Project Management Institute

Technology & Teaching: The Rise of Virtual Learning

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Virtual learning has been a high growth, up-and-coming sector for several years running. But over the last year, as learners and educators around the world grappled with how to do education amidst a lockdown, virtual learning arrived.

MAC GLOVINSKY

This isn’t going to be a blip. We got thrown 30 years ahead in about a day. When you get thrown 30 years into the future overnight, things are pretty messy. It can be unclear. But I do think that we’re already seeing success emerge, and I think that we will have some incredible examples moving forward.

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

After a year in which 1.7 billion children worldwide were forced out of their classrooms, online learning has been thrust into the spotlight in ways that have both showcased its promise and also highlighted its shortcomings. The question isn’t whether virtual learning will be a major factor in the future of education, but how we can best make use of these technologies.

Thus far, the results are promising, but with room to grow. A Pew Research Center study in the U.S. found that three-quarters of parents whose kids were receiving at least some virtual instruction were satisfied with the experience. That’s solid but trails the 90 percent satisfaction rating among parents with kids getting the full classroom experience. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the challenges that organizations are facing as they ramp up virtual learning in emerging markets—which don’t always have the infrastructure to support such innovation.

Today we’ll talk to a couple of leaders working on cracking the virtual-education code. First, though, let’s thank our sponsor, another organization that knows a thing or two about virtual learning: PMTraining.com. From live virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP®. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

Back in 2018, UNICEF, along with Microsoft and the University of Cambridge, developed a virtual-ed program called Learning Passport, aimed at serving refugee children. In 2020, team leader Mac Glovinsky saw an opportunity to use the program to teach kids in underprivileged areas around the world who were out of school due to COVID-19. That effort ranked number 3 on PMI’s 2020 list of Most Influential Projects, and Projectified® reporter Diego Wyatt spoke with Mac about it as well as about the future of edtech.

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DIEGO WYATT

It’s been estimated that over 1 billion children were kept out of school due to COVID lockdowns around the globe. And I understand that the team was testing the Learning Passport’s capabilities before this happened. Talk me through how the onset of the global pandemic accelerated the Learning Passport’s trajectory.

MAC GLOVINSKY

Prior to COVID, the Learning Passport was really working on our offline model. So delivering best-in-class digital learning experiences to learners without an internet connection in unconnected areas, very much in the line of UNICEF’s focus on the most vulnerable and marginalized kids around the world. But COVID struck us, and one of the things that I remember distinctly the moment: realizing that what was powering the Learning Passport was two pretty significant things.

We were focusing on really a complicated question: How do you bring a digital experience in a totally unconnected environment? But underneath that, the gears, the guts of that technology, it was really built for a cloud instance. All of a sudden I realized, I said, “Whoa, I have a lot of horsepower in terms of the technology that I can really run with. And I can scale it as big as I want to go.” I called our Microsoft counterparts and said, “How many concurrent users can we have on an instance?” And they said, “Well, we’ve tested 2 million. We think we can do five per instance.” And I said, “Okay, that’s something.”

And then the second major thing was UNICEF’s reach. It’s a really big U.N. agency that has, in terms of the education program, ministered to counterparts in every country that we work in the world, education staff pretty much everywhere and people that have really deep subject matter expertise of a context.

So I knew that I had some really powerful technology, and I had some really skilled individuals that had relationships in all the right places that we could make a calculated risk and say, “We can scale this. We can bring the Learning Passport online and offer this to countries around the world that needed that service and that product.” And so I really think it’s the power of the tech and the reach of the program were two things that I said, “We can do this.”

DIEGO WYATT

And you spoke to the scalability and reach with regard to the Learning Passport and the tech powering the platform, which of course are major factors in its early success and the team’s ability to respond so quickly at the onset of the pandemic. What were some of the most pronounced project challenges the team faced since the project launched?

MAC GLOVINSKY

Well, we were a team that was geared towards focusing on an offline implementation in Cox’s Bazar. All of a sudden we were talking around global-level implementation, and today there’s more than 20 countries that are on some aspect of the deployment pathway with Learning Passport with a whole bunch of others that are investigating and socializing with their government counterparts or with user groups, etc. So all of a sudden we had to step back and say, “All right, as a team, I need everyone to pivot very quickly.”

This wasn’t just focusing on some real granular-level investigations in Cox’s Bazar. We were now open to the world, and we had a couple of countries jump at us immediately. Timor-Leste was the first, and within six days, we went from them making a phone call to us having a live instance with content and users on that platform in six days. Now, the team almost killed me in terms of the pace of that whole scope of activities, but it really did say, “Okay, we can do this.”

