer or the internet could independently learn from it. In a slum in New Delhi, he literally put a live connected web browser in a ‘hole in the wall” and has fascinating results (and data) of how kids were able to teach themselves not only computer technology, but learned to speak English, research, create art etc.
In several followup projects, he showed again and again, how kids can teach themselves, the multiplying effect of mentos… and in the end of his talk, he provided a roadmap, with an actual cost of what it would take to scale this up.
It was beautiful for how simple but effective an idea it was, doable, even.
He was followed by Twitter founder Biz Stone who talked about Twitter as less than the subject, but more of a model of how something (again) simple that was a service, open, could become the juggernaut it was become. They did not sit out and define what twitter would be, but let that emerge as people used it, created apps with its open API.
The event closed with a “Call to Action” for items that said were surfaced (I dont recall any process where people were asked for these, but they did emerge I guess)- see the summary by Tom Barrett. I really don;t know what to make of them; they are high level, and not really arguable, but I don;t really know what the “action” is.
There seems some desire to massively improve education around the world, a lot of focus on the millions (hundreds of millions?) of children that don’t even go to school, and almost like an expectation that some organization might be able to lift all boats.
A summary of the WISE event in TES Connect highlighted the tension between the “haves and have nots”, reporting on how attendees from poorer countries lacking resources were critical of the sessions from schools in the UK:
Professor Daizal Samad, director of Guyana University, was more scathing. He had heard a lot of “lofty talk about connectivity and IT” from the British and US delegates that was unhelpful for a country like Guyana where not a single primary school he had visited had a computer. Comparing schools in the richer Western countries and those in the developing world was, he said, “not about apples and oranges – they are both fruit – it’s like comparing apples and antelopes”.
On the back foot, Mr Moss admitted that the amount the UK was spending on school buildings was a “rather embarrassingly large amount of capital”.
But why would we be comparing apples, oranges, or antelopes? The world is never going to be equal. It is of course, unfair for students in countries like Guyana, and attention and action should be pointed their way. On the other hand, the UK should be commended for getting to a place where they are able to put so much into education. What we ought to focus on is looking at ways for Guyana to not level up, but rise up. We all ought to be doing the best we can with what we have, and doing what we can to get more. I don’t like the ultimatum of “haves” and “have nots” but think it is more in terms of “has more” and “has less”.
Frankly, I came away embarrassed with how much I “has”.
There were tons of examples, inspiring ones, of how projects that won the WISE awards were going in places like Paraguay, Ghana, India, making incredible achievements with very limited resources. These are super heroic efforts, ones against incredible odds. If WISE can be a vehicle for expanding the reach of these projects, that would be a success to crow about.
So now I sit not sure how the “Cal to Action” or a yearly event can do much. If I were at the WISE table, I’d focus on the things to keep the connections and communications open between participants.
In the end going to Doha was not about the sessions or the conference, but really about all the conversations that happened during the in between time. The range of people I met from all continents was both inspiring and humbling, and I am still spinning my wheels trying to fathom how my little bit of blogging, tweeting, and tinkering online is doing something on the bigger scale.
I’m glad I had the unusual experience of going to Doha, and expect the effects to reverberate more quietly.