Social motivations, COVID-19, and developing educational technologies that address student needs in a mindful and inclusive way.
COVID-19 hasn’t done many favours for the education landscape in Canada this year. ICTC’s ongoing research series continues to identify challenges for both educators and administrations that impact schools at the K-12 and post-secondary level. Ranging from in-class learning, the deployment of hybridized learning models, to those that are completely digital, environments for learning vary tremendously from one province to the next. Challenges varying from educator training, to student retention and even connectivity are numerous. Likewise, the service delivery models for the educational technologies themselves have been forced to adapt and respond to shifting demands, and some organizations have adopted Churchill’s philosophy by “never [letting] a good crisis go to waste.” In this conversation ICTC’s Nathan Snider sits down with Pathway to Education’s Jason Shim (Director of Digital Strategy and Transformation) and Brock Warner (Innovation Partnerships) to chat about education in Canada. This discussion about their award winning Canadian not-for-profit takes a deep-dive into the unique ways that Pathways has adapted to the pandemic and what new technologies, partnerships and opportunities these challenges have fostered.
Nathan: Can we kick things off by learning a little bit more about Pathways to Education and the Learning Lab?
Jason Shim: My name is Jason Shim and I’m the Director of Digital Strategy and Transformation. I head up innovation and technology for Pathways. We’re an organization that helps youth in low-income communities to graduate from high school and reach their full potential. With our Learning Lab, we’re looking to find ways to bring more innovation to the work that we do. Innovation is a buzzword these days, but the basic premise is that when new technologies come out, it can sometimes take years to reach the non-profit space or social purpose organizations. With our Lab, we’re scoping out the future that we want, matching it to emerging technologies, then building the capacity to help connect the dots. For instance, when a new technology comes out, we take a look at the documentation and integrate or test it quickly to assess how it might be used to help serve the needs of Pathways students across the country.
Nathan: So, you’re handling this technology delay by developing the tools you want independently, while keeping costs low and manageable?
Jason: Yeah, I would even take it one step further where I think that there are some use-cases that are very specific to the non-profit space that may or may not get built around a business model. We, as a non-profit, have a very unique kind of opportunity. Something like interpersonal communications — text messaging as an example — comes to mind. Much of that software is predicated on a commercial model where if you’re using text messaging to advertise to folks, you know there’s some sort of ROI when sending out a text message. For us, the bigger question becomes, what does that ROI look like when we’re sending a text message to remind a student to attend class? If we’re able to look at different business models, we have better scalability because we have lower costs to access these technologies and we don’t have to use a third party just because we want certain capabilities. I think we’re really shifting what a non-profit is typically thought to be capable of doing. We build the software and tech tools ourselves, so we have the capacity to build for the future independently.
Nathan: In light of these developments, do you consider yourselves an educational organization or are you developing now, by necessity, into an EdTech company? Or do you think that you land somewhere in the middle?
Brock: I’ll say that there’s a culture and a mindset similar to that of an Ed-Tech start-up, growing from within the organization. Pathways will always be focused on helping youth in low-income communities graduate from high school and achieve their full potential, that mission is never going to change. But there’s a lot of space and willingness to try new things to achieve that mission, and technology has a role to play every step of the way. 2020 brought technical and digital innovation to the forefront and has moved us at a much faster rate than Jason or I had expected. Twilio’s “Digital Engagement Report” estimates that in the for-profit sector, digital innovation and strategy has been accelerated by about six years due to the pandemic. Although the non-profit sector may not be at that level, Pathways is certainly well positioned for acceleration due to the internal skills we have. We do run into obstacles along this path though because there are many common assumptions about how charities can, and should, operate. At Pathways, there isn’t really an interest to simply accept the products that are currently available — which may or may not be suited to our needs — or even to accept the status quo.
Jason: Where we see ourselves along the spectrum of education or Ed-Tech is that, to be honest, there’s not much of a distinction. For us to serve students into the future, we need to be digital. It’s like when people talk about digital marketing and marketing. Moving into the future, all marketing is digital marketing. If we look ahead to education, not to say that all education is digital, but based on what we’ve seen this year, a lot of students have encountered a hybrid type of educational experience. I think that from our outlook, it’s really about posing the question: “What do we need to do or build in order to ensure Pathways students overcome the educational barriers they face?”
