McGraw-Hill Education Exec: Today's Digital Tools Are Key To Tomorrow's Technologists

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Stephen Laster is the chief digital officer of McGraw-Hill Education, a company that develops adaptive learning solutions for students and teachers around the globe. Since he joined McGraw-Hill in 2012, he has been pushing forward digital education tools for the traditionally print textbook company. Laster spoke with CRN's Sarah Kuranda about the intersection of technology and education and what can be done to ensure a robust next generation of technologists.

CRN: Why do you do you think it's important to have technology-based elements as part of the education process?

Laster: To me it's pretty straightforward. … I firmly believe that we're at an important moment in time for K-12 and higher education where the way we deliver education really has to fundamentally change and has fundamentally changed. So what do I mean by that? If we look at K-12 education, we know that students are not arriving at college ready to be in college. We also know that more and more schools are dealing with children who have a wide variety of learning needs and are taxing our schools' ability to give them the attention they want. So we know that as a country, as an economy, selfishly if you really want GDP to grow, which I think is good for all of us, if we really want all boats to rise with the tide, now more than ever we need an incredibly well-educated workforce. I think those are things that are pretty much universally agreed upon.

One way to do that would be to double the number of teachers in every classroom, but we can't afford that. ... So the question is: How do you provide differentiated and personalized and adapted instruction so that you allow the student to really take productive ownership of their learning, so you free up the teacher or faculty member to intelligently spend time with those students who are maybe missing a point or just need help on a topic? The only way you're really going to do that is by harnessing well-thought-out technology-driven educational solutions.

We believe teachers will always be essential to learning and instruction, but what we're trying to do is introduce technology into the learning experience to make it more effective, to make it more efficient and to drive better outcomes. And without technology, I'm just not sure how we're going to do it.

CRN: Do you think schools are preparing students at all levels for a career in the technology industry?

Laster: I think being part of an IT organization is very different from being part of a technology-driven product development organization. I think we need people to do both.

Having been a CIO at one point in my career, I don't think we do a great job of training people how to be in an IT organization. Because IT is about, obviously, being a smart person and understanding technology, but most of IT is about change management, really about communication, really about problem-solving, project and program management, making important decisions in uncertainty and doing all of that with a deep enough understanding so that you can forecast the issues and complexities of the technologies that are doing all of that. I think we could use more people who are that well rounded.

CRN: Where is education getting it right and where is it missing the boat?

Laster: I think a lot of these skills are actually learned through apprenticing and on the job, to be honest with you. I think having curriculum focused on having those skills is helpful but not sufficient.

I think what we need to do is really get our young people excited about why a career in IT is a good career and get them into it early and mentor them through it. But here again, here's where technology-enabled learning can help because you can imagine people doing co-ops and work studies and taking online courses at the same time. It's a very powerful model and we're seeing that in some areas.

CRN: Do you think it's important in education to teach business classes alongside technology or other STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] skills?

Laster: Oh, definitely. The converse is also true. I would be uncomfortable having somebody who says I just have a business education and actually never having created a program or written a line of software set up a network. The most powerful grooming combination is people who can live in both worlds and, to me, I think that's super important.

CRN: Going forward, if we want a more educated workforce and more competitive economy, what sort of steps in education should we be taking?

Laster: Well, obviously, if we really want to drive an educated workforce, embracing anywhere and any kind of learning is helpful. Creating people who, as they move through the primary and higher-ed experiences, are building an understanding of a lifetime love of learning. It's not just college and done or high school and done. I think those are two things that are important to do.


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