Unleashing Student Potential
Making a Difference in the World
by Dr. Rod Berger
I met Anthony Salcito at the 2017 Imagine Cup World Finals, an annual competition that brings teams of college students from across the globe to the Seattle, WA campus of Microsoft to pitch their products to a team of technology experts. According to Anthony, we have a responsibility to help fuel the next generation of innovation and unleash the solutions that will change the world.
He sees technology changing the way all of us learn, creating insights that expand and grow education beyond the classroom. He believes we can harness that insight to make a difference and solve real problems, and students at Imagine Cup are working to do that.
Most importantly, Anthony wants to create an environment in every school and every classroom, where students have confidence in a limitless future.
Rod Berger: Anthony, I'm blessed to be able to speak with global leaders in education from all around the world. And out of that class of people, that group of people who are lucky to be traveling, you have a unique niche. Anytime I hear you speak, you talk about things that are outside the sweet spot and I applaud you for that because you talk about the economic engine of education and technology. You try to expand it. Sometimes, I think we're too insular.
Tell me about how that's changed for you over the years. I would imagine that it's something that's been fluid. It's not been something that's static for you to be able to see the impact education has outside of the walls of a classroom or the school not just here in the U.S. but beyond.
Anthony Salcito: We have to unleash the potentials and talents of our students in classrooms all around the world ─ and certainly, across the United States today ─ to create, to build, and to inspire them to create the future. And that's what the mission of any good education system should be about.
I get the great opportunity to learn from and listen to the folks who are on the ground in schools trying to make that impact. I learn from leaders.
I was visiting with the Minister of Education in Kenya. In her office, she had a picture of downtown Seoul, Korea, today. I asked her, “Why do you have that picture in your office?” She went to the picture and she lifted it up and there was another picture of Seoul in 1970. She said, “This is what my country looks like today.” She lowered today’s picture and said, “This is the country I'm building through my education system.”
This is not a journey of technology or devices. It's not a journey of two- to five-year plans. It's a journey to create a foundation across all the students that we see in our classrooms today to unleash their potential to make a difference in the world.
We see that here in Imagine Cup where students are thinking not just about the technology project but to solve real issues that may impact their loved ones and the social issues that they care about. And they're saying, “How do I apply my talent and innovation with technology as a tool to solve those problems?”
That's the kind of impact that we want to see in the world.
RB: I'm glad you brought that up because that's one of the things I'm walking away with. There's a social responsibility aspect of what these teams have been developing. I think ─ for too long ─ we've been celebrating what we think is sexy in technology and what is fun when we're hanging out with our friend and we want to communicate with old classmates and these sorts of things.
Are we doing a good enough job of planting the seed with young students about what they can be doing with the power of technology?
AS: We know that the generation of students that are in classrooms today or in universities today want to make a difference in the world. They want to help others.
And one of the things that we have seen is that not only do students gravitate to projects that make a difference in others’ lives, it improves the quality of the projects as well. When students can bring their passion around an issue or a discipline, they create innovation and ingenuity with technology.
We also see that as the focus on the social impact grows, the quality of the gender mix has improved. So one of the things we're very proud of at Imagine Cup is great balance. About 50% of the teams include women.
Having a mix of boys and girls represented here at Imagine Cup not only is something we want to strive for, I think it's reflective of that broader energy that students have to make a difference in the world and that yields the best of what we see in these projects.
RB: Let's take the discussion towards corporate responsibility. Microsoft has obviously grown into this incredible opportunity for people to make a difference. Earlier, we talked about the billion dollars in grant and all of these different life-changing opportunities.
What responsibility do you think the Microsofts of the world and others that might be competitors have in setting the pace? At what point do we say, “Alright, let's all take a pause and understand how the technology is impacting us and how we make sure that we don't just fuel the younger generation while casting aside those of us who are forty and above who are saying, ‘We don't code. We don't know how all of these things are operating and how they may impact our lives’”?
