As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Bob Regan Director of Education at Gates Ventures, which is the private office of Bill Gates. Based in San Francisco, Bob has been in his current role for almost eight years and leads efforts at Gates Ventures to develop new technologies in education that others do not have the economic incentive to do.
Bob started his career — which he says, has no straight lines — in his 20s as a New York City classroom teacher before leaving to pursue a PhD, where his research focus was on disability and technology. He left New York for San Francisco to work at Macromedia and spent ten years with Macromedia and Adobe leading their disability efforts before eventually leading the schools business.
He moved from Adobe to Pearson to found an innovation studio focused on rethinking the textbook. This proved to be a brief stint as Bob was approached by Bill Gates’ office which led to his current position.
In 2010, Gates Ventures launched the Big History Project in Seattle, which Bob says was a “history course that starts with the Big Bang and ends with the future”. It has since developed into the OER (Open Educational Resources) project, which is best known for building free, online history curricula.
The concept of the OER project is highly interdisciplinary, not only looking at the scientific history, but of scientific thought and how it has changed over time. It currently is supporting around 2,600 schools and 4,000 teachers who are teaching it as a full course. To support this complex course, the team developed a comprehensive professional development approach and a robust online community of teachers.
What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?
There are just so many; I make a lot of mistakes. One thing that I am constantly amazed at is how the team I work with is just able to do incredible things. We work in a super challenging space. It is technical in both the development and marketing dimensions. However, the most important thing it takes to be successful on our team is an authentic understanding of the customer: teachers.
I meet people that believe because they went to school or they have children in school, they know better than teachers. Listening wasn’t a skill that stuck for them, apparently. I find it easier to train a former teacher in marketing than an MBA to understand the classroom. That said, I have not had a lot of luck in looking for ‘unicorns’ that can do both. When I find such a person, I grab them and hold on for dear life. Instead, I try to assemble teams of scholars and teachers, technical and business folk and emphasise collaboration. The results have been pretty great.
What was the best advice you ever received?
When I was at Macromedia, I felt like I had to get everything done before people figured out I shouldn’t be there and sent me packing back to Wisconsin. I just got a new boss, the amazing Penny Wilson (now CMO at Hootsuite), and in our first 1:1, I shared my four-page list of activities with her. She looked it over and said: “Wow, you did all this? Impressive.” I beamed with pride. Then, she told me: “Next time, you get one page. Do less, better.” This scared me as no one had ever said anything like that to me before. I would be lying if I said I haven’t tried to boil the ocean with my own body heat since, but it is a reminder that I give myself and the team all the time. While I know now this tendency is true everywhere, those of us in Ed Tech tend to suffer from terrible imposters’ syndrome. We want to prove that we belong, and we feel an urgency to make a difference before we are found out. This makes us very vulnerable to over-extension and ultimately, burn out.
How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?
As a younger man, I was a bit of a madman. Working in disability and education, there is a constant sense that the stakes to every issue are incredibly high. That said, I now believe I can get more done with calm than calamity. I am still a bit nuts. I propose crazy ideas and have been told my language is a tad salty. One more than one occasion, I have found myself saying to my somewhat stunned team: “I am not making this shit up, seriously, we can do this.” More than cajoling and cheerleading, I spend a ton of time with the team talking through the issues and how we can achieve things that seem insane at first blush.
What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?
I have to say that I have worked with some absolutely stellar teams in my time. The folks I worked with at Macromedia and Adobe were spectacular. However, I now find myself working with the very best group of individuals I have ever had the privilege to be a part of. They are spectacular. When it comes to ‘managing’, I tend to think more like a teacher and less like an MBA. I don’t want to train people. If they need to enter their vacation hours on the HR site, we can share a video for that. I want to teach them and develop skills that will allow them to function. So, to me, this comes through an intentional focus on the skills needed. I develop a curriculum where we provide some basic framing (we call this a scaffold in teaching) that guides the initial understanding that we slowly take down over time. I do believe in giving the team independence, but I don’t believe in tossing people straight into the deep end of the pool with a cinder block.
What are your favourite tools and resources in work?
We are big users of Teams. We’ve always been a remote team, but never more so than during the pandemic. It hasn’t quite yet replaced email for us, but a LOT of records are kept there rather than Outlook. However, if you were to ask the team their favourite use, it would probably be for our EDU Cooks monthly cooking club where someone takes the team through a recipe they love or our Song of the Day. This is possible a million different ways, but I love the balance between work and fellowship.
Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?
