Brown's World

Five days after Davos, here I am at Twitter headquarters in relatively balmy San Francisco, attending the Global Education & Technology Forum co-hosted by Gordon Brown, Laurene Powell Jobs and Dick Costolo. I admit I had to look up Laurene and Dick. Then my jaw dropped, mostly at my own ignorance. The closest I had come to the legendary Steve Jobs was owning an iPad and there she was, Laurene, the love of his life. Twitter CEO Costolo had opened his doors to "an intimate group of approx 100 people from a range of disciplines" to explore how technology could contribute to solving some of the most pressing global education challenges.

Gordon Brown opened with two startling estimates: 61 million young children are still not enrolled in school and more than 250 million additional children are in school but cannot read, write or count at even a basic level. The Global Business Coalition for Education is engaging the best corporate minds for innovative solutions to such major, persistent, yet basic problems. After elaborating a bit on each of these, he responded to tweeted questions, like, "Is there any real evidence that technology improves learning in school?"

Off the bat, and to my utter astonishment, Brown mentioned this group, PlanetRead in India, that subtitles film songs and music-videos on television for mass reading practice; he went on to describe how it had led to measurable improvement in reading skills. There are other examples, he added, but this was a very simple one. I felt like stock whose value responds instantly to what a person of importance might have said on the news. Post Brown's plug, there was an added fillip to my interactions with fellow-participants.

In his presentation, Peter Diamandis, Chairman, CEO of X PRIZE Foundation talked about the Ansari X PRIZE of $10 million to the first non-state organisation that could "build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kms above the Earth's surface, twice within two weeks." He then announced a Literacy X PRIZE - how fast and how many could be brought from illiteracy to stage 3, in English. Every team would be given 200 completely illiterate children, 100 from Africa and 100 from Asia, aged 6-9 years.

One cannot but see value in the X Prize Foundation's mission of "Revolution through competition." What mystified me a bit was the stipulation that it be in English; the first language of almost all the global illiterates happens to be anything but. Literacy is not acquired independent of language. In fact literacy is most easily achieved in one's first language and becomes extremely difficult to attain in an unknown language. The X-Prize for literacy may need to revisit the language issue.

Principally because of who they are, the most memorable discussion was moderated by Laurene Jobs, between Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, and 'Sal' Khan, the world's most accessible teacher. The discussion primarily focused on their recent partnership to take Khan Academy to Latin America. A lighter moment ensued when Carlos Slim mentioned never having used a computer. 'Sal' corrected him that he had, "Your iPad." "That counts," Laurene interjected.

I couldn't walk away from an event like this one without at least making an effort to connect with this remarkable trio. Fortunately, there was a closing reception. Sal was easy; 'accessibility' is his middle name.

As one might expect, there were always several 'known' people milling about Laurene. iPad in hand, conscious like never before that it was not the latest, I managed to move into earshot to ask her, "Can I show you what we do... for 10 seconds?" "OKaaaay...?" she replied, not quite sure what she was committing to. Stanford's Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera, backed me up with her own credibility, "You should really see this." I was able to have a meaningful interaction. Laurene had some questions and more than the 10 seconds I had hoped for.

Carlos Slim interrupted our conversation to say goodbye to Laurene. Driven by Latin politeness, he shook my hand too. Goodbye Mr. Slim. Perhaps I will also get a chance to say hello some day.