Taking Responsibility for One Billion Learners

Maria Spies is zooming in and out of the entire learning-to-work spectrum—and bringing into focus the tech, skills and capital to innovate.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Maria Spies is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of HolonIQ, a global education market intelligence platform. Their mission is to connect the world with the technology, skills and capital to transform education. “One billion learners at three million schools, colleges and universities around the world are depending on innovation to prepare them for the jobs of the future,” says Maria. However, the overwhelming majority of institutions are unable to innovate fast enough to deliver on this mission. “Through a machine learning platform and global network of partners, we connect the entire learning to work spectrum with the technology, skills and capital to innovate.

‘One billion learners at three million schools, colleges and universities around the world are depending on innovation to prepare them for the jobs of the future.’

We help teachers, leaders and entrepreneurs thrive and enable investors to participate in their growth.” And the result? “…significantly more innovation, accelerating the transformation of education and providing dramatically improved access, affordability and outcomes for learners everywhere.” And they’re just getting started.

So what prompted you to initially get involved in edtech? And why edtech?

I have been working in education for 25 years and started out in the university sector running programs and delivering higher ed courses. In 1996, the school where I was working decided to run an online program. They attempted to run an online program and being 1996 that was fairly rudimentary to say the least. We were stamping CDs [compact discs] and mailing them to the students, actually. It was a certificate in Change Management prompted by a consulting firm that was just starting a change management practice.

So the combination of the corporate and the academic—that’s my first taste of that; the corporate needed its people who were all over the place to keep learning—even though they couldn’t come to class. That prompted the online component, and ever since then I’ve been working on the edge of academic and corporate, for profit and not for profit, and on the edge of on-campus and online. The edtech has just been part of that journey.

As for HolonIQ, who are you? You’re collecting and connecting massive education data sets. You’re building algorithms to answer complex questions and doing it to support decisions around tech skills and capital, and even bill yourself as the ‘most sophisticated education market data set and intelligence platform in the world’ with analysts and experts on six continents publishing over 200 research notes and long-term forecasts every year. Who is your team? How are you managing to do all this with what, I believe, is a small dedicated group of people? Is that right?

Early on we identified a pretty big gap in the market in that education is so under digitized as an industry, compared with most other industries. In terms of total spend in the education industry, only a little under 3% is spent on digital — compared with other industries, content industries, for example: music and books and things like that — which is more like 35% to 40% digital spend. What we found was that people are hungry for information. And that data is a) under digitized and b) education is super segmented, and super stratified as well. And so any dollar that is available is locked up in—it’s local, typically geography, because education is often context by this geography wise. So we found there was a really big gap here, and a gap at the top of the field—because, if the data is not digitized, then it’s hard to find number one; and number two: if it’s fragmented all over the world then it’s also hard to connect up.

In order to solve this problem, one of the very first things that we did was – we use tools and we use technology both; both are needed. We have partners in 12 countries who are inside their local ecosystem, they know what’s going on whether it be government policy or seed funding to some edtech company. They are people inside those markets who know what’s going on and they surface that information to us. We digitize it in some cases or in other cases it’s just a matter of finding and colliding. So that’s number one.

Number two, we use lots of technology. In some cases the data is available, but it’s just super fragmented and so we have not only our partners in all different countries, but we have dedicated individuals who are using technology, quite sophisticated technology to surface and connect that to that data. You can do a lot with a small team, actually—and if you’re using technology smartly. And that’s what we try to do; we try to keep a fairly small footprint so that we can remain agile.

The world has endless data; how it’s presented is really the interesting part—and HolonIQ presents it very well. In your reports, your online presence, statistics and so forth—well, they certainly aren’t boring! What goes into the conceptualization, development and design decisions when you introduce a particular theme? Have you ever decided on a certain way to show it only to see and then scrap it and decide on another way? What’s your perspective on presentation and design—certainly taxonomies play a role, periodic charts, color schemes and so on?