Nathan: Great point. There’s a conversation, especially now in light of COVID-19, that’s highlighting Canada’s deepening digital divide. Considering that your organization caters to youth living in low-income communities, do you feel like a focus on the technology might unintentionally leave that same population unaddressed or underserved?
Jason: I think that the way we approach our design efforts reflects issues related to the digital divide. We’re mindful of things like connectivity challenges. We’re taking into consideration feedback that’s shared during the research process when we sit down and have weekly discussions with staff and students. So we’re close to the people who are using the things that we’re building and getting immediate feedback on if it’s working or not. We’re also talking specifically about connectivity challenges and what that service might look like. One of the requests that we received early on was a simple way to text students en-masse. It seems like a simple request that you feel could have been addressed or solved in some easy way, but there are so many other layers to it in terms of why it’s not as simple as it looks. Things like cost, accessibility, and the sustainability of existing solutions. We’re taking a very student-centered approach in the development of our projects and that’s something that we’re seeing some of the early results from. It’s promising.
Nathan: I really appreciate this conversation for a variety of reasons, but I love that we’ve begun by discussing your motivations, and that we haven’t touched on the technology or the tools themselves yet. So, let’s dive into those tech pieces: where you’ve come from, what you’ve created, and where you still want to explore.
Jason: I’ll give you a timeline. I took on my role in January 2020. You can tell for someone heading up an innovation portfolio, 2020 was jumping straight into it. The expectation was that we needed to figure out how can we do things better. An analogy that I’ve used before is from the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. So how can we move faster, raise higher revenues or build stronger relationships? In January 2020, one of the projects we engaged in was sitting with students and just listening for clues around what might be challenges that we could help address right away. Early on, one of the things that was identified was access to study spaces and being able to access a space to do homework. Then we explored the notion of an online study space where we could help students match up with their peers online. These are the experimental approaches that we took and in the midst of our testing, the COVID-19 pandemic started unfolding. So, we were already setting up in-browser video testing and infrastructure and it gave us a fluency in that particular technology. We were able to build on that and within a week of lockdown being announced, we were able to set up servers and video conferencing systems directly for student usage all across the country. We saw in the analytics how students were using it, they could just pop in there and have easy, quick, in-browser conversations.
One of the other experimental projects we explored was around the concept of singing together. This was based on feedback that came from student interviews. Someone mentioned that trying to celebrate a birthday in the early stages of COVID was pretty challenging. You tend to feel isolated, and trying to sing Happy Birthday on Zoom or any sort of video conferencing software is not great. So we built up a prototype to sync-up people singing together, and what emerged from that was music teachers reaching out to say that this could have applications for other things like music classes.
We asked instructors to test it out to let us know what they thought and saw people running tests. Some were even running dance classes and synchronizing those up. One of the highlights for us though was a music professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who used it to help students synchronize their class assignments, such as singing a piece of music. This was really interesting because with this specific type of assignment, it wouldn’t have been possible previously without this particular type of technology. So we’re able to influence and unlock new forms of pedagogy that were previously not possible because of overhead costs or logistical issues. It’s magical seeing these things coming together, kind of like an experimental pilot. Another example is that we were able to partner with Tafelmusik. They usually hold an annual holiday themed sing-along for Handel’s Messiah. We happened to show them some of the technology we had, and they were interested in a pilot. They wanted to see how people could gather together and sing together en-masse.
Nathan: I want to take this conversation back to something you both touched on. I know that Pathways does a great job showcasing student success stories, particularly highlighting Indigenous youth. Based on this tool, and the topics we’re discussing about accessibility, connectivity and the experience of your users — do you feel like these tech developments are going to positively influence their experiences?
Brock: I believe that our activities are a steppingstone in helping to address the state of conditions and access in certain communities. We’re also developing tools specifically without internet connectivity, or for places without a stable internet connection and developing partnerships to help us address these unique challenges.
Jason: Our ability to remain nimble and agile is going to help us address certain challenges. One thing we’ve heard from our staff and students is their direct feedback about what works and what doesn’t. Our approach is centred around building something new, and asking for input and involvement. We’re asking questions like “Would you use this? What are your general thoughts about this tool? How could this feature make life better for you?”