AS: There are certainly lots of good points there. I think technology companies have a responsibility to the people who are using the technology to make sure that it's safe and secure and that it respects their privacy. That's foundational to everything that we do at Microsoft.
But we also have a responsibility in the work that we do in education, a personal responsibility that actually helps students fuel the next generation of innovation at Microsoft and all the companies that we support and service.
We have a responsibility to unleash the solutions that will change the world. And technology is a tool. We see technology changing the way all of us learn and the way in which we communicate, the way which we connect, and the way in which we get a world of exponentially available content. And that's changed the way we can expand and grow education beyond the classroom.
Now, we can harness that insight and learning to actually make a difference on solving some real problems. Students here at Imagine Cup are working to do that. And then, we can evolve the impact that we can make in the world.
This is not something that is just exclusive to students. We do outreach and work to adult learners. As the learning landscape is changing, we don't want to leave anyone out. That’s something that is important to Microsoft but, increasingly, technology impacts all of us in the world we live, in most jobs and industries and the way in which all of us connect. We want to make sure that we respect and embrace that through the work that we do at Microsoft.
RB: Let's go into schools. You talked about all the schools that you visit. What are some blind spots? Is there one blind spot where you can step back and say, “I know I have a unique perspective. I get to visit these schools but a lot of them are missing this one component that we are not thinking about, and we're going to pay the price ─ maybe not now ─ but down the line.”
AS: I talk about it as the Marketing Myopia paper that Theodore Levitt wrote for Harvard Business Review in 1970. I talk about this as we're facing the education myopia where schools have lost their way in terms of what they're about, whether it's focusing on test scores or school rankings, etcetera, as the focus or even progressing students along the curriculum.
What I want to make sure that we do is to, first, create an environment in every school and classroom where a student walks through every threshold that they enter into a school knowing and having confidence that they have a limitless future. Second, that they believe that they have the potential to change their family and change their society, change their community, their country, and the world through the power of what they can learn in the classrooms ─ and how they can apply what they learn beyond that.
And there's often such a short-term reality that schools face ─ because of the pressure that they feel to respond to the growing eagerness for students to learn beyond the school or growing pressure from the systems, employers, and political officials ─ to actually transform learning that many of the activities that we see globally are very short term in nature.
Schools are applying technology as an answer in many cases to a question that was badly asked. “We've got to improve the school. Let's buy computers” as opposed to “Let's think about how we fundamentally transform the learning opportunities for every student. How do we inspire and spark that innovation inside the classroom?’”
Then, use technology appropriately to help fuel that just like we would with every other tool, like a chalk or a desk. I want to enable that. And we also have to do a better job of evolving the conversation against what I think it's been largely, and that's been looking to the teacher to get it fixed. We often will look at the lack of pace of innovation or lack of activity or progress that we've seen in classrooms and academic results or graduation rates and put a lot of the burden on teachers.
With what I've seen globally ─ and I've visited thousands of schools in my role ─ I learned that it's not the teacher that's the problem. The teachers are amazing and they are heroes in every society.
What we need to do is give them the infrastructure ─ whether it's with leadership or with support ─ to unleash their potential to teach and learn differently. We can marry that great leadership with a culture of innovation with the existing teachers that we have around the world, with new expectations and confidence from students. And then, when you bring those three things together, you can fundamentally make a difference.
One of the things that I see broadly is that we're doing pieces of it and often using technology as an end in itself versus a tool to drive a bigger change.
RB: I'm glad you brought up teachers. There was a report that came out a little over a year ago looking at personality traits of teachers and the role of being an introvert versus an extrovert in a world where social learning and collaboration are becoming synonymous with our classrooms.
What role can innovation play to support those in the same way we know that students are changing? Is there a role that technology and innovation can play to support that so that we don’t hear these stories?
Last week, I was out with a superintendent talking about thinking of trying computers. Even the language that they were using was very antiquated; and, to me, it said more about the fear.