A lot of thought goes into the design elements called visualizing data. For us, we spent initially a lot of time thinking about structure, shape, and color—and we stick to a color palette. We chose one earlier, and we stick to that. We also use professional design. Initially it was professional designers to help us with personality of design. And we also stick to that really closely. So it’s not random, there is a lot of thought that goes into it. The one thing about it: there’s a combination of technology and creativity that goes into our visualization data. We draw on both of those skills, we try as much as possible. You need to.

There are three things actually:

One is the technology to use systems to visualize data.

Two is the creativity that goes into in it.

And three is the knowledge of the data, of what you’re trying to say out of the information, so it’s domain knowledge, essentially.

Those three things swirl around in order to produce visualizations that not only have good design, but they are meaningful. The data that’s visualized is meaningful in terms of one’s understanding of the part of education that you’re trying to visualize in terms of data. So all those three things go into all our visualizations.

The other thing: education data typically is very doable, lots of spreadsheets, lots of black and whites, and numbers and things like that. We need to—the education industry—needs to move into the 21st Century, in terms of: people need to be able to look at something and in a split second, get a feel for what they can use.

We need to—the education industry—needs to move into the 21st Century, in terms of: people need to be able to look at something and in a split second, get a feel for what they can use.

It’s like I said many years ago from the newspaper industry: don’t worry about what the text is, people just scan the headlines. And they need to be able to understand what the meaning of that is, the rest of the 200 words is, just by looking at that headline.

We take that philosophy into our data visualization. People could just very quickly look at the visualization and within a split second they know what it’s about, then they can read the details. Otherwise, you’ve already lost them. So we’re thinking about the reader/user—learner, if you want to call it that, as well.

Very smart, and apt for a global intelligence platform—kudos to you.

Thank you.

Your work has brought you around the world and back. Very few have your kind of mileage. A typical year—how many miles, exactly? And any highlights of your itineraries? HolonIQ isn’t that old. Have you hit the ground, or tarmac, running right from the start, or has it picked up as the years go?

We hit the ground running in terms of travel because one of our core philosophies is to connect people. It’s not just connecting ideas and data, but it’s actually connecting people. At the end of the day, it’s people who produce data and people who innovate in education, and so because of the fragmentation—there’s global fragmentation, too. We’ve seen people all around the world doing amazing things inside their own context. One of the purposes of traveling so much is to connect people up who are doing things or making innovations that could assist each other. Otherwise, we’ve got a lot of reinvention of the wheel. So we hit the ground running with travel. We do travel I would say laps, as in: global laps. That would be three a year at least. And lots of back and forth in between. We try to. Actually, it’s easier to just do a lap of the world—I know that sounds strange.

But it is easier to go North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, Europe, Asia—all the other way, going the other way. So we definitely [travel a lot]. I don’t know how many miles; millions probably, but it’s incredibly important. A very experienced investor and startup guy, a few months ago said, in a conversation, “their strategic advantage is that they are willing to get on a plane and go and visit people.” Building those relationships is incredibly important—and you just have to travel for it.

Even as we live in a culture of Skype, FaceTime, and other electronic communication, email, social media—that in-person component is still so important. So that’s a really interesting perspective and so true.

Yeah, for sure.

What are some memorable highlights of people you have met? Upcoming in Bangalore, the roster of companies and their CEO’s and founders that will be in attendance at that meeting in India is very high-level. Looking back, who have you heard from in the hallways, the green rooms, behind the scenes, or even more publicly during the panels and meetings that you host and attend—what sense do you get from them about the future of education around the world— is it hopeful, or is there some desperation? A sense of positive change on the horizon, or Brave New World is coming? Is the freight train out of control, or is there potential for a more measured approach where good people in control can determine stable outcomes? Anything heard, highlights of particular interest to you which may be interesting to our readers as well?

That’s a great question because you’re right in that, behind the scenes prior to presentations, on stage and so on—there’s a lot of great discussions from the speakers. One of the things that struck me about pretty much everyone I meet whether they be actually on the stage or in the audience, is that those people who are motivated enough to go to a conference or do a program or whatever, they are just so determined, so passionate—sometimes that word gets dismissed as emotional—but they are actually determined to make a difference, determined to solve education problems. And there are so many to solve. So that resolve is something that I see over and over and over. People— whether they be an edtech entrepreneur, teacher, a foundation, or an investor—the resolve to put their energies, money, time, and creativity into education, learning, in whatever way—because it’s so many different ways—[this] astounds me every day.

