A Moment of Transformation

November 19, 2020
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As edtech giants accelerate integrations and partnerships, the learning continues.

New integrations between SMART Technologies, Google, Microsoft, ClassLink and Canvas “are designed to help educators simplify all the toggling back and forth between technologies and instead focus on inspiring and encouraging our learners in such uncertain times,” says Nicholas Svensson, CEO of SMART Technologies.

Since he joined SMART in 2009, Nicholas has led cross-functional teams consisting of engineers, technologists and scientists to develop and launch numerous SMART products, and they’ve integrated much in the past.

SMART, of course, is a leading classroom technology company, providing interactive solutions for students and teachers, a consistent innovator for more than 25 years, and inventor of the SMART Board® and the developer of SMART Notebook®, arguably the world’s most popular collaborative learning software, and part of the SMART Learning Suite.

‘…despite the challenges, as we talk to educators across the world, we are inspired by the creativity and determination coming to light.’

With their full range of interconnected displays, software, and accessories, used in more than 3 million classrooms, SMART aspires to help students and teachers around the world achieve better learning outcomes and is now accelerating their integration efforts.

Nicholas, with a career in technology spanning over 30 years, has gained valuable experience during his tenure at various companies, including leading telecom and space hardware providers. He holds a BSc in Applied Physics from the University of Waterloo and an MSc in System Design and Management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In this informative interview, Nicholas (pictured) describes education’s current state, expounds on the integrations, talks broadband access, comments on student privacy, and envisions what lies ahead.

From your view, what is the current state of education?

Nicholas: The pandemic has forced fast and unfamiliar changes to the way we teach and learn today. Last semester, an Education Week survey found that 77% of teachers believed their students’ level of engagement declined when they switched to remote learning. A majority of teachers reported that the morale of both students and teachers had declined. Tens of thousands of schools around the world are starting out this new school year remote — or in a hybrid format — where many teachers are using new technologies for the first time, and are trying to juggle making the most of each instructional moment while also tending to the very real social emotional needs facing our students. Yet, despite the challenges, as we talk to educators across the world, we are inspired by the creativity and determination coming to light. So many educators have embraced the opportunity to reimagine their practice, and to pursue strategies that help develop students’ sense of agency and ownership over their learning, which will serve them well in the years to come. In this environment, educators need support in creating joyful learning experiences, and they need tools that make that task simpler and richer, not more complicated. That’s our focus going into this school year.

A number of edtech giants are teaming up to better integrate their technologies, to streamline remote teaching and learning. Could you provide some explanation, what’s it mean, where is this all headed?

Teachers and students need simplicity. Important class time can be too easily wasted trying to log in to accounts or toggle between video conferencing and learning software. We believe it is technology providers’ responsibility to make that process as seamless as possible for educators and students and to have as many tools within one application. We’ve always strived to make technology invisible in the classroom and we have been working with leaders like Google, Canvas, ClassLink and Microsoft to do all we can to ensure integration, and to create a more uniform learning environment. Teachers need the technologies they’ve come to rely on so their virtual or in person lessons can flow seamlessly. I believe that will be a bright spot of progress from this moment — the pandemic has accelerated the urgency around better integrations and partnerships among education technology providers.

What is your company in particular doing specifically as part of this team-up? And how about your separate efforts, what is happening there?

What we’ve done is take what makes our SMART Learning Suite Online so powerful for teachers and students — the rich learning activities and games, embedded formative assessment, collaboration tools, features that help teachers guide and pace learning — and enable teachers to unlock all of those features from directly within the broader platforms they are using to teach and organize their classroom: Teams, G Suite, ClassLink, and Canvas. If your lecture on fractions is on Google Slides, for example, you can now layer on a quick interactive quiz or game using SMART’s software without pausing the slide presentation. Teachers don’t lose time or students’ attention in switching away from Slides to bring up an interactive SMART Learning Suite activity, and then switching back.

As for the new SMART features we’ve built over the summer, we’re pretty excited about the instructional audio tool, which allows teachers to add their voice narrative or instructions to a lesson page, giving an extra measure of personalization and familiarity to digital content. Especially for students engaged in long days of virtual learning at home, hearing their teacher’s voice narrate an instructional point — or even just say hello! — can provide a sense of normalcy, and support engagement.

In light of remote learning, what are your thoughts on broadband access?

Even the most thoughtfully engineered remote learning plan can only be effective if students have access in the first place. The pandemic has exposed disparities that, sadly, have long existed across both our cities and rural communities. In a forthcoming survey of teachers that we’ll be releasing, less than half of respondents said their school supplies devices to all students or provides connectivity options for students without suitable home broadband access. School systems are undertaking heroic efforts to bridge these divides. SMART also provides engineering staff onsite to help ensure the full potential of wireless access can be realized wherever possible.

‘Even the most thoughtfully engineered remote learning plan can only be effective if students have access in the first place.’

