United Arab Emirates

Dubai at nightThis week I have been in Dubai taking part in the “iThink Therefore iPad?” conference as a keynote speaker. The conference was attended by an enthusiastic gathering of local school leaders and teachers who have implemented 1:1 iPad and other tablet device programmes within their school. This presented me with a terrific opportunity to meet a broad range of educators working in the region.


You could hardly think of a greater contrast of Dubai when compared to my earlier visits to Ghana and Cuba. A city of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is the playground of the wealthy or those aspiring to be wealthy drawn to the city by the seemingly endless opportunities presented by staggering growth and investment in construction and infrastructure. It feels like the Singapore of the Middle East – where the pinnacle of the capitalist dream meets Arabic ambition. Dubai is one of the seven emirates and has emerged as a sprawling cosmopolitan metropolis that is a global city providing a cultural and business hub for the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Adopting a Western style business approach the emirates drives its economy through tourism, aviation, financial services and real estate.


Dubai is a place of innovative construction projects from the worlds tallest building to man made islands and even a domed snow and ski resort. For some, however, it’s not all as glitzy as it appears and like many thrusting capitalist nations it has been criticized for the treatment of its mainly South Asian workers who reside in the more favela like districts outside the city limits which most us will never see. 


Rated as one of the best cities in the Middle East to live in it seems that almost everybody or at least every culture is represented. And there lies the crux of the official part of my visit for Learning {RE}imagined.


The majority of the teachers that I met at the conference were either British or Australian many attracted to Dubai by significantly increased salary opportunities as well as quality of life. A teacher confided in me that 6 years ago he was literally living on pennies as a teacher in London after meeting his rent, travel and subsistence on an entry level salary. Today he lives in a private villa with its own swimming pool and drives an American sports car. Dubai is a work hard, play hard culture and he loves his job. There was a consensus amongst the teachers that I met that the working week in Dubai is brutal but the weekends and lifestyle are a compensation. Of course, everyones time in Dubai is limited. You can be here for 30 years but eventually you will need to return home. Unless you are an Emirati you’re a temporary fixture.


Whilst there are a number of public schools that serve the children of Emirati and expatriate Arab communities the majority of the schools in Dubai are private, serving the children of the majority population of expatriate workers from Europe, Asia, America and beyond. This creates a certain dynamic in regard to educational provision where parents are customers who vote with their wallet. Whilst unfettered from the kind of league tables and government inspections typical found in the UK competition in Dubai to get “bums on seats” is fierce. 


The government in Dubai does make annual inspections to each school and the results are published but the pressure really comes from the parents who almost without exception are seeking an “authentic Harry Potter experience” for their children that promises to deliver their kids at the end of it with a complete set of high test scores and examination passes. This leaves very little room for innovative teaching practice or deployment of digital platforms given that at the end of the day in a free market economy it’s only the test scores that matter. Showing off a bit of technology or 1:1 iPad programmes look good on the website when pitching for parents hard-earned cash but if the test results don’t match the school fees it won’t matter.


Herein lies the challenge for educators in Dubai, how do you innovate with or without technology in what is both a government and market-force regulated sector. Innovation is by nature risky and who is prepared to risk test scores when in reality they are what pay your salary and keep you in laa laa land?


Dubai_by_day.JPGMy photographic team join me this weekend and we will be meeting the Group Chief Technology Officer of GEMS Education, Herve Marchet. Before joining GEMS Herve was the Director of Apple’s EMEA Education Markets so knows one or two things about deploying technology in educational environments at least from an Apple perspective. GEMS Education has a history of high profile hirings and is clearly serious about being the major player in private education in this region and beyond. GEMS operates a number of schools in the region catering for different parental budgets as well as offering a choice of curriculum including the International Baccalaureate and England’s National Curriculum. That in itself is an innovation, the fact that in an international context like this you can pick and choose the curriculum that you would like your child to be processed through.


I’m looking forward also to visiting a number of GEMS schools to gain an insight into private education provision within a multi-cultural, multi-contextual environment.


But first some sight-seeing!






Cuba: Revolución Educativa?

Family in CubaWhen I was a child in the 70’s (yes, I’m that old!) I enjoyed a film called Logan’s Run, a science fiction film set in the 23rd century where humans lived under surveillance in a perfect society enclosed in an environmentally controlled dome called “Sanctuary” where all their material possessions and needs were met. There were catches, of course, one of them was that citizens were forbidden to travel beyond the safety and controlled existence of their dome. Curiosity was not encouraged but inevitably some would wonder what laid beyond.