The importance of R&D is the reason we engaged with Learnovate. When the pandemic hit, we really needed to provide a lot of information on working in an online environment and give advice to teachers on grading and shifting the pace of teaching to adapt to a hybrid model. Trinity and Learnovate have been doing that research and, through Learnovate, we were able to take that research and translate it into practice right away. We see our role as taking pieces of research that people aren’t inclined to do — or don’t have the economic incentive or opportunity to do — and putting them into practice. For us, it’s all about R&D.
From your experience, what are the current trends in learning?
The concept of belonging is really interesting to me. The idea that I belong in this school and if I do the work, not only am I going to be successful, but it is going to result in better things for me. We need to look at what we can do to reflect diversity in our classroom. Everyone not only has a legitimate opportunity for economic growth through education, but they have this sense that they believe that. So, what can we do to create the mechanism to support these things?
AI also has an interesting role in the sector. What AI can do and what is the difference between AI and the teacher? We have been doing research on student writing and discovered the secret to good writing is more writing. If we give kids a really clear sense of expectations and give them consistent opportunities to write and provide good feedback to them, they will get better. This is the most unsurprising secret ever. But we wanted to look at how students could get better faster and introduced an AI engine where kids press a button and get instant feedback. We discovered that, using the AI engine, kids will try an average of seven to eight drafts before they submit their essay to a teacher. The quality of the AI feedback is good enough to point them in the right direction and it allows the teacher a real quick look to see where the kids are struggling. In classrooms where they would spend maybe 10 minutes doing whole class instruction, combined with one-on-ones and independent work, we saw significant gains through using AI. That has been one of the most exciting things we have been working on over the last few years.
How should we prepare for the future of work?
When I was at Adobe and Pearson, we kept thinking about how we could use technology to enable us to do things that were not previously possible and change the way kids learn. We did a lot of really cool things that didn’t take off. When I came here, we focussed on the classroom: how can we do professional development in ways we didn’t think possible. The locus of learning is in the classroom and the pandemic has really made that clear. Learning is a social activity and where it is failing is where we haven’t been able to keep the social engagement up enough to sustain learning.
There are people like my boss, Bill Gates, who can go into a library, read a book shelf and be ready for the next grade up. But not everyone is like that. We need the library, but the primary centre of learning is in the classroom and that model has really been stressed by the pandemic. When we see people getting frustrated and feeling disconnected or kids who are really failing, I would point to that as one of the core reasons. Too often with technology, we use the term ‘personalised learning’ as if it is our teachers and our classrooms that are holding us back. Technologists have this romantic notion that we can just allow kids to read the book shelf and move onto the next thing.
In the US, if predictions are correct, we are expecting to see 25pc of the teaching core leave at the end of the school year, which is pretty dramatic. So, we are going to see a lot of new teachers coming into the classroom and we will have to train them up. Creating small professional learning communities where teachers can just talk to each other – that innovation alone is transformative. And we know from research that if teachers engage in this way, they stick around longer.
What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?
The single most important thing we need to understand as educators, or those working in education, is the brain. As a professor of mine, Herb Kliebard, used to say, arguments about education are like arguments about the good life. Everyone has a point of view. But we have to keep in mind our goal is helping kids get smarter. The more we understand about our brains, and how we learn, the better we will be able to support our students. John Bransford’s book How People Learn is a terrific primer to understand the various systems of the brain and how they all work together to achieve learning. It is far, far more complex than watching a video and taking a quiz.
What impact has Covid-19 had on your organisation and on your customers?
It transformed everything we do. Covid changed our whole delivery model but, because we already had everything online and had an online community, it put us in a really good spot. I don’t think we are paying enough attention yet to the long-term economic damage being done to our institutions as a result of Covid. We will recover; we will reach something approaching normalcy, but the economic hangover is going to be longer lasting. We need to look at what that means for schools, the way we use technology and the teacher turnover. As we come out of the pandemic, the big question for me is what do we keep? What did we start doing in the pandemic that was good and which of those things are going to stick with us?
Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?
First of all, we are members of Learnovate because I believe that the research is going to help us tackle challenges in ways we couldn’t previously. But the second reason is that collaboration with the other members; hearing how they are wrestling through their problems. There is no professional development for people like us in educational technology so creating opportunities where we can be together in small research groups is fantastic. I can go to trade shows, but they are often just giant sales opportunities. Here the conversations are more focussed and more substantive. They are happening among people that are having issues more directly related to the kinds of things we are focused on. The other reason is the quality of the people at Learnovate — both on the business and the research side — and their mindset.