Whether someone wants to solve a problem for a teacher in a classroom or wants to reinvent the whole education system—that sort of determination is really an inspiration. One of the things that I have connected with more and more over the last year is those people who are working in the adult—well it’s two things: one, those who do work in the adult upskilling area, because this is becoming much more—I wouldn’t say the word desperate—but more ‘top of mind’ because of the difficulties of talent. There is definitely a big talent gap, especially in that technologized areas we’re looking at, on field jobs in the tech area. And people are scrambling to solve that problem at scale, and that’s not just educated who are solving this problem.

Tech companies are solving these problems; educators and tech companies working together. I love to see that happen. Rewind back to the mid-1990s: the beginning of that was collaboration between a culprit and an academic institution to solve a problem and to deliver something; I still see that happening today. I’m seeing more of that happening and I love to see that. So that’s moving very fast. In 2019, out of all the venture capital in edtech in the U.S., which is the second largest investment, the vast majority went into upskilling area. That’s very interesting. People are turning their attention to adult upskilling because of the change of work, change of skills, jobs, and what’s happening with automation and we make more and more tech skilled people and so that upskilling the risk doing at scale is happening.

I love to see that. And it’s often a collaboration between academic institutions, if you want to call them that, and corporate and technology companies with three way collaboration, which is wonderful. That’s the first thing that I see happening at that sort of lots and lots of activity in that space.

The second thing that I see happening is the attention being paid to the 280 million students right now in the world who are not getting any education, they’re not going to school. Technology can play a big role in solving that problem. These kids are growing up— this is not, let’s wait and see what happens in 10 years—it’s too late by then. So how is the world going to get together and solve the problem of millions and millions of kids who are growing up without an education? Technology definitely is going to have to help solve that problem.

The second thing that I see happening is the attention being paid to the 280 million students right now in the world who are not getting any education, they’re not going to school. Technology can play a big role in solving that problem.

Yesterday’s models will not solve it; the scale is too large. For a long time, foundations and giving funds to educators helped in that. I see more funds and tech people, edtech people working together to solve that along with educators and governments. Again, it’s that collaboration, and in the popular press we see—it’s disappointing I think in the popular press to see—a continued line of story about ‘profit is bad, public education is good’. I just don’t think that’s helpful. Actually, it’s going to be collaboration which solves big problems with tomorrow in education, whether it be tech companies, for profit institutions, venture capital investors, governments, and even some countries we see where that collaboration has occurred; some Asian countries, for example. Collaboration between tech companies, corporates and workplaces, governments, and policy and education institutions can move mountains, and they have to—given the scale of the problem. I’d love to see that happen even more.

You’ve met with anyone from a humble teacher or an inspired student, to CEOs, founders and co-founders, and even Ministers of Education—everyone, at all levels— during your travels. Any anecdotes that stand out, something that stuck with you as a really profound moment? Something you might share that assists in illustrating some of your perspective about the changes that you’ve seen?

Actually, I was just at a conference yesterday around technologies and features of education. The vast majority of speakers were working within institutions trying to enact change; this is tough because changing the system is a multifaceted long-term thing. Everyone’s trying to grapple with a million things to do that make up a system and then in order to change the system you have to look at a million things at once. And one of the speakers was this fellow, the head of an innovation unit in a very large university, said, “If you’re chasing two rabbits, both will escape.”

I thought that was fantastic in the context. It’s true. If you’re trying to do a million things at once, or chase two rabbits or more than two, all of them will escape. You won’t get even one. It was a point about focus and that’s a mantra in the start up world: focus, focus, focus. It is very difficult to do when you’re trying to change the system. But if we have people collaborating on changing the system, everyone can focus on their part of it.

