Digital education today means digital workforce of tomorrow

27 Sep 2011

Executive VP, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fiona O'Carroll

One of the world’s biggest digital education providers has its global R&D headquarters in Dublin. Heading up Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s innovation operations, Fiona O’Carroll says the Irish education system needs to become a leader in the use of digital technology.

At an R&D operation in the centre of Dublin, hundreds of skilled educators and technologists are busy creating the apps and content that will be used by some of the most advanced education systems in the world, from California to Singapore. The irony is Ireland has yet to embark on a plan to make use of such 21st-century tools.

Global education publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) is spearheading a €350m R&D strategy from Dublin and is on course to generate 450 jobs.

Fiona O’Carroll, executive vice-president at HMH and general manager of new ventures and innovation at the company, says that in Dublin HMH is focusing its efforts on 16,000 school districts across the US and sees technologies like the iPad and Android devices being critical to future learning.

She says Ireland too needs to start looking at these tools to revolutionise the education system and empower and equip the next generation of Irish workers with the skills to succeed in a vastly changed 21st-century business landscape.

Firstly, she believes the nation needs an all-encompassing digital plan that takes into account infrastructure, as well as education.

“Infrastructure is critical – it’s not a nice to have, it’s a necessity,” she stresses. “As I think about education and the next wave of students coming through the system and who will hugely influence the longer-term outputs for economy, the investment in infrastructure is absolutely critical. I think about it like when you go into the school you expect to have electricity – that’s the way we need to think about broadband.

“If our vision is that we are going to be a global player in the digital world, then it is increasingly important that our education strategies reflect that. Children outside of the classroom are already living in a digital world, consuming digital media, and when they enter the classroom they should expect the same experience.

“I think there’s a big disconnect between a student’s experience outside the classroom and inside – we need to align that for the benefit of better learning. Digitally, we can learn and engage students in a totally different way and also drive the infrastructure that will have a transformative effect. We need to invest in the next generation of learner who is able to develop 21st-century skills and constantly learn.”

Lifelong learning

O’Carroll maintains that we are moving from a world where once you graduated and that was it to an ethos of lifelong learning.

“No longer do we leave school or college with a set of skills that will last us to 65, we’ve got to be able to constantly learn and engage in the digital learning experience and facilitate that. It is absolutely critical that infrastructure is in place in schools and we may need to prioritise it over other areas.

“I think a cohesive strategy is critical. It’s ironic – here in this facility we are developing all the technology to do that but implementing it outside Ireland because the Irish strategy is lagging behind. Given the size of Ireland we have a unique opportunity to leverage a national strategy. You can envisage a cloud strategy for Ireland for all of our schools where everything is being accessed from one central place.

“The advantages of that are not only the cohesive strategy and the standardisation and ability to share across all schools, but there will be huge economic benefits to that over time because the cost to educate a student will go down; it’s going to be a real win-win.”

O’Carroll has the courage of her convictions, which are based on first-hand experience of the impact digital technology can have on education.

“We know this because in certain districts in the US we deliver these services to 400,000 or 500,000 kids in some districts. And I think there are 750,000 primary and secondary school children in Ireland – so we’re already delivering in one school district to numbers close to that. With one cloud strategy Ireland has a huge opportunity to invest in that infrastructure and potentially leap forward by doing that on a national level.”

Economic renewal

The advantages of digital infrastructure go beyond the world of education and actually impact our very lives and livelihoods. Harking back to the visionary decisions by Sean Lemass and TK Whitaker, O’Carroll says we need brave decisions to be made again.

“We’ve done this before and saw the huge positive outcome. Now there is the opportunity to repeat that. It’s the next wave, the next generation of that because the whole global economy has shifted and frankly the bar has been raised and we need to realign and raise that new bar. For Ireland, the strategy needs to be around developing 21st-century workers.

“That skill set is very different to the first wave. Really what’s going to matter is being a global player, 21st-century digital thinking, peer to peer, being able to work in complex and fast-moving environments and being able to work in innovative R&D type activities.

“We need to align the education system so that is what we’re producing just like we did in the 1960s and 1970s – they had a vision for what they needed to produce for the jobs that would have existed 20 years later and they got it right, history proved that.

“Now we need to do it again and it’s a different set of skills we’re training for. If it’s a knowledge economy, of course we need to be digitally connected. That view of the cloud – if we think about learning and the evolution of how it needs to map with what’s going on in schools today, it really will become a 21st-century experience.

“Having a cloud-based experience means I am mobile as a learner and I can access learning experience and connectivity any time of the day no matter where I am – it is critical we get that right.”

The harsh economic lessons of the last three to four years should not be allowed to diminish our enthusiasm for the future. But, urges O’Carroll, that future is ours only if we prepare for it.

“Never forget the foundation that we built. We’ve all been hearing doom and gloom stories for a long time now but that foundation that we’ve built in the 1960s and 1970s is a real solid one. What we need to do now is not erode it but continue to evolve.

“What you’re witnessing here at HMH is the byproduct of that. We’ve invested heavily in our workforce because we’ve a real understanding of what it means for us to be competitive as an entity inside HMH.

“We have invested hugely to continue our growth. That’s what I mean by lifelong learning – no matter what, we have to know we will continue to evolve and learn. The raw material to build our centre, the 300 people – we sourced them here in Ireland. The talent pool is here, but we need to keep it growing. It’s the generation coming up that we need to be bringing out with the next generation set of skills.”

O’Carroll says the Government will need to be very strategic in how it prepares Ireland to be a leading player in the global digital economy.

“We need real strategic leadership. When you reflect on the decisions made in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a very strategic point of view of where we needed to go. And it was very well articulated. The same needs to happen now. This will be their test bed; they need that case study now to support the acceleration of where they need to go to. They need to implement what they said they will implement and then be simultaneously aligning the strategy for the next wave.”

O’Carroll warns that the State needs to study very closely the actions of decision-makers in Singapore and North Korea in particular, where there are cohesive strategies moving apace in terms of infrastructure, education and a connected economy.

“The race is on, particularly as we look at Asia,” she concludes. “Our human capital is the No 1 asset we have. Investing in education and human capital has to be a No 1 priority.”


Fiona O’Carroll is executive vice-president at HMH and general manager of new ventures and innovation at the company.

She joined Riverdeep in 2002 as the executive vice-president for marketing, product development and services, where she helped it to become a $300m company prior to its integration with HMH.

Previously, she was general manager at Vivendi Universal, a global leader in entertainment and gaming.

Digital Ireland Forum

Fiona O’Carroll is one of the panelists at The Digital Ireland Forum, a Silicon Republic breakfast event on 30 September 2011.