In terms of what we had to do with the teams, we had to basically say, “Okay, everyone needs to operate under emergency footing right now.” First of all, we need to reconfigure everything. So my partnerships people started helping with project management. The deployment specialists started moving people around around the world to say, “Okay, we need a spike on this country right now. We need a spike on that country. We need to make some really rapid sequencing of how we’re going to manage this.”

So we were building the airplane as we flew it in a little bit of a way, but also we had a lot of talent with us. So my job as the global program lead was to say, “Okay, what does everybody want to do? All right, and so you guys can tackle that stuff, but also what are all the things that have to happen that no one’s jumping up at?” And we needed to really divvy up kind of the good, the bad and the ugly. We had to tackle what was in front of us, right? And my job was to really shield the team to really perform. And I’m really lucky I work with some very, very smart and dynamic people.

DIEGO WYATT

What are some of the lessons learned that you’ve gleaned about leadership specifically leading global teams from the expedited launch of Learning Passport?

MAC GLOVINSKY

Leadership is a lot to do with stepping back, and leadership has a lot to do with doing the less fun things, frankly. It’s strange to say that, but setting an ambition and letting people then fill in that space, having trust in that, that to me is more leadership. Management is carving up that space in a detailed way and then coloring in those shapes. The lesson learned there was being a leader is creating the space for your team to excel.

DIEGO WYATT

Online learning has been criticized for facing a number of practical issues and limitation. I’m sure you’ve heard them before—like internet problems or connectivity, background sound, difficulty with focus for the children using these platforms. How can the Learning Passport respond to those criticisms of online classroom or online learning spaces?

MAC GLOVINSKY

It’s a good question, Diego, and you are not the first person I think to talk to me about this, right? Everybody is saying this is hard and different. It goes back to this concept of tech being a panacea and the concept of a killer app. What we’re doing in the edtech space right now, what everybody is evangelizing, is access. It’s not learning. If you introduce the technology, you’ve created access. That isn’t learning.

Introducing edtech in a way requires more humans than if technology wasn’t in the frame. You’ve just created a third point. You have the teacher, the learner and there’s maybe a book or a blackboard, and that’s a one-way interaction in a way. The learner is absorbing a book or reading off the blackboard. When you introduce things like simulation content, HTML5-based stuff, where the learner is moving the actual things around the screen and there’s more of a two-way interaction, it can be bewildering if there are not people involved.

And so what those kids in the Upper East Side in Manhattan versus a kid in very rural Sierra Leone, the difference there is all those people helping that kid on the Upper East Side utilize the technology and the content for its maximum benefit. What we’re really saying in the introduction of a lot of this education technology in the edtech space is that you need parents really involved. You need teachers really involved. You need communities involved. You need more people around the learner to help them get the most out of that access. And that’s where learning starts to happen, and then you can enter into some really, really cool things, right?

DIEGO WYATT

One of the things I really enjoy the most about the Learning Passport as not only a project but the platform is that it has legs, right? So it’s forward-looking. It’s not just something that’s going to become obsolete outside of 2020 or following the global pandemic. It’s still going to be relevant, and it’s still going to continue to grow. In that vein, what does the future of online learning look like to you through, you touched on it briefly through the Learning Passport, but also for you as a father of a young child and a learner yourself, what do you want to see for the future of online learning?

MAC GLOVINSKY

What we’re really going to see is that education is not going to be limited to a classroom. We’re seeing this blended environment where there’s a lot of ways for kids to learn. So I think that in the future, it’s going to be kids learning by [themselves] on a gamified lesson on the way to school on a phone. They’re going to be then in the classroom and an in-person instruction type of thing like a lab environment, let’s say. They’re going to be back on their phone when they get out of school and at home, probably online with some individuals to help them in the space. So we’re going to see a new landscape of what learning is where the school isn’t the only place that really happens. And I think that that formal model is going to be a bit disrupted.

I think that we have a lot of different opportunities, a lot of different ways to engage kids now, and I think that they’re hungry. Kids love screens, and it’s a way to really structure that in a way that it’s a beneficial thing. I think that we’re going to see a lot of different ways to deliver content to a learner. I think that we’re going to see the classroom being a component of the learning experience and not just classroom/homework, that dichotomy. But one of the benefits of technology now is that if you can gamify content, you can really make learning bidirectional and that the learner themselves are engaged, they’re moving things around, they’re leading their own journey. And I think that we have devices and machines that can really make that fun.

