We are at a moment in history where technology, globalization, and our economy is changing so fast. Those changes offer us enormous opportunities but also are very disruptive and unsettling.   How many more years do we have before people switch from mainly picketing corporations about globalization to protesting automation?

The job market will be changing quickly as will the expectations of the schools to prepare students for their careers. You think your current job is safe from change? It isn’t, as evidenced by this incredibly terrifying Youtube video aptly named Humans Need Not Apply. We must adapt, and we must adapt now.

Admittedly, I am neither a school teacher, nor a public policy maker, but working at IBM has granted me a very unique vantage point.

Global connectivity, smart machines, and new media are just some of the drivers reshaping how we think about work, what constitutes work, and the skills we will need to be productive contributors in the future. Many believe that our schools are not prepared to teach the key skills needed in the future workforce. Inter-disciplinary skills like sense making, social intelligence, novel and adaptive thinking, computational thinking, cognitive and load management, cross cultural competencies…how often do you see this in the classroom? Do our teachers have the support, tools and training to incorporate these in the classes? Does the culture of the school allow for teachers to be able to pivot themselves to support this kind of content?

Part of my challenge since joining IBM is trying to find ways in which we can engage people to contribute to positive change and help convene and catalyze folks in education to be part of the broader civic community in tackling some of our biggest challenges.
Big data, analytics, and cognitive technology allow us to tackle big problems in new ways. But there are also cultural innovations too that more schools could possibly take advantage of. As we think about how we best prepare our students for the new workplace, I would like to propose that we consider these three Big Ideas in which we can engage students, enable teachers and harness a new culture of empowerment within schools.


Idea 1: Cross-Disciplinary Entrepreneurship Focus

In Dan Pink’s book “Drive”, he wrote that the knowledge worker of today is motivated by a sense of self-direction based on three major tenets: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.  I personally have seen this not only in workers across industry, but also in students who have not joined the workforce as yet. Developing programs within a school, that allow for this sense of self direction, is a key mechanism to inspire students. AppLabs, MakerSpaces, project-based classes, where students come up with a business plan, rotating leadership models where students try on different hats to get the project completed… This hits on all three factors of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. It gives students a sense of ownership, of entrepreneurship. And this kind of project based work is absolutely cross-disciplinary– the marketing, the coding, the design, the business knowledge, the mastery of the content– all are integrated components to make a successful application.  We are currently incubating schools that have dedicated their entire fabric to this hybrid model. These are called P-Tech schools, learn more in this video on P-Tech schools.

We have also seen schools with very different business models pop up in countries
like France, as evidenced by Ecole 42. This French tech school for adults has no teachers, no books, no tuition yet is so successful, it has now opened a second campus in Silicon Valley with the same model. There are no teachers, there are only mentors. Their premise: When students graduate and become successful they will turn around and give back to the school.

This thought of giving back is key. I believe more and more schools that embrace an entrepreneurial project based approach to schooling should reach out to alums of the program and ask them to mentor current student cohorts. This is a form of community service that would effectively help to interweave the school more strongly into the community by directly helping all parties.


Idea 2:  New Business Models and Partnerships

Many schools are adapting their business models to embrace industry partnerships by incorporating free tooling and enablement from industry as well as the sponsorship of themed projects.  Although this does not completely free up schools from pursuing grant funding, it gives schools a direct line of sight into industry capabilities.  Companies like IBM provide free access to cloud services like Watson to schools that are members of our Academic Initiative (also a free program).  Imagine Maker Space Labs and AppLabs stocked with tools like Watson IOT, Image Recognition, Translation Services, Personality Insights, Weather data— a HUGE toolbox for innovative minds to play with.  Imagine making these MakerSpace Labs mobile with the help of organizations like NCRIOT so you can go to schools that may not have resources. Now imagine industries sponsoring projects at these schools mining for innovative ideas.

Efforts to incubate new programs and partnerships across schools is not unique to one geography. There is a national effort that requires collaboration and sharing of best practices. At the Federal level you have individuals like Col. Russell Shilling, formerly the head of serious games at DARPA and now at the US Dept of Education, leading the charge to change the face of how public policy can affect innovation in schools.  You have superintendents at different districts that need air-cover as they bravely try out new pilot programs. No one should feel like they are doing any of this alone. Join forces!


Idea 3: Digital Engagement and Enablement

My role at IBM is focused on helping developers create applications that actually get users to think differently and adopt new behaviors. My background is in Games, as in video games. Games can be incredibly powerful instruments of change. Did you know that IBM was ranked by Fast Company as being one of the top 10 companies in the Games industry because of our work in Serious Games? Did you know that IBM has designed games that made the list of the top 10 most impactful serious games in history? Games can be used to help recruit, engage employees, retain customers, solve complex problems, teach people, treat PTSD, treat depression in teens, get people to think beyond their bias, get people to completely alter what they do everyday. I have seen games in action! Did you know that the average age of the gamer is 35 years old? There are so many design principals in games that can be used to help engage users. I practice and teach Engaging Motivational Design. Working here at IBM has afforded me countless opportunities to work with some of the most inspiring customers trying to use innovative ways of motivating people.  These customers come from every industry, healthcare, defense, public safety, insurance, and yes, education.  Just this month we have hosted multiple county and city government organizations in the state of NC alone seeking ways of engaging citizens through playful design of apps.