AS: It's true. When I'll meet with a school leader who had a failed technology project and I'll say, “What do you think was the reason? Why did this fail?” They'll often say, “We didn't spend enough time training the teachers.”
I can understand that. We need to do a lot to train teachers but I don't actually believe that's ever the problem. I do believe that it's an embrace of the shift because most teachers use technology in their daily life. They use it to play games or to communicate with their families. They're increasingly comfortable with technology.
What’s changed is the way in which learning is taking place. The way in which all of us learn has changed. The way teachers play a role in the classroom has shifted and, in many ways, elevated. Most teachers are afraid of that.
One of the lenses I use is a simple statement. I'll say, “Your students are learning without you. How do you feel?”
And when I say that students are learning without them, many teachers initially feel threatened or afraid. They feel like their job is in jeopardy because of that statement.
But the reality is that in a world of digital transformation where learning is truly transformed, that statement should actually elicit hope and optimism for a teacher. Teachers should say, “Wow! As an educator, this empowers me to extend my influence far beyond the classroom because I can influence a student’s learning life beyond the walls of the school to incite them to learn in their own way or to leverage new skills or to leverage from a growing pool of resources that are available.”
When educators are empowered that way, technology becomes just one part of this different learning environment and a fundamentally different and elevated way of teaching.
And I think that that's what we've got to do. We've got to say that the role of a teacher is fundamental and a foundational role in every society. These teachers are true heroes. We've got to invest and embrace them. This is not about displacing teachers over technology. The opposite is true. Technology enables a much richer world of learning.
When I was in classrooms, teachers would spend their time going from Chapter One to Chapter Two in a boo. That was a very linear progression. And I learned from a finite set of resources with finite time on the clock.
A teacher now can embrace a far richer set of resources and learning styles and use the classroom time to participate in activities because resources to learn from can be available outside the classroom. And that creates a much richer environment for teachers to embrace.
And when we can unleash that, I think we can change the face of education.
RB: I'm going to ask you a question that some might think is controversial in a way, but I think that there's a parallel. We're looking at student ownership of learning.
Technology has gotten to the point where I almost think of it as a traditional U.S. Thanksgiving family meal where you invite someone over who is not a part of the family and you kind of squeeze them in and they’re just a visitor or a guest.
And for a long time, technology ─ ed tech ─ was a bit of that guest: “Coming into an educational setting, we don't know where you fit. We feel like we need you but we're not exactly sure. You're not a part of the family.”
It almost feels that even in the last time that we spoke ─ we talked off-air about London and some of those experiences ─ it has shifted in that there's an opportunity.
Is it okay? Should we take ownership from the technology perspective to say that we can set the pace to that earlier question in the way in which learning can transpire? It's not because we know better than those that are developing the curriculum. It's young kids who feel good in their skin say, “You know what? I've got the skills. I've got the confidence. I'm ready to step forward using my skills and abilities”? Can that same be said in technology where it's okay?
And we're not talking about value statements. What we're experiencing here at Microsoft and all these amazing companies is that it's okay to step forward and say that that's going to be leading what learning is and can look like.
AS: I think that's certainly the hope, but I think it's even more basic. One of the things that schools need to do is get students prepared for the future. The workplace has changed. Not only has learning changed; the way in which the world of work happens changed. We've gone from a very much industrial economy to a digital economy, a global economy.
Skills like creativity, collaboration, and curiosity were not only not needed in the world of work in the past; they were not even allowed in the world of work.
Today, those are foundational skills. And we've got to prepare those students with those skills in society. Increasingly, we're seeing a technology gap where the fastest growing part of every economy ─ certainly the United States economy ─ is jobs that require heavy tech skills or computer science skills.
We have significant growth of job market in computer science. By 2022, there will be about six and a half million new IT jobs created but we’ll be nowhere near the capacity in terms of students graduating with computer science degrees.
Certainly, the fastest growing segments of computer science like the Cloud, artificial intelligence, robotics, data science ─ things that are on display at Imagine Cup ─ are even hard to find inside the world of computer science graduates that we find. The economy is going to require increased focus on technology in our schools. That's where the job opportunity is going to be.
