Episode 4 – with Maria Spies

June 6, 2019


Terri Givens: Hi, this is Terri Givens with the Center for Higher Education Leadership, and today we are talking with Maria Spies with HolonIQ. And I wanted to just start off this discussion with a little bit about Maria’s background, and what she is doing with HolonIQ. I know a lot of you out there who are higher ed administrators who are following what’s going on in ed tech and so on, but I think there’s a lot of us who don’t really know a lot about what the latest trends are, innovations so Maria is a great person to talk about that. We will start off with, Maria just tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Maria Spies: Hi Terri! Thanks so much, it’s really, really wonderful to be here. I’ve been working in education pretty much about 25 years, and mostly in higher education. I started out running an MBA program that was an alternative delivery model, so it was already fairly innovative way back then. I’m on the first post graduate program, I designed and delivered online was in 1996, and actually ever since then I’ve been working with technology in education. The way in which technology can improve educational outcomes or provide access to delivery and so on. The last 9 years I was the global head of ? teaching services at a large global company, an education company. I guess my job was innovation in the core; innovating curriculum, delivering models, new courses, academic professional development, in terms of innovation particular in the use of technology. So I’ve always been in that space. Over the last 3 or 4 years I was an ed tech investor, and that was a lot of fun. Looking at one of the new models coming up, who’s doing what globally, but what we found was, it was just very difficult to find any information, it’s quite fragmented, often under digitized, certainly when you start looking globally. 

About a year ago, my co-founder and I set up HolonIQ, and the purpose is to connect those dots. Strategic and sort of proposing global innovations, ideas and people, whether it be business models, technology, the growth innovation and investment. We have a research platform and a data platform, and carry about over 50,000 education and ed tech companies, we follow those and then we categorize them into quite a detailed taxonomy of the way in terms of a learner’s life cycle if you’d like. 

Givens: What I found interesting, is you guys are really amazing at using graphics, and ways to present information that is really helpful. 

Spies: I mean one of the things where I think education – there’s lots and lots of data, heaps of data, lots and lots of word. It’s actually a bit overwhelming. So what we try to do was provide visualized data, visualized trends in a way that’s successful to people. That happens a lot in other industries, but in education somehow you still have to dig down into massive spreadsheets, information that’s inaccessible. 

Givens: You guys recently sent out your annual report on AI and global education. What were some of the key takeaways? 

Spies: The report was such a great project to work on. One of the key things I learned from the AI project, was that artificial intelligence is the fastest growing in the advanced tech, in terms of spend. We predict that the spend on artificial intelligence in education will be somewhere over 6 billion dollars in the next 5 years. So it’s the fastest growing. It’s amazing – it’s already penetrated right through different parts of education, parts of the sector, whether it be K-12, or higher ed, or corporate training, and the uses of artificial intelligence are so broad, but really still relatively unknown, and that’s sort of the global trends, it’s part of what we’re trying to do. It’s the fastest growing, and we have a panel of about 1,000 experts around the world, and we ask them, where they feel AI is going to have the most impact by sector. And K-12 was right up there, in a very high impact. People feel that artificial intelligence is going to have an impact on K12. Testing was the largest area followed by language learning.

We also asked those people – they’re all from the education industry – we asked them about where was the AI already having an impact? In what part of the education value chain, if you like, was it already having an impact. The greatest impact, which surprised me, was in learning processes. So that’s right to the core of education. This was 80% of respondents said that, artificial intelligence technology was already having a significant impact or moderate impact on learning processes, and that was followed by security and identity. So people were using artificial intelligence for security and identity, and some cases wellness, and I can talk about some of those use cases. 

Givens: When you talk about learning processes, what are some of the things that people are talking about? 