That’s really where the future is going to be in terms of how a learner’s day-to-day is going to look. I think it’s going to be a bit different. As I was saying earlier, I do think that we’re going to see a need for more humans in this space. And that that is really going to be how education is going to look in the future, and it’s going to be learning everywhere in an ideal way. But again, we need to move people from access to learning, and that is going to be the challenge where the adults need to really shift their thinking and understand that the ground has shifted beneath us and we are at the beginning of kind of this radically changed landscape in terms of opportunity.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

As Mac alluded to, virtual education is great at presenting information, but not so great at reacting—to a student who has a question, or whose technique isn’t quite right, or who needs to be reminded to pay attention. That dynamic also is top-of-mind at Gradely, a Lagos, Nigeria company using technology as part of a solution that also relies on in-person support. I asked Boye Oshinaga, Gradely’s co-founder and CEO, to tell me what his team is building.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

When you were developing this, how did you put it together in terms of talking with academics to help you structure your curriculum but also some testing?

BOYE OSHINAGA

I’ve always been very close to the education community. And while I was running the fintech company, I invested in an edtech company that was able to scale schools. And so I kind of participated in that process. At some point, I was CEO for three months because I wanted to restructure things. I met many parents at many schools and also many teachers. You can imagine that I already had like a small teacher community brewing.

We talked to these teachers, very senior ones, and told them, “How do we do this? I’ve read a lot of research. I’ve read a lot of books. What are your own thoughts about how to deliver personalized learning? What do you think about categorizing difficulty?” And so we got a lot of feedback in the process with proprietors of private schools, but also senior teachers. I think that insight helped us with coming up with the content. And when we’re ready to just develop it at scale, we then increased that community of teachers and incentivized them to deliver content continuously.

Every single day somebody’s building content for Gradely, and somebody is reviewing content in Gradely. So somebody is setting up the questions, putting them up on the back end, and somebody else is reviewing and saying, “This can be better,” and so on. And in the future, somebody will be developing the video explanation to say, “This is why the answer is like this,” and so on. And we think that we’re going to build a community like that in Nigeria, but how we can scale globally, which is our intention, is to create just the same framework and create communities of teachers everywhere.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

How did that work from a project team standpoint? How many of you were there developing it? How did you work that with your network of teachers? And I’m sure you tested on students as well to get their feedback. So how did you recruit all those folks and engage them?

BOYE OSHINAGA

It was initially very scrappy. It was like, “What kind of content can you do for us? Okay. Give me how many questions you can develop in one week. I want to see it. I’ll pay for it.” And somebody sends questions, and I’m looking at it and I’m like, send this to a senior teacher, can you look at this for me? And does this make sense? And it’s like, “Oh, there’s some repetitive questions. This is not really covered in learning areas.” And then I’m like, “Okay, you know what, we’re sending it back.” And so it was very scrappy in the beginning, but what we found is that we started to congeal towards a set of standards and a framework, and then we had a committee of senior teachers look into everything then have an overview of everything we’re doing.

Once that framework was built, it was easy to then hire staff responsible for it and say, “You’re responsible to manage all the content reviewers. You are responsible to manage all of the math teachers. You’re responsible for all the English teachers.” And so we built an ad hoc team around an internal staff, so you have one person full-time inside, and you have a team of people working for us on a part-time, ad hoc basis. So that’s how we built it. And we have a framework in which this is the standard we expect. It comes in at this time. This is the amount of questions we expect. This is the level of difficulty, and this is the amount of time we can give you for it.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

How do you think about the blend between what can be done through virtual learning and the role that has to be played by an in-person teacher or tutor?

BOYE OSHINAGA

We know that innovation in education can improve learning outcomes. And one of the most important type of innovation will be the one that tends towards one-to-one tutoring or one-to-one experience with the teacher, with the child. Research shows something called the Bloom 2 sigma effect that states that one-to-one tutoring can increase education outcomes by two standard deviations, right? That’s exactly what’s optimal. A great teacher and a great child, and they have all the time together.

How do you try to replicate that in an environment that’s online? Gradely thinks that the way to do that is called personalized learning, meaning that you give every child just what he needs or she needs at the point where he or she needs it. To do that is to understand from where the child’s journey is from formative assessment, from testing and practice to find out what topics they are strong at and what they’re weak at. And on the back of that give more practice, adaptive practice, video lessons, and sometimes intervention, one-on-one tutoring and live classes to solve those problems. So essentially that’s how to get child from zero to mastery.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

You’ve launched Gradely in Nigeria and a couple of other countries in Africa. Some areas can have access issues related to broadband or a consistent electrical grid. How do you make sure that uptime is where it needs to be?

BOYE OSHINAGA

What we’ve seen is that initial adoption for solutions like Gradely come from the middle class, parents who have had access, who have Wi-Fi in the office and can bring some 4G home on their phones and tablet devices, and so on. You have less of the problem in the initial early adopter phase of the product right now, which is where we are, but as you go farther down you start to realize that to scale and to reach, for example, our goal is to have 1 million students in Nigeria use this product in the next three to four years. To get to 1 million, even though there are like 30 million learners, even 1 million seems to be a big number just because of lack of access to technological devices and so on. And like you mentioned, power and electrical grid.

