The 2014 WISE Conference: Building Education Innovation Hubs

Kytabu—named after the Swahili word for “book”—is a digital textbook application that is changing the way African students are learning. Launched in Kenya in 2012 by founder Tonee Ndungu and CEO Paul Mugambi, the app provides low-cost mobile textbook subscription services on both Android and Windows platforms that allow students to “lease” digital learning content in a piecemeal manner. is a digital platform with a similar philosophy. The program allows teachers the ability to pre-record interactive audio lessons for their students—who can access them anywhere in the world. launched with a $40,000 grant from Start-Up Chile, the Chilean government’s entrepreneurship accelerator.

What brings these two stories together? Both were singled out for honors by the WISE Accelerator, one of the many programs organized by the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), held since 2009 in Doha, Qatar. This year’s summit was held on November 4-6, bringing together more than 1,500 experts, practitioners, policymakers, and thought leaders.

WISE began five years ago as a little-known conference centered on debating issues surrounding education and innovation—but with leaders from 90 countries, it has quickly expanded into the premier global platform and innovation hub. Its initiatives include the WISE accelerator, grants for projects around the world, an impactful online publication, and the WISE Learners’ Voice, a program which connects with the very students the program is trying to reach. The Summit has supported over 36 education projects so far, including Colombia’s groundbreaking Escuela Nueva (New School) and Camfed—the Campaign for Female Education—that has educated more than three million young women in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania, and Malawi.

This year’s conference focused on creativity and imagination—two skills in high demand in the 21st century, as high value-added work increasingly revolves around problem-solving and innovation. There were dozens of panels, workshops, and plenary speakers addressing how and why more creativity can be introduced into the classroom, and throughout our education systems writ large. Brookings Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Universal Education Rebecca Winthrop gave a great explanation of some of the issues being debated at the conference regarding assessment of creativity, how to foster creativity in schools and how it fits into discussions around early childhood education.

The sessions themselves also showcased a number of innovations including online discussion apps and interactive technologies that allowed the real time participation of delegates throughout Doha. The conferences also regularly draw the leading voices on education policy and innovation. Experts such as Harvard’s Tony Wagner, author Paul Tough (“How Children Succeed”), and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, are all regular features.

Kopp, whose global Teach for All programs span 34 countries, drew particular attention—perhaps drawn by the same spirit that led Nicolas Kristof to praise her in a recent New York Times column: “students…are turning not to politics as their lever but to social enterprise, to nonprofits, to advocacy, to business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator.”

Everyone seems to agree that the education sector is changing—and fast. In preparation for the summit, WISE asked 645 education experts from academia, politics, and business about how they think schools will look in 2030. Some 75 percent of them replied that schools will need to focus more and more on a suite of skills that go beyond just the academic. This suite of skills is what Oscar Sanchez, the education secretary of Bogota, wants to label “capacity and life skills,” given that the phrase “soft skills” doesn’t have a good ring to it—in English or Spanish.

Nearly half of the participants also think there will be major shifts in school structure. In particular, they believe that the accreditation system must be updated, and that the process will soon be focused more on concrete skills rather than sheer time spent physically present at a school, or course-hours spent on a subject. In the words of Tony Wagner, “students will be assessed by the evidence of their mastery of core competencies over time.”

Perhaps what the conference could have used more of was input from the private sector. The debates missed out on the contributions of more entrepreneurs, investors, and other business leaders who are increasingly getting involved in education innovation by launching or supporting new models of addressing classroom challenges. And the private sector can help teach another important lesson that was much discussed by the WISE participants: the need to allow a system that is not working to fail. Indeed, failure should be encouraged among students, as well as trying again. Innovation is at its heart about risk-taking and trial-and-error. Avoiding failure means avoiding new things.

Overall, the conference was another key step in expanding the conversation over how to renew our often stagnant education systems. And there is no time to lose. As in Latin America, the Middle East is facing a demographic surge. More than 28 percent of the region’s population is between the ages of 18 and 29, and those represent over half of the unemployed. Providing a better education that connects to the values of entrepreneurship and private sector skills will be key for this generation—as the WISE community knows well.