Buzzwords and business deals? Inside the Education World Forum

Damian Hinds, U.K. secretary of state for education, addresses an audience of more than 100 ministers of education from around the world at the annual Education World Forum. Photo by: EWF

LONDON — Nearly 100 education ministers representing two-thirds of the world’s nations, gathered in London this week for the Education World Forum to discuss how to prepare children and young people for the jobs of the future.

The forum, which is in its 15th year, included high-level presentations from education leaders including Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; alongside experts from the World Bank; the United Nations education and cultural agency, UNESCO; and the head of worldwide education at Microsoft.

Politicians also took to the stage to share their visions for the future of education, including Damian Hinds, who delivered his first speech as the United Kingdom’s education secretary in which he emphasised the potential of technology for the sector but stressed it should be utilized to help teachers — by easing their workload — and not replace them. Betsy de Vos, the United States education secretary, had been slated to attend, but was forced to cancel due to the U.S. government shutdown.

The event was held against the backdrop of a “learning crisis,” in which millions of young people are set to lose out on job opportunities or receive lower wages due to failing education systems in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Bank’s World Development Report on education, released last year.

Among the forum’s key takeaways, speakers stressed the need to develop soft and hard skills among students in order to take advantage of technology-driven changes in the employment landscape. At the same time, though, warnings were sounded that technology is not the whole answer; and it is important to ensure technology is working for children and teachers, not the other way around, some speakers said.

However, beyond the glitzy line-up of high-profile speakers and attendees, the main business of the annual forum is conducted behind closed doors in various ministerial meetings, insiders told Devex.  

Some education experts, who wished to remain anonymous for professional reasons, described the event as “exclusive” and lamented the lack of civil society actors invited to attend. They characterized the forum as a “trade fair” for U.K. companies trying to sell edtech products and services to education ministries, especially those from developing countries.

According to its website, the event is “supported” by various U.K. government departments and also BESA, the British education suppliers association. Major sponsors include a mixture of edtech companies such as Matific, as well as technology giants Microsoft and Hewlett Packard, and the University of Cambridge. The four-day EWF culminates in a visit to the Bett education technology trade fair in London.

Devex was allowed in for the first day of the event. These were some of the conversations dominating the discussion.

A new buzzword?

Teachers need to give students lessons in “global competencies,” such as how to work well with people from different cultures, alongside their regular math and English lessons if they are to succeed in today’s fast changing and digitizing world, according to a report by the Asia Society and the OECD which was released at the forum.

Speaking during a press conference, Josette Sheeran from the Asia Society’s Center for Global Education, told reporters that many schools are failing to keep up with technological developments and the associated “demand for new skills and competencies [which they] need to be able to thrive in a diverse world,” she said.

The OECD’s Schleicher told the press conference that “global competencies” is not just a new buzzword, nor is it something confined to the “small elite who travel around the world.” In fact, the agenda is especially important for developing countries where digitalization is “coming over night,” and where there are greater risks of radicalization, something he claimed the global competence agenda can help to mitigate.

“The case for global competencies is pretty clear,” he said, explaining that “innovation today is no longer about you just having a great idea … but about you being able to connect the dots, to engage with people who think differently from you, work differently from you.”

According to the United Nations, 75 million young people are unemployed around the world and more than half of employers say they are not able to find enough employable entry-level candidates.

“Nations and communities must ask: Will your students thrive within an increasingly interconnected and diverse world?” Sheeran said. “How can you ensure your students’ ability to compete on a global level, and also [to] contribute to global and community solutions?”

She agreed the agenda is especially important for developing countries, since “global competence really equals global competitiveness; these are the types of skills needed by employers all over the world,” and so “for the developing world to be part of the opportunities this is key.” She also said some of the “biggest benefits” could be seen in developing countries that are “building out their education systems.”

In response, Asia Society has developed a “methodology,” which has already been rolled out in parts of the U.S. and Singapore, to train teachers on how to develop “globally competent students.”  

The approach is embedded within existing school subjects and is not meant to be taught separately, Sheeran said. The nonprofit has also partnered with Arizona State University to create an open-source “digital teaching platform” which will allow “all nations to benefit from this groundbreaking work,” she said. It will be available next month.

The OECD is supporting the agenda, and in December announced it would begin measuring global competence as part of its Programme for International Student Assessment, starting from 2018.

Education policy for the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’

Much discussion focused on the impending “Fourth Industrial Revolution” — a term used by some to describe the period of disruption that will be caused by emerging technologies — although experts privately admitted there is little clarity on what such a revolution would look like. Fears around the growth of automation threatening jobs were also raised as part of these discussions.

Dr Miguel Brechner, president of Plan Ceibal, a project in Uruguay best known for connecting all of its schools to the internet and giving all primary school children a free laptop by 2011, spoke during one session about the kinds of policies needed to prepare for this “revolution.”  

“We need to bring skills to our students so that they can program the robots,” he said, admitting that while a lot of labour will be lost to automation, countries can equip themselves for the work associated with bringing automation to the end user.

He offered concrete suggestions for how countries can prepare for the shift, and suggested creating an “agency for innovation in pedagogy and technology” which he envisions as a small and adaptive agency, since “it is very difficult to make changes from inside big organizations.”

Brechner’s second major point was about ensuring technology is seen as a means to an end and not the end in itself, a point echoed by a number of speakers throughout the day. Such an agency will therefore first need “to define what’s the problem we want technology to solve, not the other way around,” and then “think about how technology can adapt to pedagogy and not the other way around,” he said.

“Technology has to be only an accelerator … [it] cannot be the main issue,” he added.

Don’t forget the evidence

Dr Rachel Glennerster, the newly-appointed chief economist at the U.K.’s Department for International Development, also presented during the forum and gave some insights about the direction in which her department could be headed. DFID is due to release an education “policy refresh” later this year.

Glennerster appeared cautious about the role of technology in addressing the learning crisis, and emphasized the need for “rigorous evidence,” such as that which DFID is funding through the eight-year research project Research on Improving Systems of Education, exploring what works in improving education outcomes. Such research has challenged assumptions, she said, such as showing that putting additional “inputs” including teachers, textbooks, and computers into poor performing schools will “have no impact on learning on their own.”  

Instead, Glennerster called for interventions to be individualized and capable of “adapting to the level of the child.” She also called on teachers to “teach where the children are, not where you hope they are.”  

She criticized a tendency among many education policymakers, and parents, to fixate on “high-stakes exams which only a few will pass.” Giving India as an example, she said this can result in staff being mandated and incentivized to finish teaching the curriculum “no matter if children are following it or not.” 

Similarly, research has shown that some parents see education only as way of getting a formal job, she said, but obtaining even basic numeracy and literacy skills can have major benefits beyond that — for example, women who complete some schooling are less likely to fall pregnant early.

Technology must be equally adaptive, the economist said, explaining that “technology is a wonderful way to help us deliver different education to different children,” but it must be  “personalized, individualized” to the level of the child.

Speaking to an audience filled with edtech companies and experts, Glennerster advised: “I know there are lots of people here promoting different approaches to technology in education. You should be asking this question: Is it software that adapts to the level of the child? Because this is what technology is particularly useful in delivering.”

Read more Devex coverage on education.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.