Thursday, November 7, 2013

PL 28/13: Education is a slow learner

Filed under: Uncategorized — plinius @ 3:03 pm

It is rare to find frank and well-informed discussions of conferences. Truth is shared face to face, but not on the web.

The quotes that follow are an exception. I had not heard about Donald Clark before. He turns out to be

  •  one of the founders of a big UK e-learning company (floated 1996, sold 2005)
  • “free of the tyranny of employment”
  • and “a regular (and controversial) blogger on e-learning!”

I can believe that. The full blog post is most readable.


The World Summit on Education in Doha, Qatar brings together educators from around the globe. It is arguably, as George Siemens says, “world’s most important education conference”.

Education’s a slow learner

  • The system is fixed, fossilised and, above all, institutionalised, so the rate of change is glacial. People are, by and large, trapped in the mindset of their institution and sector.
  • Many of the speakers repeated platitudes about education being the answer to all of the world’s problems. What they were short on were solutions.
  • Education is always seen as the solution to all problems. The problem with all this utopian talk is that it dispenses with realism.”

[Blog post from previous WISE conference]

The plenaries were, well, institutionalised.

  • UNESCO, in my opinion, have become part of the problem and low on solutions.
  • They dominated many of the sessions and regurgitated old reports, clichés and truisms, 

Morin opened the conference with an abstract, rambling précis of his old UNESCO paper.

  • It was stratospheric, a piece of French philosophy, totally detached from the real world. 

But things got much better with a hard hitting session which delivered some surprises for me. Brilliant insights from Helen Abadzi

  • around 18 our minds become less plastic and open to learning literacies.
  • You can experience this for yourself when you learn a new language as an adult.
  • As you rarely reach a reasonable reading speed, of around 60-80 words a minute, you forget the start of sentences before you’ve reached the end.

We may be wasting too much time and money trying to solve an insoluble problem.

  • The whole literacy push in Africa and the developed world is being thwarted by poor textbooks and teaching

[The session on Big Data] bordered on the bizarre.

  • What we got were idiosyncratic, personal and to be frank, not very informed, views on the subject. 
  • John Fallon, of Pearson, was reasonably articulate and tried to keep to topic, but the other three were amateurish.

This was a very low level chit chat about a complex and serious subject. I’m not sure that any of the panel had the expertise to do it the justice it deserved.

Hans Rosling has a great TED talk on the animation of statistics. 

Monsters and misconceptions

This was a revelation, quick fire talks on all sorts of topics and solutions, some good, some great, some awful.


We had superb presentations on hard hitting topics, like child marriages, self-sustaining schools in Uganda, MOOCs in China, Amazigh education in Morocco and the Khan Academy.

This quick-fire stuff needs to be promoted and given more status, maybe themed. I particularly enjoyed the iThra talk, about an after school science programme. He had a stunning quote,

  • “The education system is a monster, by fighting it we would have become monsters ourselves”.

Mark Surman showed us how to present.

  • Face the audience, stand up, look people in the eye, speak knowledgeably but from the heart, don’t use notes and deliver a clear message.

Motivate, engage and excite learners.

  • Get them to tinker, share and make things.
  • It’s a learn by doing model that allows young minds to understand the technological world in which they live and use that technology to learn, do things and make things.

Educators are also always trying to force storytelling. Young people tell stories daily – it’s called Facebook. Lifelong learning is Google, Wikipedia, Social networking and YouTube – life is not a course it’s informal learning.

Excellent input from the knowledgeable George Siemens and the Chief Scientist for EdX.

  • These guys know their stuff but the other two participants clearly knew nothing about MOOCs and astonishingly, had never taken a MOOC.
  • How do I know this? I asked them and the chair. Neither had taken a MOOC.
  • They both spoke like amateurs because they were amateurs, trotting out clichés about human interaction and drop-out without any grasp of the detail.

MOOCs are a wake-up call for Higher Education. MOOCs flip universities.

Siemens is right, MOOCs are a supply response to a demand problem. We’ve seen more action in 1 year than last 1000 years and MOOCs will produce dramatic systemic and substantial change.

Online experience need not be inferior. As Siemens said, let’s hold classrooms and lectures to same standards as online!

There’s real fears around dominance by the private sector, but if that delivers cheaper, faster, better education, so be it.

  • In my opinion, however, the future of MOOCs is: open platforms, open content, open pedagogies and the opening of minds. 
  • African MOOCs may unlock a billion more brains HOOKs VOOKs – High school and Vocational MOOCs are also being delivered as this is not just about HE and degrees.

The MOOC session by far best at WISE talking about real reinvention and a real phenomenon.


This is my third WISE summit, and as usual, I met some amazing people.

Overall however, you can see the problem, a failure to engage with the real problems head-on; costs, relevance, technology, that faculty and existing teaching systems biggest barrier to progress in learning.  

  • 86% of the delegates want reinvention of education but time and time again the panels reflected and reinforced old ideas and practices, with the audience clapping every time the word ‘teacher’ was mentioned.

Teachers matter, but until we recognise that teaching is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for learning and look for some other additional solutions, WISE will forever be focussing on the wrong thing – teachers, not learners.

  • The fear, that students may ‘manage to learn without me’ and of technology in general, is holding us back.
  • Next year, less administrators, more innovators.

The good news is that the Qatar Fundation has been doing brilliant work across the globe and announced a focus on innovation this year, with financial support for such innovation. They may be on to something here.


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