Spies: For example, the personalization of curriculum. Not just curriculum, but learning processes. So for a student who engages with curriculum and works through activities, undertakes some learning activities, artificial intelligence can help to provide sort of an adaptive, personalized approach to that. So we see a lot of those applications in actual learning processes. We also see some experimentation around the use of robotics for learning, so that might be, in say language learning, there’s lots of applications where a learner interacts with a chatbot to learn English. So that is an application of artificial intelligence as well. One of the greatest areas of innovation that we’ve seen over the past probably 2 or 3 years, is the use of vision based artificial intelligence, and that is facial recognition, and motion recognition, gesture recognition. Say in online courses, and this hasn’t really made the mainstream in terms of the K-12 space, in terms of in the classroom, but certainly in online after school tutoring, in language learning. Especially in China but not only, we see the tutors having a synchronous video tutorial, with students, and there is facial and gesture recognition overlaid onto those students, using a video camera on the computer. That can identify hallmarks in facial expressions of say confusion for example, and so the faces of those students, when a teacher sees that on a video, it’s overlaid with sort of dots, and those dots change color to red if there’s confusion or anxiety or etcetera, and the teacher can see straight away that the students are confused about it or are unsure. Then they can adjust their activity or teaching on the spot. Actually this type of application of artificial intelligence is happening, there’s lots and lots of applications of that outside the formal sector, but I do see that moving into the sort of formal teaching, especially as online delivery becomes much more prevalent. 

In higher ed and corporate training, they’re using this exact same technology for interviewing, for jobs, or for interviewing for college. And so that’s where both natural language processing and vision based AI overlay onto the video conference, onto the video station, and provide a sort of summary of what’s going on in terms of in-motion or character. So I think these applications are still bubbling under the surface, they haven’t broken through into mainstream, but actually I don’t think it’s very long until that happens. 

Givens: I think you’re right, I think those are the kinds of things we’re going to be seeing going forward. Given all of these things that are being developed, can you talk about some of the ways that AI will figure into the strategic planning for higher ed leaders? 

Spies: Well I feel that higher ed leaders have got a tough job, because investing in this sort of technology can be a little tricky, and perhaps expensive, but actually there are quite a number of organizations out there who are using AI at the core of their product, and they are focused specifically on areas of learning, it could be personalized and efficient feedback, for example. Lots and lots of feedback. That takes a lot of time for academic staff. 

For higher ed leaders, thinking about artificial intelligence as tools that can assist in terms of efficiency, without losing quality, there’s lots of opportunities right across the value chain there, from supporting student enrollment choice of college student enrollment, and in particular supporting the student experience. It might be answering questions, a chatbot to answer the questions. Applications there where colleges and universities have saved massive amounts of time and money, but also have improved the student experience, because an automated way of answering questions and helping students find what they need. Higher ed leaders thinking about artificial intelligence tools for efficiency, supporting student experience, but also supporting learning processes, whether it be when a university is thinking about online delivery, and worried about, say for example, how to secure exam conditions for students who are remote, there are applications that based on artificial intelligence that can support these types of real world problems for leaders in higher ed. 

Givens: Great. I think that’s a really good way to look at it. So from your perspective, what are some of the other areas that are up and coming in ed tech? I know you’ve been under and you work in these arenas, you mentioned some of this earlier, but what are some of the types of companies and technologies that are being funded right now?

Spies: It’s really interesting, that’s a great question because still, depending on the region and the country and the focus, there’s different areas. So what we see, for example, say in 2018, in education, in the US, or North America, those business models, technologies, solutions, that were supporting ongoing adult upskilling received the greatest amount of venture capital funds. We see an appetite for supporting ongoing adult upskilling, of course there’s the whole trend about ongoing learning, micro learning, etc, that continues through models such as, whether it be MOOCs or other sort of solutions, but now that sort of boundary between formal learning, informal learning, skills, and jobs, that boundary is very porous right now, so upskilling is a place where lots of funds were delivered last year in North America.

In developing countries we still see many many dollars, venture capital money being poured into language learning test prep, still, and games and simulation, tutoring after school, still lots and lots of venture capital in there. In Europe, there’s funding still being directed to content plays, so new types of content. The world has got masses of educational content, lots of it locked up and hard to access, and so there’s new organizations and startups that are helping to, you might say, unlock that masses of knowledge content in education, and deliver it much more easily and in smaller chunks, along with artificial personalized and adaptive ways, there’s lots of activity going on in that space as well. But we do see geographically some differences where the funding is going. 