I LOVE helping teachers and schools. Last year at the big InterConnect conference in Vegas, I got up on mainstage with David Conover, a high school teacher at Connally High School – a school for disadvantaged teens. After he described what working in a disadvantaged high school was like, we talked about the transformation that happened in his class when we began to integrate cognitive computing and videgames. We talked about how IBM’s RTP team (thank you Joseph Kozhaya, Srinivas Cheemalapati, and Kyle Brown)  created a recipe for his students to follow such that they could take their medically re-skinned version of their Minecraft game instance and integrate the whole experience with Watson.  These kids regularly Skyped with us, NASA, and the CDC, showing us the progress of their projects!  More on the Minecraft story here.  There is a young woman in his class that really struck me with her passion for using games to help cure veterans with PTSD, just like her father. She knew all the research in the Games for Health space that I did. This project certainly was a wonderful catalyst to not only introduce kids to cognitive computing but to also inspire them in new ways that we could not have guessed at. THIS year, his class is 100% focused on games for health. Games that help remind patients when to take their medicine, games that help patients better manage stress with ‘cognitive music therapy’, etc. New podcast on this class coming out soon- stay tuned.

Frankly, David took a risk with his school piloting a game design class and working with us. His outside the box thinking could have been seen as strange and threatening- Just consider what a substitute teacher would have thought coming into that class cold.   Embracing a culture of entrepreneurship, industry partnership, project based curriculum requires a culture change in the very fabric of how the school measures success of its students and teachers.  It may require changes in common processes. Again, there is an opportunity to reach across divides to share best practices and learn from each others mistakes to get this mix and messaging to the community properly.

Digital enablement has never been more important. Tools like Khan Academy are rising in popularity as are teacher platforms like Blackboard and Remind Me apps. With the advent of Cognitive computing there are now ways of being able to curate custom learning pathways for students so that the kinds of apps, the level of difficulty, the nature of the content and how its presented is automatically presented to the student based on their level of proficiency and preferences. This is precisely the kind of work IBM is doing with Sesame Street.  But we must never ever be so arrogant as to think that if we just throw technology at the problem that it will get resolved. How many teachers have SmartBoards in their classes but use it exactly like a chalk board? Everything boils down to curating a meaningful experience and ensuring that the teacher understands and is part of the solution.  It is also critical to ensure that we all have access to these tools and the enablement of meaningful experiences.

Change is also happening at the national level to address the digital divide.

The Obama administration has set up something called ConnectED, where their goal is that 99 percent of classrooms have access to high-speed wireless. And the way they’ve done that, in part, is through federal spending, but what they’ve also done is they’ve partnered with an array of companies.  Private industries have stepped up! One of the great tricks to all this is making sure that whatever government is doing for schools is then supplemented with and enhanced by a private sector and non-profit sector that are ready to step up.

70 percent of homework assignments by one measure, given by teachers, require some Internet access.  So it’s one thing to wire classrooms; the problem is homes.  The White House has set up something called Opportunity Networks that are going to go into public housing, rural communities, low-income communities to make sure that access is available precisely so those young people can do the work.

In conclusion- if we can re-conceive our schools so that the interactions and the interplay between private sector, nonprofits, and schools are opened up, and we then use technology, data, and social media in order to join forces around problems, there’s no problem that we face in this country that is not soluble!

On Oct 19 – 20, Phaedra Boinodiris will be the plenary keynote for the World View Symposium at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Register for the World View Symposium, today!


Phaedra Boinodiris is IBM’s global lead for serious games and gamification at IBM and is based out of RTP.
Since the start of her career at IBM she has incubated a game development ecosystem on IBM’s cloud, and IBM’s first serious games practice solving complex problems across industry. She is also the author of Serious Games for Business, published in 2014 by Megan-Kiffer press. Boinodiris’ earlier work in serious games are being used in over 1000 schools worldwide to teach students the fundamentals of business optimization. Boinodiris was honored by Women in Games International as one of the top 100 women in the games industry. Prior to working at IBM, she was a serial entrepreneur for 14 years where she co-founded WomenGamers.Com, a popular women’s gaming portal. There she subsequently started the first scholarship for women to pursue degrees in game design and development in the US. In November of 2015, Boinodiris was elected as a member of IBM’s Academy of Technology and has 6 patents in the gaming space. Boinodiris happily mentors business school students at her alma-mater UNC-Chapel Hill where she is also UNC’s 2016 Social Entrepreneur in Residence.

4 comments on"Out-thinking old-school: A vision on engaging the educational community"

  1. Phaedra Boinodiris October 12, 2016

    The podcast featuring David’s classroom on Cognitive Games for Health:

  2. I’m very excited o discover your work, and pleased to learn that IBM still recognizes the need to continue its leadership in using technology to augment and amplify learning. I am part of an informal network of retired or former IBMers who remain active in support of technology-enriched learning environments. Two examples… Global Education Motivators and New Horizons for Learning . I’d be happy to discuss this further and could gather several colleagues to meet informally sometime when you are in the DC area, perhaps set up a “hangout” group meeting.

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