Photo: Vice-president of Udacity, Sam Schofield. Credit: Courtesy of the interviewee  

By Sara Elisa Fernández

Digital tools have not only made it possible to continue teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have also been key to democratizing access to education, fostering economic growth and fighting inequality, explains Sam Schofield, vice-president of the educational organization Udacity.

Students have started to adapt to online education, an emerging model that provides greater flexibility and ease of access for everyone. Udacity has launched ‘nanodegrees’, which are specialized programs in core and emerging technologies that can be completed in two to six months and provide more personalized training adapted to the demands of the labour market. Schofield insists that new technologies will have a major impact on the education system, allowing greater adaptation to the needs of the student, as well as improvements in teaching methods.

This year, in the MIT Technology Review in Spanish we have emphasized that remote working is here to stay. What changes did your industry perceive in student behaviour after the public health crisis? Did Udacity experience an increase in demand?

When life was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, people’s attitudes also changed. All sectors shifted to an online model, including education. Students naturally began to accept remote learning because, on the one hand, they realized the benefits such as quality, ease of access and flexibility. On the other hand, they wanted to take advantage of the free time that they had because of the lockdown. After the pandemic, Udacity increased its revenues by 260% and reached a total of 15 million users.

What strategies did Udacity deploy to deal with the pandemic?

From an employer’s perspective, as a global organization, we already had a “work anywhere” mentality for most of our employees. In other respects, though, we have had to move ahead swiftly in order to move our content production studios in-house.

In addition, from my own team, we have promoted initiatives to prevent workers from spending too much time sitting down. For example, allowing workers to walk during telematics meetings so that they can contribute to their total weekly steps while completing their working day.

How can the EdTech sector contribute to the democratization of education? Can it also contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Of course it can contribute. SDG 4 calls for ensuring inclusive and quality education for everyone, promoting lifelong learning. These are also aspects that we strive for at Udacity and where technology has helped us a lot. EdTech certainly has enormous potential to democratize access to education and pave the way for equality. Today, someone with a smartphone living in a rural area can access online courses and YouTube tutorials led by professors from the world’s top universities or experts from leading companies. They also cost less compared to traditional educational methods.

Shorter courses, such as nanodegrees from EdTech companies, can offer more personalized and ultimately more useful content for a learner outside of the virtual classroom. On the other hand, it can be applied to existing jobs at all professional levels.

In addition, the application of skills learned in the SDG 4 can have a significant impact on SDG 8, related to economic growth. The impact of education, both on a personal and societal level, should not be underestimated, as countries today are looking for the largest share of GDP to come from digitalization and skilled labour. Finally, thanks to the new skills acquired, it is also possible to contribute to SDG 10, dedicated to combating inequality. 

What advice would you give to peers in your situation?

I would tell them that real transformation must be from the inside out, not from the outside in. PwC says that 70% of the money invested in digital transformation in 2018 was wasted, i.e., it did not have a measurable impact on organizations. This creates enormous challenges for companies and is largely due to the effectiveness gap between vision/mission and skills. Udacity offers practical solutions, with measurable and specific results.

CEOs have realized that, with deregulation and lower barriers to entry, innovation must feature prominently in business strategy: real transformation cannot come from recruitment alone.

In your opinion, what new skills do managers, presidents and CEOs need to approach innovation?

For companies to remain competitive and continue to innovate, it is vital that they invest time and capital to build a very strong pipeline of talent with cutting-edge digital skills, especially as the technical skills gap is one of the biggest challenges.

The skills needed are varied, but business leaders must have a broad understanding of the fundamentals of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science and cloud computing in order to allow for innovation and understand their strategic implications. Those who understand the macro view of the technology stack are often better equipped to recruit and build teams, make data-driven strategic decisions, and set realistic goals. At Udacity, we offer an executive program dedicated to various technologies to enable leaders to bridge the gap.

In what ways could AI revolutionize your industry?

Artificial intelligence has already begun to impact the education sector. From basic activities such as automated grading, to improved teaching methods, student engagement and knowledge acquisition… AI allows for a more effective approach, response, and accessibility to learning.

Take personalization, for example. Three of the defining characteristics of AI are perception, recognition, and recommendation. This technology can take data from each student, see where they have the most difficulty, which teaching methods are most effective, and then tailor learning programs and software. In short, AI will allow a more specific response to the individual needs of each student.

It is also expected that greater value and emphasis will be placed on human value. For example, it will give teachers more time to support students on an individual level. The mentoring structure we use at Udacity helps students progress both in their learning and confidence levels. Having someone to talk to about difficult concepts, receive thoughtful feedback and build meaningful relationships remains essential.

How many professions will be related to artificial intelligence in the long term? Does technology create jobs or destroy them?

The World Economic Forum estimates that while 85 million jobs will be threatened by 2025, another 97 million will be created. Artificial intelligence is becoming an increasingly important part of operations in most industries, from manufacturing to financial services, automotive, healthcare to education and logistics. Its adoptions will only continue to grow, but it is imperative for employers to be aware of this shift and help ensure that their workforce is fully equipped, now and on an ongoing basis, to adapt to new technologies as they become ubiquitous.

What is Udacity’s differentiating factor when facing new competitors?

Udacity’s differentiating factor is in supporting the creation of new and demonstrable skills. When someone completes a project with Udacity, they have unlocked a tangible asset. While traditional MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are scalable, they don’t provide enough hands-on training for real-world jobs.

Udacity’s nanodegrees combine deep, rich, and relevant content in a practical, real-world project-based format to enable students to graduate with job-ready skills. Internal skills enhancement plays a relevant role in achieving a successful digital transformation.

What do you estimate will be the profession, or professions, with the best employment prospects by 2050?

Naturally, it is incredibly difficult to predict. In the mathematics and computer science sectors, digital and data-driven skills will be core competencies for many jobs.

Published by OPINNO © 2022 MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW spanish edition