In-depth and edtech with Vikas Pota of the Varkey Foundation—and now, Tmrw Digital.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero 

Vikas Pota, Chief Executive, Varkey Foundation, United Kingdom at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2015 in Cape Town. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell

After eight years of building one of the most influential education foundations in the world, Vikas Pota has now been appointed as Group Chief Executive of Sunny Varkey’s new holding company on EdTech – Tmrw Digital.

In this role he will oversee all of Mr. Varkey’s operating businesses in edtech, including Pamoja – one of the only edtech companies that is delivering the International Baccalaureate online – education’s global gold standard.  

He will also oversee all edtech investments as well as set up a new institute that will look to answer some of the key questions about the role of technology in education.

The not-for-profit Varkey Foundation was established by Mr. Varkey, one of the world’s most successful education entrepreneurs, in 2010 to improve standards of education for underprivileged children worldwide, with a mission that every child should have a good teacher.

The Foundation is perhaps most famous for their million-dollar Global Teacher Prize, established in 2014 and awarded to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession — and the high-profile Global Education & Skills Forum leading up to the announcement ceremony and drawing celebrities, past ministers of education, and other world leaders.  

Vikas has served as trusted spokesperson for Mr. Varkey, as well as founding executive, Master of Ceremonies, host, and communicator extraordinaire in his role as first Chief Executive and Chairman of the Foundation for the better part of a decade.

As the pace of technological change across the world continues to accelerate, large swaths of populations are still literally in the dark and disconnected from any benefits such change might bring.

Through London-headquarted Tmrw Digital — the work of bringing the light of education to these and all people is made more possible. Or that’s the plan.

After all,” says Vikas, “technology has brought about enormous changes to every facet of life and society in recent years, so why should and why would education be exempt from that?” 

Here’s more of Vikas on education, technology, teachers, and what Tmrw Digital intends on delivering.

You’ve recently completed an 8-year run as the first CEO of the Varkey Foundation, with some amazing highlights. Before we delve in, what prompted you to originally sign on and assume the responsibility of that role?

For me it was all bound up in wanting to help create a more equitable society, and the importance of education in delivering that. The scale of the challenge is so huge that you cannot help but think that technology has a role to play in trying to fulfil that promise. 

At the Varkey Foundation, we launched innovative distance learning programs for marginalized young people, particularly girls, in sub-Saharan Africa via a satellite dish, solar power and an interactive live feed. These give children, including in refugee camps, access to a great teacher, whilst also helping to train existing teachers. The lessons we have drawn from these initiatives and the impact they’ve had has made it clear to us that the challenges are just too large for technology not to be able to play a part and leverage positive change.

You only have to look at UN Sustainable Development Goal 4, which is about providing a better standard of education for everyone. One of the key indicators is that we need to recruit 69 million more teachers by 2030. When you stand back and think about it, that’s such a huge number and it signals that there will be a need to incorporate technology somewhere in the drive toward that target. After all, technology has brought about enormous changes to every facet of life and society in recent years, so why should and why would education be exempt from that?

Yet no-one has properly answered all the questions around what role technology can play in providing a better education for all and followed it through, either from an education point of view or an edtech point of view. The policy makers don’t know how to have the conversations with the edtech people, the edtech people don’t know how to have the conversations with educators, and so on. You go round this whole circle of stakeholders and realize that there is real demand to bring everyone together and have a think about what good education technology looks like.

It was all this that made the penny drop for me — and that is the thought behind the mission of Tmrw Digital, the brainchild of education entrepreneur and philanthropist Sunny Varkey. He is passionate about edtech because he understands the importance of delivering on the promise of technology in helping to provide every child with their birthright; a good education.

After 8 years of a most unique boss-employee relationship, what personal—perhaps even behind-the-scenes—anecdotes could you share about your boss? What motivates him? And I know—you have to be careful, as he is still your boss!

There are three qualities, which I often reflect on, that I saw in Sunny Varkey (pictured, with Vikas) when working with him over eight years as Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation. One is that there is no duplicity, in that you are one thing to one person, another thing entirely to another person. You have one life, there are only 24 hours in a day and you have to be consistent in who you are and be true and authentic to yourself in order to make sure you can lead an organization.

The second is his absolute commitment to the unvarnished truth. Education is highly ideological and he has this incredible way of seeing things and saying things as he understands them. There are always benefits from those insights and they have always been a source of inspiration for me.

The third – and most obvious – quality is his generosity and large-heartedness – demonstrated by how he combines his intellect with his spirit but also his money. I think it’s a huge differentiator that helps set him apart. For example, in 2015 he signed the Giving Pledge, where he committed to give the majority of his wealth to charitable causes. He also has a laser-like focus on ensuring The Varkey Foundation is doing what it can to help ensure every child has a good education, in particular trying to understand how we can help to make this a reality.