One way to solve this is to work with the key players. So does this for-profit angle get as many customers as available to get, right? But once you realize that it starts to get more difficult with every additional customer, you want to work with government. There’s a particular effort I’m part of, and I’m part of that effort because telcos and government are talking about how do you give free data access to children? How do you have hot zones that have access to Wi-Fi and devices so that children can go to and learn within the same Lagos? And how do you sponsor that using private and public funds? I think this kind of project would be very, very interesting to use because that’s the future of it. Online education is supposed to democratize learning, not to be another tool for an elitist agenda, right? And so that’s where we’re going, and Gradely wants to be on the side of the people, not just the elite.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

What’s the broader potential for edtech? What role do you see it playing down the road, both in Nigeria and worldwide?

BOYE OSHINAGA

Education is the most effective way to economic empowerment, certainly in a world that’s becoming ever more focused on knowledge economy, digital economy. For example, the numbers say out of 600 million students in the world who are not learning in school, one-third of them are in Africa. And so I think that the place where that is worst hit in terms of educational achievements, like Africa, are the places that need educational innovation the most. Technology is a platform for innovation because it helps to just leverage multiple ways that things can happen.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Students aren’t the only ones who can benefit from virtual education. Project leaders can also use online tools and classes to continue their own professional development.

Take Tony Byrnes, director of program management at telecom and media company Altice USA in Tyler, Texas. He and several of his team members worked with our episode sponsor PMTraining.com to prepare for their Project Management Professional certification exam—and most of the team has now earned their PMPs. Tony spoke with Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt about the experience.

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HANNAH SCHMIDT

Recently you pursued and earned your Project Management Professional or PMP certification. Why did you pursue earning this?

TONY BYRNES

We’re all continually being tasked to do more with less, and I think learning what the standard is and also learning, hey, are there ways that we could better organize our efforts to where we’re only doing things one time. Or we find more optimized ways to handle processes that we managed today. And we learned quite a bit going through training with PMTraining.com.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

As we’ve said, you and several members of your team used PMTraining’s live online training classes to prepare for your certification exams. What was your experience like?

TONY BYRNES

I’ll tell you that when we first started talking about this PMP ambition that I had, at least for our organization, it was going back about 18 months ago. I envisioned us doing an in-person boot camp. Well, that quickly changed with COVID-19, as you’re all aware. The online class was good. It was different though. It challenged those of us who had more hands-on, in-person learning styles to adapt our way of thinking to be able to train and learn for this exam.

This is not an exam that you could easily coast your way through or understand a couple of concepts. I had a discussion with one of our colleagues here, and he said, “I’ve taken tests like this before.” After I took the test, my response was, “I guarantee you that you haven’t.” Because there is not another test like this. And taking the test, I can tell that PMI designed it in a way to where you really do have to know the concepts. You have to know the situational responses that you should have in your tool belt when you come across an issue with a stakeholder or a risk or any sort of conflict of interest.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

How did taking the class with other members of your team help you all prepare for the certification exam?

TONY BYRNES

We were able to get a custom class for us because of the size of our group. And that I thought was a very powerful way to incorporate some of our own team building. And I think we have a good natural team environment here at Altice and within my team.

We set up our own custom chats. We set up our own support groups for training. We had several study groups, and some individuals broke off and did their own. I was a part of one where four or five of us would get together every week leading up to our exam, and we would take just mock tests and discuss it as a team: “Okay. You chose B. But I chose A. Let’s talk about why we were different.”

The fact that all of us went through the same training together—at the same time—we could all speak the same language. There was nobody saying, “Okay. Well, when I took the test, I saw this question. When John took the test, he saw an entirely different question.” We were able to go through it together. Now our individual mock tests, of course, were on our own. But as part of our study efforts, we did collaboratively take some of them just to discuss them. And I think that team building that we’d already had from working together the last few years really helped us support each other. We know each other’s communication styles. We were able to really adapt our message to some of our colleagues and peers to say, “Okay. I think Kristi would need to hear it this way, where John needs to hear it a different way.” And I thought that was very, very rewarding for me as a leader of this team, to see everybody grow and really adapt themselves to this effort.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

When it comes to education, you want to innovate and improve, but you want to do it very carefully—because the core mission is just too important to risk messing up. So I’m grateful for the patience and flexibility of edtech leaders like Mac and Boye who are not only keen to bring new technology to market, but also to adapt to what they’re seeing works best and to seek out new opportunities and applications. These are leaders in the business of learning, and they are practicing what they preach.

Our sponsor for this episode is PMTraining.com. From live virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

NARRATOR

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