Representation, risk taking and robots: the three Rs of tech education

 |   Microsoft NZ News Centre

The large font on the monitor makes it easier for those with low vision to read
Vanessa Sorenson, Enterprise Director at Microsoft:
Vanessa Sorenson, Enterprise Director at Microsoft:

Technology is changing education, but how can we change education for a tech-fuelled world? That was the subject of the Reinventing Education for a Tech Future and Addressing Inequality panel, screened during Techweek (May 19-25) and featuring Microsoft New Zealand Enterprise Director Vanessa Sorenson.

Vanessa (who also heads Microsoft’s Māori and Pacific Island diversity and inclusion initiative), joined Auckland University of Technology lecturer Mahsa Mohaghegh, Unitec’s David Glover, Youth Hub founder Sethil Perumal and Andrew McPherson of EdTech for a discussion on the important questions:

How do we get more young people into tech education?

How can we boost diversity and accessibility in technology?

And perhaps most importantly: Will our teachers be robots in 2030?

Armed with statistics from the World Economic Forum (WEF), Andrew pointed out that in previous industrial revolutions, it took decades to build the training systems and labour market institutions needed to support workers, but that isn’t an option in the fast-evolving tech revolution.

Quoting Satya Nadella, he said: “We know that the jobs of the future will require different skills, so how do we equip the youth of the world for these jobs?”

Vanessa cited Microsoft’s push to make technology – both the platforms and the sector – more accessible, with a story about how one CV the company received highlighted the applicant’s weaknesses rather than strengths. Usually, that would be one for File Thirteen.

“We decided to take some advice, and our partners Be.Accessible highlighted that the person might be on the autism spectrum. They were right, and that person is now heading our Xbox gaming division.”

Vanessa also talked about Microsoft’s moves to improve Māori and Pasifika representation and break down perceptions that tech is “just for geeks”. Since launching a new internship scheme, six employees from Māori and Pacific Island backgrounds have been recruited at Microsoft.

“As businesses we have to go and bring them in – that’s how we’re going to change communities, one person at a time. There needs to be less talk and more action.”

AI was also a hot topic of discussion. As Andrew noted, the “threat” is also the solution, creating job disruption but also helping fill skills gaps.

Vanessa cited Microsoft’s initiative to have 25,000 more people trained in AI by 2022, so it’s less about job disruption than creating new jobs that can potentially make more of a difference. “Don’t think of it as the job that’s gone – think about the possibility of the job that’s going to come.”

Disappointingly for many children and science fiction authors, it’s unlikely that teachers will entirely be replaced by robots, according to Mahsa:

“AI can’t replace a teacher’s empathy or experience, although Kiwi companies like Soul Machines are already creating virtual teachers that can teach certain skills.”

David agreed, highlighting the pastoral role that traditional schooling provides. Seems while technology is essential, there’s just no replacement for a hands-on education. Nor is there one path to success. As Vanessa pointed out:

“No matter what you’re studying and what you want to be, you need to do three things: set goals, think big, take risks, and you’ll have a phenomenal life.”

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