With HolonIQ you’ve chosen perhaps the broadest, big-picture perspective on learning and work; from young to old, from early childhood to workforce, and everything in between. And your datasets and knowledge base and intelligence platform really comes through. Leaders and innovators around the world turn to HolonIQ for guidance as they build and invest in the education institutions, technologies and models of tomorrow. I know that at the ASU GSV Summit, you were met with packed sessions. People are hungry for well-presented, concise, power packed, relevant, real, and provocative data about the near and slightly longer term future—is that right?

Absolutely. There’s lots going on in the world. Things are moving fast. People are seeing innovations. It’s not random, but there are just so many individual things happening, that it’s very hard to sense make. One of the things we do is to zoom right up, look back down, and see patterns. We use technology to see patterns and we use humans also to see patterns. We interpret those patterns based on our knowledge of education and learning and so on, and sense make on top of that. That’s the layer, that’s who’s whom—because everyone’s focused on their thing that they’re doing. They’re already down. They’re standing on the horizon. And things are zooming passed them and around them. But it’s hard to have that zoomed out, looking back down—and seeing patterns and interpreting those patterns and sense making out of that. That’s what we intend to do. That’s it. That’s our focus. And people appreciate all those alternate perspectives to their own.

If someone’s standing on the horizon and—it could be an investor, a university, a government—standing at ground level on the horizon. They see themselves and what’s immediate and around them. Because, when you’re standing at ground level, that’s what you see. But it’s much harder to understand when you preach in that pattern. All you see is you and your immediate surrounding. And so, we help pull those poor people up and look back down on themselves as part of that landscape—and that is incredibly helpful to people.

They see themselves from a different perspective in relation to a broader set of activities, or patterns, or trends. And then, we can have a really good discussion not only about where they sit—but where they want to sit. Or, they can have the discussion. So our data helps people, companies, governments and organizations do that.

From your unique vantage point, what is your perspective about the state of education today?

One of the things I’ve been reading recently is about the notion of eras and when you’re in the middle of history—everyone, at every point in their life is in the middle of history— you’re not considering your current state in a long-term perspective because your in it, you’re part of it. But I like to think about the long range; long-long range perspectives, and then try to situate myself and this particular period of history—in that long-range perspective. Right now, I take account of any major structural change to a civilization that went, so I’m really talking eras now, to a civilization or to an era of industry or change. Typically you find a maturing then innovating, and then maturing and then innovating cycle, over a long period of time. Right now in education, we are at the beginnings of a new era—and at the beginnings of a new era from the end of an old era—and the beginning of a new one.

‘Right now in education, we are at the beginnings of a new era…’

So what happens in that period of time: at the end of an era, things start—big systems, whether they be civilizations or education system—start to crack a little bit. They were built and they grew and they thrived in their context. That context starts to change. And you can see stresses and strains on the education system that was built under that. Ultimately, at the edges of that big system, the edges start to be radical, different ways of doing things. We’re seeing that right now. Those radical different ways of doing things usually take on the attributes of the new environment and society. So I’m talking now technology. Some people want that to be broader. And so we see lots of new, maybe radical, completely different ways of doing things happening at the edges of this system of education.

They will push back into the center. And, in fact, the whole center would move and will create a new set. It’s a living thing. So I see right now the state of education today is in a place where we are just beginning; a new beginning, very beginnings of a new era, a new way of doing things. Technology—definitely you’re going to power that—but it’s not just technology, it’s a combination of technology and the changes to the broader system of society: the way people work, the way people live, what’s important to them, how connected or not connected they are. I see us on the cuff of new ways, radical new ways of doing things. Now this is very exciting, but also very scary, of course. There are some things in life that you don’t want to break in order to make a new one, and education is one of those things.

So I’m not suggesting we break an old system to build a new one. Because there would be disasters in between. But it is those natural strains on an old system, in building a new one, the old one changes a bit more and the new one gets a bit more traction; the old one—and so it moves, it moves along. And I see that that’s what’s happening now. My feeling is that radical innovation in education is not going to come from within education. It’s going to come from outside and push back in. So that’s where the edge is, the innovation on the edge. It’ll come from completely left field. Those ways of doing things will push back into this paradigms and ways of designing experiences will push back; I mean this is already happening around the edges, not in the core, but it’ll go further and further.

