Superintendent of Schools – Last week I spent about 48 hours in California’s Silicon Valley with 150-200 leaders from school divisions across Canada. The event was a leadership forum organized by IBM Canada’s K-12 division. They hold this event every two years and the focus is on emerging technologies that are believed to impact education. This was the first time I attended this event and the theme was around artificial or augmented intelligence (AI). I must say while the sessions were very interesting, I’m not sure of the imminent impact on schools, but I saw the impact on all our lives.

Being IBM, there was plenty of talk about Watson. For most of us, Watson was the computer that won Jeopardy back in 2011, but that technology has improved drastically since then. As computing power, connectivity and bandwidth have improved, so has the relevance of AI. New algorithms have been created to support experiential learning of systems based on experience. The field has grown through concepts like machine learning, deep learning, reinforcement learning and neural networks. Learning about how companies are using these technologies to make a positive difference in the world was very inspiring. We met 14 year old Canadian Tanmay Bakshi who fell in love with computers at five, released his first iPhone app at nine, and now at just 14 years old is working with IBM on artificial intelligence. He is a teen artificial intelligence superstar who challenges us to teach coding to all students. He shared examples of tools he built to improve the world (e.g. depression identification). He is a very impressive young man.

Part of the discussions also were about the use of technology to positively impact the world. Tanmay’s examples were just a few of how people are using AI to make a difference in the world. We also heard about a group that is supporting parent-child maker evenings across the globe as a means to broaden exposure about design thinking and the maker movement. This same group leads Technovation Challenge which invites teams of girls from all over the world to learn and apply the skills needed to solve real-world problems through technology. We met four high school students who are Technovation ambassadors from the Silicon Valley area who all participated in the global competition. Through their participation they learned to code, market, and pitch a solution for a real world challenge their community is facing. One Grade 12 student shared that she and her friends needed to pick a college, but want to know campus crime stats. These stats are not readily available, so they built an app to help expose those numbers so fellow students could make informed decisions.

We also heard from a panel of Canadians working in the sector in Silicon Valley. They are proud Canadians, but felt that for them to succeed they needed to be embedded in a culture of innovation, risk taking, and competition. They felt that Silicon Valley was the home of that culture and that in Canada people were more focused on why something could not work, rather than how to make it work. They all had early exposures to technology, but I was pleasantly surprised when each talked about the importance of competencies such as grit, creativity and communication. We also heard about how AI is being used to address human resources (or talent management) challenges in an effort to best place and support people in roles they can be successful in.

Lastly, we heard about Amazon’s innovation culture via a VP of Web Services. She shared various strategies used by the company in an effort to provide excellent customer experiences. She shared insights into their culture which helped me understand how Amazon can be so nimble and innovative. Their “two pizza” teams – any team working on a product or innovation should be small enough to be fed by two pizzas – and use of design thinking protocols all are examples of how they continue to build a culture where innovation and informed risk taking is delivering countless innovations, including Amazon’s Go store, which is a check-out free, no cashier store in Seattle.

It was a whirlwind trip, but good professional learning for me.


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