Brock: Yeah, for us it’s about education of course, but it’s also recognizing that human relationships are critical in the context of education.
Nathan: Absolutely. Based on recent experiences, and in light of COVID-19, where do you think the future of education is going with this prevalence of new technologies?
Jason: I suppose I’ll start by saying, I guess we’ll find out. The specifics of where we’re going to be in five, ten years from now is impossible to predict. Technology is changing really fast. So how do we get ready for these changes so that as we can uncover new forms of pedagogy and better understand their impact and be prepared? If we’re building capacity and listening closely to students, I know we can build and adapt from that. It’s more important for us to be adaptable to what that future might bring. But underlying all of it is the importance of relationships in education. There are some things that are irreducible and that you absolutely would not automate at a human level. I think [it’s about] being able to figure out what exactly we are going to automate and what we aren’t. It’s about recognizing our agency and guiding how we use things like A.I. to inform or accelerate some of our decision making.
Nathan: I like that you incorporate the idea of breaking down the technology and drawing a line at where the human factor comes into play. Where technology is, and is not appropriate. That’s it for my questions, any last thoughts to send us on our way?
Jason: One thing that we’ve come to realize is that some of the technologies that we’re putting into the world, there may not be much precedence for. We’re building new models of collaboration. We do get an element of surprise when reaching out, as there’s an assumption that as a charity we have a limited tech or development capacity. It’s been great to change these mindsets of what a charity can be and be capable of. It’s nice being able to share with others, as a charity, that we have the ability to create something start to finish, have it implemented within two weeks and move at a lightning-fast pace which is unheard of. We’re able to see the impact of our work and partnerships and be able to attract students, gain feedback and validate our work — from end-to-end in about four weeks. It’s just been super exciting. We want to do what we can to encourage this type of innovative approach for other social purpose organizations. Anything we can share, even the small things, we want to.
Brock: All I want to add to that is just thank you. We appreciate participating and it’s nice to have the beacons out in the world that could help attract other like-minded individuals and companies. We want to be able to work together, have conversations and build connections. We want to be able to contribute to an ecosystem of innovation and technology through a non-profit lens. I would encourage anyone reading to reach out and chat with us.
About Pathways to Education: Pathways to Education is a national, charitable organization, known for applying an innovative approach to issues of poverty-reduction through education. The award-winning Pathways Program provides youth living in low-income communities with a holistic combination of academic, financial, social, and one-on-one supports — helping them to overcome barriers to high school graduation and build the foundation for a successful future.
The Pathways Learning Lab is a dedicated resource within the charity that identifies, tests, and deploys innovative technology designed to accelerate the organization’s capacity to serve more youth across the country. The Lab’s key focus areas are related to bridging Canada’s digital divide, fostering supportive relationships at scale and preparing youth for success in the future.
Brock is the author of the bestselling book “From the Ground Up: Digital Fundraising for Nonprofits” as well as a nonprofit fundraising consultant and professor in ePhilanthropy at Humber College’s Business School in Toronto, Ontario. Brock has well over a decade of experience that spans across every major nonprofit sector in Canada. As a direct marketer he managed fundraising campaigns in healthcare, education, amateur athletics, humanitarian and domestic aid, and the environment. As a senior leader on the frontlines, Brock’s efforts have largely been in international development which took him around the world, and in the field of youth mental health.
How can we harness technology to make a difference in the world? That’s the question Jason loves to explore with organizations. As Director of Digital Strategy and Transformation, Jason leads technology and innovation at Pathways to Education Canada, an organization dedicated to helping youth in low-income communities to graduate from high school and reach their full potential. With experience spanning the nonprofit and academic sectors both as an employee and a consultant, Jason has consistently helped organizations stay ahead of the technology curve. In 2013, he led Pathways to Education Canada to become one of the first charities to issue tax receipts for Bitcoin donations. Jason serves as an editor at Ledger, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal at the University of Pittsburgh that publishes full-length original research articles on the subjects of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. In addition, Jason has also serves on the board of NTEN, an organization dedicated to helping nonprofits fulfill their missions through the skillful and racially equitable use of technology.