Reflecting on my recent trip I wondered if the society beyond our dome might be Cuba.


It’s fair to say that I was in Cuba on vacation with my family in between the official visits that I am making as part of the Learning {RE}imagined project so inevitably I viewed the country through the rose tinted sunglasses of a tourist but we did manage the occasional escape from the resort dome to explore a bit of the culture and people of this nation.


Being the summer break in Cuba and without official permissions to visit schools I was unable to dig as deep as I would have liked but I left inspired to return and discover more.


In response to my shout-out on Twitter to meet educators in Cuba I received one response from a friend who suggested that I wouldn’t find much to interest me and my project there given that Cuba was the least “connected” country in the region and that few people, if any, have access to the internet at home and very few have access to it in public offices such as schools. 


For me this was probably the most interesting aspect given that without a hysterical rush to adopt “21st century” platforms and capitulating to PISA league tables Cuba has achieved, according to the instruments and indicators applied by international organisations such as OECD and UNESCO, one of the world’s best educational systems. An education system that is free to all students from primary to higher education and has achieved almost 100% literacy amongst its population. An education system that has lead to a key export of Cuba being skilled healthcare and medical professionals as well as an effective literacy programme that has been exported across Latin America and as far as Australia and New Zealand.


This comparison between the educational systems of Cuba and Finland by prominent Ecuadorian educationalist, Rosa María Torres, makes interesting reading.


But for me what really stood out were the casual conversations with Cubans that I met along the way. One evening in a bar sampling local produce it occurred to me that out of the 11 people I was chatting to 7 were educated to degree level of which 3 held a master’s. No offence to my neighbours but it’s not like that in my local back in London.


Lima De La CruzNaturally, not everything is perfect in Cuba. It’s a socialist state and since 1957 the economy has been regulated meaning salary levels are nothing like you would find in Western nations. Some Cubans would complain about increasing unemployment now running at a reported 2% but even if that was under reported it would have some way to go to match 20%+ across Europe or Greece which has been effectively bankrupted. Occasionally I would find myself in “grass is greener” type conversations but I couldn’t help thinking that a university student in Cuba could complete a medical degree and not start their career already tens of thousands of dollars in debt.


After the revolution in Cuba education and healthcare were given the highest priority under Fidel Castro and whatever other challenges are presented it has succeeded in this goal. There is 1 teacher to every 40 citizens in Cuba. How it will change in the coming years with embargoes lifted and the influx of western brands remains to be seen but something a taxi driver said to me on a journey resonated “Cuba is a safe country because of education”.


On that basis I say “Viva la Revolución Educativa!”



Ok, so this isn’t an official project destination however I am excited to be traveling to Cuba with my family for what is intended to be a vacation but never-the-less is an extremely interesting place in regard to the Learning {RE}imagined mission to search the world seeking innovation in learning.


Cuba, after all, has been a highly ranked educational system for a long time where it spends 10% of its central budget. By comparison the UK spends just 4% and the US 2% (source UNESCO).


Children CubaSome interesting points to note are that regardless of income or location in Cuba education is free at every level, school meals and uniforms are free, the maximum class size for primary education is 25 children, in secondary the class size reduces to 15, school days often extend to 12 hours to provide morning or evening child care, half of Cuba’s 150,000 teachers have 5 years experience of higher education of which half is at Masters degree level.


According to the World Bank, Cuba’s literacy rate is now 99.83% which by any standard is phenomenal.


Whilst I’m on “official” leave this blog maybe quieter than usual but you can still follow me on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook and if I’m fortunate enough to meet any Cuban educators whilst I am away then you’ll hear about it on this blog – my kids and the pool notwithstanding of course!





Ghana: The New Brazil?

It has been an inspiring week in Ghana for the Learning {RE}imagined team. It would be hard to find a more welcoming place to begin our learning journey where there is a real sense of a bright and prosperous future ahead with education & lifelong learning positioned at the centre of people’s lives.

JamestownOur first, impromptu, visit was to a community school in Jamestown. The school sits on the beach nestled between the hustle and bustle of a busy fishing area where grand wooden boats designed and carved by hand await to be launched for an evenings fishing before returning to unload their catch for the family and local traders to take to market. It must be said that there is probably nothing tastier than a freshly caught tilapia or even local lobster grilled and seasoned with local spices and served with banku. 