Dubai, to an American, is a bit otherworldly, even dreamlike in its look and feel. The Global Education & Skills Forum held in Dubai, is a lavish affair, and teachers are treated better than movie stars; teachers are (literally) near royalty at the series of events that make up the forum. There’s nothing that comes close. What is the purpose of raising the profile of teachers to such a level? Has it been effective, in your estimation? How so?   

Sunny Varkey’s parents were teachers and therefore his commitment to teachers, and his understanding of the importance of teachers, is deeply held. In 2013, the Foundation commissioned the Global Teacher Status Index, the first attempt to compare attitudes towards teachers in 21 countries. It showed that there were significant differences between the status of teachers worldwide and that in many countries, between a third and half of parents would “probably” or “definitely not” encourage their children to enter the teaching profession. Only in China are teachers regarded as enjoying the same status as doctors and that made us reflect on our mission.

If teachers make the biggest difference in an education setting, and lots of research backs this up, then why don’t we regard them with the highest of esteem? And if we don’t give them the respect they deserve, then why should the next generation consider this an attractive profession to go into? That is the rationale behind a number of our initiatives, whether it is the Global Teacher Prize, the Global Education and Skills Forum, or a lot of the research that we commission and publish.

We believe that teaching is the mother all professions and we want to promote that. Without teachers there is no education system, no great results and no better learning outcomes. Interestingly, even those that believe technology has a role to play will say to you that robots will never replace teachers. Robots may take over some tasks, but teachers are here to stay because they play such a fundamental role in a child’s learning process through pastoral care, character building, social and emotional learning and growth — and that will never change.

You’ve personally rubbed elbows with many current and past world leaders, you’ve interviewed quite a few in lengthy public discussions regarding issues surrounding the current state of and the future of education. What internal framework guides you as you freely chat with them? In other words, how have you led them? Is it like herding cats, or are there some basic agreements underlying your conversations? Could you provide a few interesting highlights?     

Vikas: No one can dispute education is a huge public good, whether you speak to rock stars, ministers, business leaders, heads of government, whoever it is. Pretty much everyone you talk to will have gone to school and will understand the importance of an education, so that’s not the tough thing. The tough thing is finding out what particular area of education they are truly passionate about.

The framework I operate in is that I am a curious guy. I want to learn, so my function and my assumption is that if I am interested then maybe others are, too. People basically do want to help, so if we can help them do that then great. What we do know is that people with popularity cut through the media cycle and can communicate in ways that can reach different groups of people – from politicians to parents to pupils. Therefore, the more advocates and champions we have, and the more people hear their views, the better it is.

The Varkey Foundation’s first Honorary Chairman was President Bill Clinton and sitting with him and listening to him speak about his experiences and his thoughts on education and global issues – like how talent is evenly distributed but opportunity isn’t, how you could find the next Nobel Laureate from the most deprived and fragile society – had a really big effect on me. The fact that you could bring out all this talent by providing a good education, by providing this opportunity, was a big lesson and motivation that has stayed with me.

Also, people like Bill Gates who we have worked closely with is someone I admire greatly. He spoke about the lessons he got from his own philanthropy – practical things like the importance of personnel systems and other infrastructure in supporting nurses in delivering better healthcare. It was similar to the way we had to think about helping and supporting teachers, and it made me think a lot in terms of what we need to change and what we should be doing more widely in terms of systems in society.

In terms of influential celebrities, I would certainly praise the work of actress, singer, film producer and philanthropist Priyanka Chopra (pictured), who attended GESF this year. As a global movie star, she has made a big commitment to refugee education and education in fragile societies. Seeing someone with that level of mass popularity taking on that kind of issue is inspirational. She doesn’t have to do it but she’s decided she wants to use her fame to make the world a better place. It’s harnessing the power of community to get through to people and make them think about these important issues.

What advice do you have for your colleague and successor Cate Noble as you pass the torch and she now takes the helm of the Foundation? Any lessons learned that you’d provide to her in a few select words of wisdom? And any words about Cate?

Cate carries a wealth of experience and is finely placed to lead the Foundation into new project areas. Her expertise in educational development is world-leading and I know, from our working relationship to date, how determined she is to extend the reach and weight of our voice, as well as our impact on the ground. I am certain she will make a great success of her new position.

In terms of advice, I think the role of philanthropy is fundamentally to be courageous, and that’s what I would say to anyone in the philanthropy sector. Foundations should not be recreating what governments and NGOs are already doing well. We should be applying ourselves to situations where no one else will come in because they don’t want to take the risk. And in that you have to be courageous.

For example, by launching the Global Teacher Prize, the Varkey Foundation has, I believe, helped to play a role in elevating subjects such as teacher status from the preserve of policy-makers and panel discussions into issues that seized the imagination of the public around the world. My advice generally, for everyone involved in philanthropy, is to just be brave.

