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Highlighting ‘Innovators at Work’: Education Leader Shares Vision of Tech-Enabled Future

Highlighting ‘Innovators at Work’: Education Leader Shares Vision of Tech-Enabled Future

“Innovators at Work,” our new webinar series hosted by Zoom’s Global Deputy CIO Gary Sorrentino and created in partnership with the Trans Tasman Business Circle, showcases our innovative customers in Australia, New Zealand, and Asia and their vision for the future of work. 

We’re excited to host a lineup of insightful guests in our virtual living room for intimate fireside chats on topics ranging from driving transformation to the economic impacts of innovation.

In our first episode of the series, Sorrentino began by announcing, “We have an innovative way of delivery.” He revealed that the New York living room in which he was sitting across the coffee table from his guest, David Withey, deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the New South Wales Department of Education, was in fact a Zoom-enabled illusion. 

From thousands of miles away, Withey appeared to be sitting in the same room as Sorrentino, speaking volumes about the creative potential for the future of virtual connection.

Building forward with confidence

Sorrentino described the NSW education office as one of the world’s best, in part due to its ability to ‘see’ the future. He and Withey discussed how NSW Department of Education is embracing the role of technology innovation in a new world of teaching and learning.

Australia is fortunate to be faring better than many other countries as it emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, but our perception of the future has been impacted by going through a pandemic. The role of technology has been elevated, and its adoption has been accelerated.

‘Kids born this year won’t graduate until 2040’

Withey found it impossible to entertain the notion of a conversation about the future of education that didn’t focus on technology. As he pointed out, not only do we need to have an education system that prepares children for a technology-centric world of work, “technology is also part of the medium through which we need to deliver that education.”

Schools Digital Strategy (SDS)

The SDS is a seven-year plan intended to take the administrative burden off the shoulders of NSW schools by providing teachers and students with valuable digital skills for succeeding today and far into the future. Through the use of technology, it promises to turn learning spaces into rich, engaging, personalised environments that bring out the best in students, academically and socially.

Photo of David Withey, deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the New South Wales Department of Education, with the quote, "Digital advancement provides opportunities to achieve an increase in pace towards achieving our strategic goals."

“This began long before the pandemic, didn’t it?” asked Sorrentino. “Did rolling out in 2019 help you survive the pandemic?” 

Withey confirmed that doing the thinking before COVID-19 hit certainly helped. In particular, it positioned the department well for issuing 14,500 additional devices to students in need. Even so, digitisation was inevitable and is essential.

The rural access gap

Withey referenced the “rural access gap,” describing how rural areas often fall short of desired connectivity speeds and standard device to person ratios, which are 1:1 for teachers and 1:4 for students. It’s an inequality he’s passionate about addressing. 

That’s why Dubbo, a city with a population of 38,000 in the Orana Region of New South Wales, Australia, was selected as the location for a pilot program that provided in-class technology and enablement to schools. It’s been a resounding success and a clear way forward, according to Withey.

“We have a contract with Telstra to supply first-class connectivity to help us meet a minimum standard of 5 megabits per student,” he said. While realising that goal is a way off, it’s in the plan and firmly in the department’s sights.

Opportunities & challenges

Sorrentino asked Withey what were the biggest opportunities and challenges in realising and enabling a connected future for every student. 

In terms of challenges, Withey gave the following examples:

  • Large land mass: NSW has one of the world’s largest school systems with more than 2,200 schools. Its geography is 100 times bigger than New York, which increases the challenge of delivering consistent connectivity and an equal experience to all students.
  • Rural access gap: Remote and lower socioeconomic areas can experience a lack of home internet connectivity, which creates a homework gap and the risk of being left behind.
  • Digital confidence: There’s an additional confidence concern around teachers standing up in front of digitally native generations, placing an emphasis on the need to properly enable and empower teaching staff.

The opportunities, however, are even more compelling:

  • Learn from anywhere: As Withey emphasized, we are truly in an age where learning can happen from anywhere. While the future of learning is likely to be hybrid, the ability to connect from home using technologies like Zoom is going to make a world of difference by providing online learning options for children who cannot attend school in person and would have previously missed out on their education. Hospital schools are among those who will benefit.
  • Teach from anywhere: Suddenly, education establishments are no longer limited to the local teaching pool. Digital education gives students access to broader learning materials and a wider pool of teaching resources — even from overseas.
  • Connected learning journeys: Imagine students having the ability to take their learning history with them when changing schools, or parents having visibility of their children’s learning journeys and being able to engage more closely with them online and in apps. This is a part of the NSW Department of Education’s vision for connected learning, according to Withey.

Three key learnings for successful digital education

Withey offered three key pieces of advice for those standing on the precipice of digital change within their own education environments:

  1. Co-design your strategy
  2. Pay attention to change management
  3. Keep your big vision front of mind

On co-designing your strategy

The importance of including the “voice of the customer” in any technology solution rolled out to students cannot be overstated. In creating a solution that stakeholders are going to use, “it’s critical that we hear the voice of the school, the student, the teacher, and the principal,” Withey said.

Withey spoke of a past government initiative to consolidate and centralise schools systems and processes across NSW, which failed in its approach. “In an attempt to consolidate, they didn’t consult, test, and listen to schools,” he said. 

On change management

Equally, change management is key. “Over communicate,” advised Withey, speaking of the dangers of assuming everyone is up to speed and on board with change. “Repeat your messages until you think they’re bored.”

On prioritising your big vision

Withey emphasized keeping the big vision in mind. “Things will threaten to derail you, but stay focused on your end goal,” he said.

“Also, don’t give up!” added Sorrentino.

Watch our on-demand recording for even more insights delivered in our Innovators at Work education episode. 

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