It's a separate question from “How do we evolve the education environment with technology?” I think you have to keep them separate. But technology will come into schools because of necessity on the workplace and how we think about it as a tool to try and change learning. I think we've got to embrace it as not an “or” question. The workplace has mandated that there's no debate about “Should we have technology or not?”
Society and your students will tell you ─ and certainly the workplace will tell you ─ that's no longer an option. What we have to do now is put technology behind people, because as much as technology is important, it's really about people.
Employers hire people. We hire talent ─ students who have the creativity, the communication skills, the innovation and leadership skills to change their environment ─ and we've got to do that in classrooms. We've got to enable school leaders to cultivate and nurture that environment, shift expectations from everyone in the classroom, and get teachers who are innovators to be comfortable and almost fearless to share and expose that innovation to other teachers. We need teachers who are amazing to actively learn from others and to take what they do and share it with other teachers.
We often find that teachers close the door inside the four walls of their classroom and they do an amazing thing to the audience of students who are in their classroom versus recognizing that there's a culture of innovation that we've got to share in our schools where those teachers feel an obligation to share what they're doing with others.
And when we can do that, we can quicken the pace of change and ensure that we don't have what we struggle with within the United States and around the world. We have these amazing examples that exist in pockets and they're isolated and not scaled. What we've got to do is say, “No. Every student deserves an amazing education. They deserve to learn from amazing innovation and amazing educators and we've got to do a better job of making that happen quickly.”
RB: Let's close on this, Anthony. How can we do a better job of including parents into the conversations? To me, they're the great ambassadors and marketers to be able to support the students who are maybe unsure, and also support the cause of what teachers and schools are trying to help in the learning process.
AS: I think we've got to do a lot of work to inform parents. It starts with parents who need to understand about things like digital safety and digital privacy. In this growing world of technology, we've got to arm parents with better tools to make decisions to guide and coach our students ─ their children.
A great example of this is the work that we're exposed to with Minecraft and Minecraft education edition. Microsoft is, obviously, excited about the work that we're doing to get Minecraft into classrooms and schools. We'll often hear from teachers who are doing Minecraft in their classrooms and using Minecraft as an amazing learning tool. And we’re hearing from parents who are saying, “I'm trying to tell my children not to play Minecraft” and you, as an educator, are using Minecraft this way.”
I think there's a lot of work that we've got to do to educate parents on how technology can be used as a tool for learning. And I think when you can bring that into the home and parents can actually be connected to the learning environment of their children, you can do amazing things.
Technology can provide that. We can provide great insight of what children are learning in schools and provide guides for parents to be part of the learning environment in different ways. We've got to do a lot of work to invest and bring parents along.
But you're absolutely right. We need parents to inspire their children to do more and to be more. I think when we can do that, we can make a difference.
About Anthony Salcito, Vice President - Worldwide Education, Microsoft
Anthony works to help empower educators and inspire students to achieve more across the globe. His dream is to transform the way we all learn, giving educators the freedom and flexibility to teach their students and helping students learn in a way that suits them and make learning more personal and productive.
Anthony helped launch Microsoft’s cornerstone education programs while working as the general manager of education in the United States. He was also at the center of Microsoft’s involvement in the creation of the School of the Future – a pioneering partnership with the School District of Philadelphia and now the first of many Microsoft Showcase Schools around the world.
He is involved with a variety of outreach projects; has served on the board of directors for Stevens Institute of Technology WebCampus, and currently serves on the boards of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), Junior Achievement of Washington, the European Foundation for Management Development, the National Community Education Association and Western Governors University.
With a belief that educators will forever be the heroes of the classroom, Anthony authors Daily Edventures, which highlights the inspiring stories of educators, students, education thought leaders and school leaders from around the world. Anthony Salcito Twitter.
This article was originally published on The Huffington Post