By 2027—this is the year that in the U.S. there will be more gig workers than full-time ongoing workers. That’s not far away, 2027. So what does that mean for the way people are used to do anything thing in their life? It’s not a 9-to-5 job, go into work, da, da, da—that’s completely different. And so the same can be said of the way people will learn. So those contexts will change the way learning is designed. But that will come from the outside in, I think.

I think it’s very interesting what you’re talking about. Maybe this is part one and then part two we could have a whole conversation about the future of learning and the future of education and technology. You’ve already touched upon this, but I will ask nonetheless. What is technology’s role in education?

That’s a tough one because, you know when something’s new—whatever it be—when it’s new, it’s special and it’s put out to the side and looked at as a thing. Technology was one of those things, it’s like, ‘Oh okay, this technology thing, and that’s what it looks like, that’s what it feels like, and that it’s right over there.’ For me, once something becomes so normal it’s forget the term, it’s not even used anymore. As the use of technology becomes completely integrated into one’s daily life, whether it be learning or working or whatever, it’s even hard to separate it into a term. If you said, “What’s the role of technology in my life?” It’s like you’d be quick with it. It’s hard to describe because it’s so integrated. And I think that’s the way the technology should be in education.

There’s education and there are lots of different aspects to that. Technology is just there, it’s used as it needs to be in order to fulfill whatever the objective is in that part of education; ‘I’m a teacher and I need to’—they’re working on a particular subject and teaching kids about something. They use different techniques, different technologies, if you want to call that, but it’s all just part of the learning. It’s not even a separate thing. That’s what I’d like to see with technology because the more that we keep it a separate thing, it’s still outside. It’s still outside the DNA of education, but once it’s integrated in, we stop obsessing about its role.

Considering your work, we could chat all day and I’d love to visit with you again for an even further look through the window into the future of learning. Anything else you’d like to tack on to our interview?

If you’re talking about education and technology, one of the things that can’t be mused off the conversation is the role of Artificial Intelligence. I know that there are so many people talking about that it’s a new thing and people are worried about it. But artificial intelligence, to me, has the potential to solve many, many problems and to help educators, institutions, learners—really, to an exponential level. I think it is so foreign to so many people, that it becomes potentially a nemesis and people worry about that.

But every day I talk to founders of edtech companies that are using it, are using artificial intelligence to solve big problems in education. There’s been talk about personalized learning for many years. Actually, artificial intelligence is at the core of supporting an individualized and personalized approach to skill building, knowledge building—and I think that it’s already been used all over the place. Not only personalized and individual pathways which potentially provide a credible alternative to our current model of everyone’s lens and a big bucket of stuff—and that have already what you know or don’t know—you just learn the same bucket of stuff, because that’s the only way we can do it. Technology now—through artificial intelligence—gives us a credible alternative to that model. Of course, there are lots of issues to be sorted through and it’s only the very beginning. But I think that’s very exciting.

Artificial intelligence along with other technologies will actually help us to solve the problem of no education going right back to those 216 million kids who are currently not in school today, and by 2050 there will be 700 million more people in the world with a secondary education. How is the education system that we currently have, our model, our paradigm of learning—how will it cope with that volume? It won’t. So the alternative is that they don’t get educated—or that we find a new way.

‘Artificial intelligence along with other technologies will actually help us to solve the problem of no education…’

Artificial intelligence could be used to solve some of these very big human problems of the world, and it’s still early days of course, there are lots of issues to be worked through. But those problems are very big; let’s try to use the technologies that have been developed to solve those things.

Wow, a really fascinating look—thank you, Maria! Let’s continue this conversation about the future—into the future. For now, this is a wonderful interview and I do hope our readers enjoy it.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I‘d love to. As you said, we could talk about this all day. It’s wonderful and so many people are interested in the subject and doing something about it—which is actually the important thing. Thank you so much for the opportunity.

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

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