Bridging Education, Employment and Equity With Technology

Speaking From The Heart is a candid series taking you on incredible journeys and ideas of some of the finest product leaders across the world. You can find more profiles here

In today’s episode, we have Susan Morrow who is VP of Product Management for Salesforce Education Cloud. Susan has an incredible breadth of experiences across every level in education from preschool, K-12 to higher education in the US as well as globally. She started her software career at Macromedia (later acquired by Adobe) and became their VP of Product Management. She is a serial entrepreneur, startup advisor, and visionary in education and social change. She has an MBA from Stanford University. 

You call follow her here

Early career and motivations 

I started my career founding and managing nonprofits. Eventually I went to business school because I came to believe that if we want to see change in our lifetime we need to use the strength of capital markets. I have both a passion for social change and an affection for the incredible process of developing great software products. The team efforts are surprisingly similar between community organizing and product development: values-based enthusiasm, trust and teamwork, and distributed leadership are essential. My career focus has been on activism and social change through technology because tech can provide scale, lower costs and new processes that are important for improvements in equity. 

Importance of Education

I was looking for where technology makes the biggest difference and that’s what led me to education. Education is the path to many of the things that we know are important for social justice, including economic prosperity and democracy: both are correlated with educational attainment.

The number one thing that you can do to improve your chances for financial security is to get a college degree; the wage differences are enormous otherwise.

I hope that we are finding ways to use technology that will change the whole system of education, which is why I specifically came to Salesforce. We’ve been waiting for a long time for significant improvements in outcome and affordability. This is both the time and the sector where technology can change things. 

The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on education in schools around the world, often rendering in-classroom instruction dangerous for both students and teachers. What is the opportunity here for technology beyond remote education?

The problems faced by primary and tertiary education are very different in terms of what technology can bring. Before I go there, I will just observe that one of the most painful aspects of the pandemic is that children and young adults need more than what they can be offered by remote technology. Those of us in love with the innovation of technology can make the mistake of trying to solve every problem with it. It can be really exciting but it’s honestly full of a lot of false promises. Higher education is vastly different. Since it serves the adult population, in many ways it’s about the workforce and gaining employment. 

The other thing the pandemic has pointed out is it’s one thing to get enrolled in college and another thing to be able to manage everything else going on in your life. Worldwide, university students often must support themselves and other members of their family. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on student populations who couldn’t afford to stay in school.

It raises an opportunity to think holistically about the students. You’re not going to have the best learning outcome if you’re worried about the security of your housing or how you’re going to eat. Research consistently points to food insecurity (inability to afford food to fulfill nutritional needs) as an active concern for more than a third of college students.

When you have that large of a population that is concerned with the essentials, how effective can you be with, say, a cool augmented reality approach to lab science?

Great education technology requires a mix of intentional pedagogy, really understanding how people learn, combined with an appropriate application of technology to optimize learner outcomes.

On Credentialism and Alternative Paths

One reason the effects of the pandemic haven’t been even worse in education as in many other fields is that it accelerated the product market fit for new technologies that were waiting for broader deployment. 

I’m not talking about Zoom and apps for remote learning, which have been a disaster for both K-12 and college students as you rightly mentioned. I’m talking specifically about massive open online courses as well as the huge body of instructional videos available at low or zero cost on YouTube and sites like Khan Academy. What do you think is the future of certification courses?

We need an easier path between education and employment; that’s at the heart of the popularity of MOOCs or boot camps. We also need to accept that technology availability has changed the way in which people learn. I mean, we have a whole generation of young adults who learn through YouTube. No one’s giving you a badge for YouTube, but what you can learn from YouTube alone is extraordinary.

If you’re learning something to get a job or to get a better job, you need your future employer to be able to understand that what you did makes you more qualified. A painful part of what’s happening is that bachelor’s degrees from selective and well-known institutions are merely signals. They’re not about what you’ve learned.

No employer is testing you on these subjects, no one looks at your grades or transcripts, and no one trusts what you studied in a lot of cases. All they’re doing is looking for a way to reduce the noise. “Oh well, you were good enough to get in there!” There’s a ton of very regretful cultural biases that come into that. It reduces people’s access, and it’s a disservice to how we learn and what we’re learning for employment.

For example in the United States, most students take six years to get a bachelor’s degree. Six years! And even then, 60% of students who start college don’t earn a degree, ever. In the United States, 40 million people right now have some college, but no degree, and economically, those people don’t make much more than a high school graduate. So they went to the trouble of going to school, and now they have debt and no degree. We’ve got to recognize those other paths as legitimate in terms of a signal for employment, and that is why we need a widely adopted solution to recognize alternative credentials. To make that happen, we require interoperable data standards for how we record  and share learning. 