One of our partners, Florence 1 School District in South Carolina, for example, told us recently that they’ve parked buses with Wi-Fi hotspots outside students’ homes in neighborhoods where they know connectivity is low. Part of the reason we’ve invested in SLS Online is to enable students to use whatever device they have to access content, and to reduce the need for teachers to always be at their SMART Board to lead interactive lessons — but clearly gaps remain in basic device access and connectivity.

What sort of privacy concerns are there—student privacy—with remote learning?

Over the last five years, we’ve seen very thoughtful and intentional efforts by policymakers, district leaders, and technology companies to ensure privacy and security are top priorities. The immediacy of the pandemic, of course, has shined a spotlight on the importance of the efforts in ensuring students’ privacy and well-being. Privacy should not be an afterthought — it should be one of the defining factors as districts determine the best technologies to support their remote learning. As a global technology provider, privacy has been embedded in the design of our software and integrations so schools, teachers and parents can focus on learning rather than checking to ensure their data is secure.

Student engagement in past years was an issue, now even more so. Could you address this, and the notion of student engagement being especially challenging with a student who does better in an in-person classroom setting — versus a more independent, self-motivated student who might naturally do better in a remote or blended setting? How will that first type of student be helped as well?

Over the last 30 years, we’ve observed that some of the greatest levers for creating deeper engagement are peer collaboration, students’ ability to learn through the exploration of their interests, and the integration of the outside world to contextualize learning.   The perennial challenge for educators has been to create learning environments that engage all students– incorporating the unique abilities, interests, and backgrounds of each learner.

Even pre-pandemic, we’ve seen that well-designed, thoughtfully integrated technology can help educators deepen student engagement by making it easier to serve up content and activities tailored to their interests and abilities or pair students up together to collaborate.

I think the best antidote to the disruptiveness of the present moment is to make tools available that help teachers not only replicate the physical classroom experience but also expand the possibilities of learning because of the access technology allows.

We’re seeing educators use technology to replicate the real-time back-and-forth — whether through virtual polling, video dialogue, and breakout one-on-one time with students—which is especially important to the students you refer to that do best in-person. Teachers are also creating collaborative workspaces to encourage smaller group interactions, just like in the classroom. It’s been really impressive to see how teachers are pulling together a wide range of resources and content to create an exciting virtual classroom experience, even in spite of all the challenges.

What sort of talks, discussions, development went on in the background before this SMART-Google-Microsoft-Canvas announcement? Who put heads-together, what sort of intense talks took place, were educators involved? Paint a picture of how this rolled out.

Our customers are usually the catalyst for our product ideas and our development roadmap. Teachers and leaders in education are passionate users and will consistently provide ideas and feedback based on what is needed for optimum lesson development and delivery. We have a global community of almost 2,000 educators and exemplary schools around the world who regularly provide input, ideas and feedback on requirements to make learning more effective. For the last 30 years, they’ve never been wrong!

Even pre-pandemic, integrating our hardware and software with the tools that are being used in the classroom has been an ongoing priority. Prior to becoming CEO, I spent many years leading the engineering, operations and development teams at SMART and our software design and integration team is one of the best. Working with partners like Microsoft, Canvas and Google is not new to SMART, in fact, we have been working on various software developments for almost ten years. In the midst of the pandemic, though, we heard loud and clear that multiple sign-ins and toggling across platforms was a major pain point for educators for this upcoming semester –which catapulted us into action with our other technology partners.

In your view, where are we headed in the short term – the next few months – and also, longer term into 2021? Dare to share any thoughts?

We’re orienting our company priorities around the aspirations and pain points of teachers — and we’ll continue to be responsive to their needs so we do our part to ensure learning continues in this unprecedented time. We have a lot of new exciting developments on the horizon addressing the specific needs of teachers, students and parents. We’re adding to our robust software family in 2021 with new features, content and time-saving tools we believe teachers will love. We also have new immersive games available for students and parents at home to help broaden skills and demonstrate mastery in a fun, engaging and creative environment. These new launches are directly related to helping teachers and leaders adopt and use classroom software tools seamlessly to deliver the most engaging, collaborative learning experiences that are inherently SMART.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize, something you wanted to highlight that we didn’t get to yet?

It’s easy—and at times, important—to focus on the challenges of this incredibly tough moment in our world’s history. But, I consider myself an optimist. So, I’ll end with the point that I’m really inspired by how so many school leaders and educators have embraced this as a moment of transformation. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes. We’ve heard time and time again, “we aren’t going back to the old way of doing things.” And, ultimately, I believe that’s going to be a better long-term outcome for our learners.

About ClassLink

ClassLink is a leading provider of cloud-based education products that connect educators and students with their classroom, their curriculum, and each other in richer, more powerful ways. As leading advocates for open data standards, we offer instant access to apps and files with single sign-on, streamline class rostering, automate account provisioning, and provide actionable analytics. ClassLink empowers 10 million students and staff in over 1,200 school systems.

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