A triumph of humanity, not of technology!

The first ever World Innovation Summit for Education put on by the Qatar Foundation in Doha last week was a great success. The intelligent and forward-looking ideas and programs discussed throughout the conference represented a 'triumph of humanity, not of technology' - a phrase coined by Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, in the Wednesday morning plenary with regard to their aspirations for the now-ubiquitous micro-blogging platform. Having the rarely paralleled budget to fly and accommodate 1,000 delegates from all over the world undoubtedly helped QF to gather the varied, dedicated, talented and truly global audience. And while certain aspects of the event were quite un-innovative (i.e. traditional conference format, limited wireless accessibility in session rooms), overall, the 3 days of discussion were extremely valuable, promising great things for WISE 2010 and beyond.

I found the Innovation plenary on Wednesday morning particularly interesting, and in the name of the event's overriding theme, wanted to share some highlights from that session. Professor Sugata Mitra of Newcastle University wowed the crowd with his 'Hole in the Wall' - an experiment demonstrating the value of 'self-organized' learning for children of all backgrounds, in all contexts. Between myself and colleagues from Birzeit University, hopefully Prof Mitra will join us in Palestine very soon to help us replicate the lessons he's learned to promote intellectual curiosity and self-learning among at-risk and hard-to-reach children. One colleague made the valid point that teachers would never be irrelevant or unneeded. It is not enough to provide kids with access to information: we must provide some guidance to shape and direct their learning. In the ideal case, I absolutely agree. However, Professor Mitra's method (learn more about his striking results here) is a wonderful option for communities who otherwise have no access to education.

"Mediators," not teachers, are required for Professor Mitra's work - not repositories of knowledge, but rather warm individuals who admire children's natural curiosity and drive to explore the world around them. Again, I would be the last to make all teachers redundant. However, in hard-to-reach and low-income communities, this is a very interesting supposition. Perhaps programs like Teach for American (and soon Teach for All) can lead to successful hybrid models of trained teachers and 'just-good-smart-and/or-dedicated-people' as ideal brokers of learning in usually marginalized communities.

Another important tension that surfaced throughout the event, and particularly during this session, is that between public and private provision of education and related services. One panelist made the valid point that this is an old and tired debate, which we must move beyond toward a widely accepted consensus that it can be neither one nor the other. New partnerships are required to adequately provide the access and quality that all children in the world have a right to (as laid out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which celebrates 20 years today under the shadow of 70 million children out of school). Alex Wong, director of the World Economic Forum's Global Education Initiative, made a valuable point based on his experience in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Rajasthan, that governments, at the Ministry level, need to hold ultimate responsibility and oversight for the field of education. However, he endorsed without reservation the essential value of engaging private and civil society partners as sources of innovation, increased coverage of remote areas and insurance of education's relevance to eventual economic activity.

Finally, Biz Stone asserted that all beings on earth learn through play: a message that I particularly appreciated, coming from the early childhood and non-formal education sectors. His message about Twitter's massive success was also familiar to TYO: wait to see how people use a technology or service in order to advance its design. This advice resembles TYO's needs-based approach to implementing our programs on the ground, based on an original mission and vision.

Great video coverage of the event is available on the WISE website, and some fellow participants (Times Ed correspondent Michael Shaw and educator/blogger Tom Barrett) have done a good job of covering various aspects of the event. Despite the predictably vague laundry list of 'strategic priorities', we are hopeful that WISE members will challenge themselves to integrate the conference's lessons in their work. Further, the recurrent mention of early childhood education was inspiring - while it didn't come out in the Final Declaration as hoped, it was a real pleasure to meet so many like-minded folks. Keep your eyes on this space for further news about the evolution of partnerships developed at WISE 09!

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