The school is funded by the community and characterised by its close proximity to the principle industry of the area. The boats leave in the evening and catch their harvest with locally made nets. There is an embedded understanding for the need to manage the environment and ensure that the fishing activity remains sustainable for today and generations ahead. It was thought provoking watching how the boats were constructed from large blocks of locally produced wood, carved and then painted ready for the sea. Here is a genuine example of what Dame Ellen MacArthur calls the “circular economy” where everything is designed around sustainability and natural recycling. That a school is situated within this activity is very telling and one can only hope that in its quest for modernity that Ghana doesn’t lose this vital sensibility.


Our second visit was to a school in Adeiso in the Eastern Region, a 2 hour drive from Accra in glorious countryside, to experience the work of Worldreader in action. We arrived early to meet children arriving for school. Out of term time the school operates vacation classes and even during the schools holiday period students and teachers alike are keen and eager to attend.


At first sight the school looks like a typical rural building with 1950’s style school desks and chairs reminding me of my own primary school growing up in England. Situated within the village, overlooking a communal play area, the classes are bright and airy to let in the Atlantic breeze.


The mission of Worldreader is to provide children and families in Ghana (and now other African nations) access to books which it achieves by providing them with e-readers in the form of Kindles or their new mobile app that works with regular feature phones rather than smart phones. While the debate in England about whether children should be using such devices in class continues, here in this rural town in Ghana they are already embedded within the learning and teaching practice.


Adeiso SchoolGiven that access to the Internet here is both scarce and expensive the choice of standalone Kindle devices makes a great deal of sense and their mobile app holds books in the cloud downloading them chapter by chapter for just a few cents. The appetite for reading is voracious. 


Colin McElwee, co-founder of Worldreader, tells me that whilst it would be possible, subject to device cost, to provide full blown connected Android tablets, starting with e-readers meant that there was a low skills threshold to introducing digital technologies within the school and wider community. Rather than attempting to immediately disrupt teaching practice or obstruct the project with extended CPD and infrastructure this was a good place to begin. Colin refutes that these devices are a trojan horse but never-the-less does see the future potential to introduce new features such as web-browsing, communications and creativity tools that will allow children to publish their own work. Already Worldreader is providing a viable publishing platform for African authors to reach African readers as well as access to the global market. The key issue here was to have a starting point with access to knowledge where few people or homes own a printed book. Teachers already have a framework in which to practice but are liberated knowing that every child has a device that they bring to school and take home to share with their family.


Our third visit was to Mobile Web Ghana (MWG), a non-profit organisation started originally with support from Tim Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation and lead by Florence Toffa to stimulate local creativity and entrepreneurship within the digital world for Ghanaians. We arrive to find a team of students from South Korea mentoring local students and adult learners in mobile app and web development. The Korean students are supported in this mission by the South Korean government as part of a cultural exchange and knowledge transfer programme and it is clear that they are enjoying the experience here as much as the Ghanaian students who are learning from them.


Florence ToffaI am reminded of a time 25 years ago when I was working with Lucky Goldstar (now LG) in Seoul which, believe it or not, did not look dissimilar to the building that I am in Accra. The rapid development of Seoul, now eclipsing Tokyo, is perhaps an exciting vision for what, with the right stimulus, could happen in Accra. MWG is one of a number of exciting incubator and tech hubs here whose objective is to establish the conditions for transformation of the economy and make a serious impact within the digital economy to enable local businesses to promote themselves locally and internationally whilst also producing digital content for export. Given that the work of organisations like Worldreader will ultimately provide a generation that is digitally agile one can justifiably have high hopes for the Ghana’s future where it is a creator of digital resources rather than simply a consumer.


We complete our time here with a visit to the Villagio district which, opposite the modern shopping mall complete with designer goods and an Apple Store, offers a glimpse of what Accra may look like in the near future. 21st century architecture that feels comfortable within the environment of the city rather than something that feels out of place. Here we were treated to a meal in a Japanese restaurant which was every bit as good as those I frequent in London lending an international cosmopolitan feel to the area suggesting that Ghana is open for international business and not just for those here to take the oil.


I’m left wondering about the future of this beautiful country and whether it can reach for modernity whilst maintaining its unique culture and way of life. It’s easy to imagine how Accra could develop from the centre out but would this, like Brazil, mean that the surrounding areas become favela districts with the locals looking in or will it provide the engine that provides opportunity for all?


Historically Ghana’s trade with the rest of the world hasn’t always been positive. Rich in immense natural resources from gold to cocoa and oil it has been colonised many times which has meant that the people have not necessarily seen the full benefit. Perhaps with its investment in people it can create a resource that can establish sustainable wealth that is  not so easy to take away.


Thank you Ghana for making us so welcome – everything is sweet!