‘Covid-19 has caused a seismic shift in the education and training sector’

8 Dec 2020

Nessa McEniff. Image: Paul Sharp/Sharppix

Learnovate’s Nessa McEniff discusses her background in edtech, the accelerated demand for online learning, and the issue of equity in education.

Nessa McEniff is director of the Learnovate Centre, based at Trinity College Dublin, which is a research and innovation centre focused on learning technologies. The industry-led centre is funded by Enterprise Ireland and helps companies transform employee, student and customer learning experiences.

McEniff joined Learnovate in March 2020 from Touch Press Inc, where she was chief operations officer. She has also worked for Independent News & Media, Digital Skills Academy and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

‘There is room for everyone in the workforce but many are not successfully getting through the education system or the standard recruitment processes’

Describe your role and what you do.

As director of the Learnovate Centre at Trinity College Dublin, I lead a team of really smart people who are committed and passionate about leading innovation in online learning. We work with our members to identify what are the latest trends and how that translates into what we need to research to support their product development roadmap.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I have four children and this forces me to be organised. Every day is different, so I don’t have a strict routine that I follow – it depends on my work schedule.

Working from home has given me back about three hours every day that I used to spend commuting, which is the upside of this awful virus. Since we moved to remote working, the team at Learnovate do lots of things to keep it interesting at work, including having a weekly fun challenge. So far this has ranged from making origami animals, to completing a Rubik’s cube, to flipping a pancake and mastering a yoga pose.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The biggest challenge we face is the knock-on effect from the Covid-19 pandemic on SMEs, especially as the demand for remote working and learning has put extra pressure on the delivery of online learning solutions.

We are tackling this through increased focus in R&D and by supporting SMEs to deliver solutions to address the accelerated transition the online learning space is going through. One example of the assistance we are providing included the delivery of a webinar to Enterprise Ireland and Local Enterprise Office clients, which was attended by more than 550 Irish SMEs.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

There has been a massive industry-wide transformation of the training and education sector as a result of Covid-19. A seismic shift has occurred.

We are now capitalising on the research that we have been doing in this sector. There has been a renewed interest from external organisations in the prototypes and technologies we have developed and how they can utilise them.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I didn’t choose my career, it chose me. I originally completed my degree in environmental science, where my interest lay. But there were no jobs at the time, so I did an intense one-year IT conversion course at DCU in 1996 – it was the first year of these conversion courses which were designed to get more people into the IT sector.

I was sent out into the workplace as a coder and since then, apart from a role at Independent News & Media, I have only ever worked in the edtech sector.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Failure is one of the best learning experiences you can have. I disagree with the perception of failures or mistakes as something negative. People should be given the space to make mistakes; they propel you forward.

An organisation cannot encourage a mindset of innovation and R&D unless they accept that mistakes will occur and that they contain valuable learnings. What is important is to fail early and learn, so you are agile and can iterate quickly.

How do you get the best out of your team?

In my experience, to get the best out of a team, you have to get the right balance between autonomy and support. You don’t want to micromanage your team but you cannot disengage from them either – you have to be there in the background to have dialogue and give support.

Every individual team member has a different need, but they should have a voice, feel they are being heard and believe that they are an essential part of the team.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

There are diversity issues in every sector. I have been really fortunate in my career – I was in a women in leadership programme 15 years ago before it was as common as it is now and I have always believed the more diversity the better.

It’s slow progress, but diversity is not all about gender, race or sexual orientation. We cannot address inclusivity without first addressing equity in education. There is socio-economic inequality, which has been exasperated since the pandemic struck, and inequality in how we teach and assess according to learning differences and styles.

There is room for everyone in the workforce but many are not successfully getting through the education system or the standard recruitment processes, so there are a lot of people with great ability out there that just don’t get the same opportunities.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

I’ve been really lucky in that I have had several mentors – and I have been a mentor to others, on both official workplace programmes and also as a colleague or manager.

I have one particular person who I used to work for quite a few years ago who is my go-to person for advice. I consider her my mentor, whether she realises it or not!

What books have you read that you would recommend? 

Aidan McCullen, who recently spoke at our Learnovation conference, recommended Loonshots by Safi Bahcall. If you are in any way interested in the innovation process and associated obstacles, I would recommend it.

I recently read Reboot by Jerry Colonna. It is about leadership, which is a subject that nobody can know enough about and is a continuous learning journey.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Email, Zoom and my list of priorities. I am a bit of an obsessive list maker.

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