Givens: That’s really interesting that it’s somewhat specific to the region of the world. I can see – that’s really interesting to me about the content issue because this is of course another ongoing issue in higher ed particularly about having open access, and so I think that’s going to be an area that’s going to be seeing a lot of activity in terms of figuring out how we’re going to be delivering content.

Spies: Yeah, you’re quite right. The traditional publishers are making many moves in this space, and working hard to unlock, well digitize, unlock and make more accessible the content that they have. And in some cases sort of locked up into textbooks and things like that. 

Givens: We still have that with the, kind of stand off, between UC Berkeley and Elsevier recently that this is an ongoing issue, but it really comes down to sharing knowledge to a certain extent. You know, how are we going to share knowledge into the future.

Spies: Absolutely. And that issue has been hot in Europe as well. One of the things we’re seeing is, what’s interesting, when you zoom right out and have a look back down is the concept of, in higher ed in particular you have learning management platforms, learning management systems, LMS, and that’s a good void of content, content filled up by the learners and the teachers and so on. And then you have content, which is over in another sort of bucket, and traditionally owned by or locked up by other publishers or academic staff. What we’re seeing is the sort of merging of these platforms where adaptive content, adaptive platforms has got content already in them, and students make their way through that and add to it. So it’s sort of a mushing up of content and platform. And that is content and delivery because the learner, and the teacher contributes to the content, and in fact can start changing the content based on the way they move through content and add to it. We’re seeing that merging. Interesting how the LMS players will move with that, and also how content players will move with that. We might see some consolidation between those two sort of buckets. 

Givens: Very interesting. That’s definitely something to keep an eye on. Speaking of keeping an eye on things, what is one thing every higher ed leader should know about ed tech going into the Fall of 2019?

Spies: I think one of the things that every higher ed leader should be thinking about is having their horizon over the edge of higher ed, because higher education – when someone says higher education they think of university – but actually, the world of work and upskilling, like I was talking about before in terms of venture capital, the different models outside, let’s not take for granted the sort of higher ed structure in which we sit. I think that university leaders have an amazing opportunity to work closely with those who are innovating in the model of higher ed, that is post secondary learning, and how that might unfold in the future. So I think every higher ed leader should be looking at alternative, not alternative but additive, and adjunct, whether it be models to collaborate, partner, work with other types of providers that are operating in the post secondary space, that complementary to the skills and sort of strengths of traditional universities. That is definitely something that every higher ed leader should be looking at. 

Givens: I agree. That’s something I’m running into at nearly every conference I go to, everybody’s talking about the future of work and ways that we can continue to work. Really getting your diploma shouldn’t be the end, and it never really is the end of your education, right? There’s always something more that you have to learn and it would be great if higher ed could do a better job of staying connected with students, but also focusing on new students who are coming back into the learning space, and thinking about it as more of just a broader learning space. 

Spies: Yeah, you’re quite right. Universities are amazing institutions, and they have the opportunity to have a relationship with learners all through their working career, not just the three years that they’re in college. They have the best opportunity to continue engaging. They’re not built for that really, but others are, so that’s where the partnership operation would come in. 

Givens: I think there’s going to have to be a partnership and collaboration with the employers and corporations that will help kind of define what that relationship is going to ultimately be. 

Spies: Right. 

Givens: Well, this has been a great conversation, and I look forward to continuing it as we go forward. We’re going to be talking a lot about these issues. The future of work and what’s going on in ed tech, things like AI. So I hope that we can get you back again,  maybe this Fall to see what’s going on as the new school year starts. 

Thanks again for joining us, this is the Center for Higher Education. We’re at www.higheredleads.com, and our newsletter is www.higheredconnects.com, and you can also find our podcast on our website. We will be back again soon for our next installment. 

Spies: Thanks for having me here.

Givens: Yeah it’s really wonderful having you Maria, thanks so much.

Spies: Thanks Terri!

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