With an estimated 15,000-company strong edtech ecosystem, and hundreds of thousands of educators globally using tech to enhance, improve and transform their everyday work—billions of dollars have been spent, including Varkey funds, in this area. Tmrw Digital doesn’t seem to be a side project, but where the future of education is headed and rapidly. What key tenets will govern your approach? Are there some basic goals you intend on accomplishing?

Vikas: So far, I have learned maybe three things which I think are particularly relevant to this debate.

The first is just how incredibly complex edtech is. With edtech, there is usually a fundamental conflict between this really innovative group of technology entrepreneurs and a schooling system that dates back to the first industrial revolution. We have to do better, and I believe the way to achieve this is to have a more detailed and thoughtful conversation around technology and educational outcomes. Robust research and evaluation is the missing link here. The question is: How can tech get us over the line and make sure our world is more equitable? This new institute we’re setting up will look to help edtech entrepreneurs understand what it takes to shift those educational outcomes.

My second observation is how different sets of people sometimes find it very difficult to speak to each other and understand each other. Governments, teachers, entrepreneurs, investors and stakeholders of all kinds have different ways of communicating. I think, given the scale of the problem, we would all sign up to the fact that tech is part of the solution. But we need to recognise that we need a proper multi-stakeholder approach to ensure that we get the right tech providing the right solutions to ultimately provide better learning outcomes.

Thirdly, I would say that we need to bring parents into the edtech discussion because the challenge is not just confined to schools or edtech entrepreneurs. Some of the issues that parents are concerned about at the moment are linked to mental health, including screen time addiction. Yesterday, one of my friends was telling me her nephew has been diagnosed by the NHS as the first computer games addict and this morning I was reading in a newspaper how the government is backing a new games addiction centre.

This is definitely an area that needs a lot more research because we want to ensure that the technology being integrated in a progressive civil society doesn’t have unintended consequences that have a negative impact on our youngest and most vulnerable.

I don’t think that banning devices or banning technology is the solution, but we do need a better understanding of the impact of technology on children and how we should best manage that relationship.

“Tomorrow” never gets old—it can’t, really—but in 8 years from now, and assuming you intend on making it another eight-year run, where do you see Tmrw Digital?

Vikas: The ambition is that we want to contribute to the development of the edtech sector globally. That will be through investing in start-ups and companies as well as by building our own edtech platform and services. But most crucially, it will be through our Tmrw Institute, where we will curate the discussion and create the space where we hope to improve understanding of edtech, in particular where and how it can make the most difference to children’s learning outcomes.

What are the major trends here with us now that you see will be vital areas of your work? For example, personalized learning, adaptive learning, AI, machine learning, IoT, AR/VR, learning “holodecks”, emerging-world connectivity, startups, construction of new learning spaces, etc.

Vikas: The major trend that I would like to see grow is the inclusion of educational pedagogy and the science of learning in the edtech space. Some tech entrepreneurs, who don’t come from the education sector, try to weigh in to the edtech debate, sometimes even confusing market research with education research. I want to see a reversal of that trend. I want to grapple with how you design products and services that understand instinctively how kids learn, because that’s what’s important. I want to see that discussion writ large and really engaged with by all stakeholders so we can truly understand how to improve learning outcomes.    

More generally and basically speaking, what is technology’s role in education? 

Vikas: There is no doubt that we’re going to need the tech if we’re to meet the sheer scale of the challenge of providing every child with access to a quality education. But I’m also a pragmatist and I know we need a much better understanding of how technology can improve educational outcomes.

I got my first wake up call to this back in 2015 when the OECD published their report “Students, Computers and Learning: Making The Connection” which said that even countries which had invested heavily in information and communication technologies (ICT) for education had seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science. 

One of the most disappointing findings of the report is that the socio-economic divide between students is not narrowed by technology, perhaps even amplified. Having said this, I do believe that if we get this right then technology has the potential to build those bridges and move those mountains.

At the same time, we need to bring teachers much more into the discussion. In all the conferences I’ve been to around the world, I never once saw a teacher invited to be a part of the edtech discussion. You always see policymakers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and investors. How short-sighted that we don’t ask the teachers that are on the front line, delivering education to the next generation. Whenever we listen to teachers, those are always the most productive conversations

From your perspective, what is the state of education today? 

Vikas: Generally speaking, the world has made some important leaps when it comes to educational equity and goals, but there is a lot to be done. Whether I look from the perspective of Chairman of the Varkey Foundation or from the perspective of CEO of Tmrw Digital, it is a scandal that in 2018 over half a billion children are in school but not learning. It is absolutely crucial that we address education capacity—in particular, how we can help states deliver education effectively.

In many countries, the challenges faced by governments to deliver an education at even the most basic level are immense, let alone delivering great education outcomes. The challenge is huge, but I believe technology has an important role to play in bridging that gap.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com