Many of these residential programs, especially the master’s programs, are transitioning to online. How do you think some of these alternative certificates will challenge established master’s degree programs of regionally branded schools? How do you reconcile with this trend?

Well, there’s a couple of ways I think that that will happen. To put in consumer terms, there are “brands” that depend on highly selective, limited access. The growth and acceptance of online education can help remove those false restrictions to only accept a certain number of students. Better use of technology could support unlocking that access because it can help scale limited instructional resources more effectively. It’s easy to forget that there are over 4000 degree-granting institutions in just the US. The vast majority aren’t selective, and they need enrollment revenue so they are likely to adopt alternative credentialing programs. 

And while that’s exciting, here’s what they’re not changing — the cost of education. I’m passionate about this one. We got to bring down the cost of education and it’s not a particularly popular conversation within institutions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in conferences where people talk about innovation and education technology, and no one ever talks about the fact that it still costs too much. 

On your point on university becoming expensive to afford, what’s your view on the income-sharing agreement model popularised by software boot camps such as Lambda School? Do you think it can help pay for college and higher education without having to deal with the pressures of student loan debt? What kinds of models create long-term improvements?

I’m excited to see the experimentation, but I still feel very cautious for the students. Right now in the United States, we’re at a couple of trillion dollars of student loan debt. Psychologically, there’s something that happens when you borrow money as a young adult for a future that is far off. It’s very hard to  imagine what it will mean to pay a couple of $100 a month for the next 30 years. So, I’m not so sure about how meaningful the difference is between  “Oh well, you don’t have to take out a loan!” and “You don’t have to pay until you get a job”, because you still have to pay, and you pay a lot. This is an area of cognition humans don’t process well. It’s harder to understand and weigh the cost of future risk and future debt.

In terms of different models, I was fortunate to work with some incredibly innovative social entrepreneurs on a mobile higher education system for Africa and developing countries. More high school honors students graduate every year in the continent of Africa than there are total seats in their universities. You have so many young people that have nowhere to go, and it is not realistic to build campuses for that many people. Tech for scale, quality learning outcomes and affordability is required, and we should be thinking on a global scale because it will help us think differently about the problems and the solutions.

Salesforce’s investment in education is well-known in terms of philanthropy and technology developed for social impact. Tell me more about behind the scenes in terms of the ideas you’re experimenting with addressing these issues. 

Salesforce is a company full of people who are ready for change and are incredibly compassionate! You’re right that Salesforce has a huge philanthropic focus around education and sustainable development goals. 

What I’m interested in is taking the enormous intellectual assets of Salesforce, which are its people and platforms, and finding how we could use it to make a difference. For example, we just released a product for admissions called Admissions Connect. At the heart of that is software that supports a pattern where a large number of applications need to be evaluated and sorted, which happens not just in education but also in applications for work, financial and health services. Well, that pattern is a land of unconscious bias. Imagine using technology intentionally to surface unconscious bias to better support users’ intentions for more equitable decisions. We have the opportunity to consider those possibilities. Salesforce – the company and its individual employees – is highly motivated toward values-based actions, providing an extraordinary foundation for those of us who are interested in using technology to improve social equity. I’m excited about what we can do together here with our customers and community.

On Learnings

Working in learning technology for preschoolers at LeapFrog and Reading Rainbow, one of the best things I learned was about the ways to not use technology.

When interactive books first appeared on tablets, companies were taking books and adding in all of the cool things you could do, almost a cinematographer’s view on a children’s book. So the pages would flip and spin, make noise, have endless interactivity: it was “gamifying” reading. Many of those early interactive books were mesmerizing – I loved the artistry. But guess what, when you’re learning how to read, it’s about the story. Children’s books, in particular, are full of beautiful writing that shouldn’t be disturbed with a lot of activity. It distracts from the reading.

So we found a lot of success in Reading Rainbow through restraint in sound and interactivity, keeping the focus on the story.

On what makes a Product Manager Great

Mission makes a difference: why are you in a company and why does your work matter, and this is about a deep understanding of who you serve and what is important to them. This idea of service is inextricably tied to great product development. You are of service to your customer, you are of service to your teammates and your colleagues. I’ve found that the best Product Managers have service as their driving force. 

Recommendations

Teresa Torres has a series called Product Talk. She’s amazing, extremely prolific, thoughtful, and has a huge body of content on her site that I’ve learned a lot from.

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