Meet the Patrons Q&A with Dr Kevin Marshall, Head of Education at Microsoft Ireland

Posted by Learnovate

As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Dr Kevin Marshall who has been Head of Education at Microsoft Ireland for the past 10 years.

Kevin has been working in the public sector education area at Microsoft for 18 years, starting off with the company in 2003 as Partners and Learning Academic Programme Manager, which was a new role that Microsoft established to roll out its global Partners and Learning Programme.

After school, Kevin studied psychology at UCD and went on to do a Master’s in the University of Hull before moving to the US. He completed a PhD in research, measurement and evaluation at Boston College before starting his career as a substitute teacher in Boston.

He went on to work in programme evaluation and research at Boston public schools where he was focused on educational improvement and technology-infused curriculum development. On returning to Ireland, Kevin worked at consulting firm, Vision Consulting, from 2000 to 2003 before joining Microsoft Ireland.

Head of Education is a key role within Microsoft Ireland and has four broad elements to it: business, sales & marketing, skills and government engagement. There are ten in Kevin’s team and, under the sales & marketing function, customers include schools, universities and charities to whom they market and sell products including devices and cloud technology such as Office 365.

The skills element includes DreamSpace and Microsoft’s STEM outreach for students and teachers at primary and secondary school. Under government engagement and research, Microsoft funds a number of PhDs and postdoctorates.

Microsoft created a base in Ireland almost 40 years ago. Now, some 2,000 people with 71 different nationalities work at Microsoft Ireland, which is based at One Microsoft Place in Leopardstown, Dublin.

Microsoft Ireland is currently making huge investments in increasing its engineering headcount, in conjunction with the IDA, and this will continue with the aim to make Ireland a global centre of excellence for engineering and digital sales.

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

At Microsoft, I have learned the importance of developing your network. Meeting people across all sides of the business is really important. Microsoft is a matrixed organisation, so you have to talk and get to know people from Seattle to across Western Europe.

The other lesson is that, in the public sector, if you have a good idea, you have to keep at it. The system doesn’t always move the way you think it does. If you have a good idea and you stick with it, you’ll get a shot; It will align, and you will get it. A prime example for me is DreamSpace, our flagship outreach STEM programme. It is up and running four years, but we were doing that work for 10 years before that, trying to position the role of technology and how it can enhance learning. Suddenly, a space opened up for us, but we already had all the assets and the people, but we were now able to coalesce around a brand. Our persistence and consistency paid off.

If you are in education, the core is the classroom, so you have to be talking to the people who are at the coalface all the time. When you are not talking to them, you are not relevant. Always go back to the core of what you are trying to do and be consistent and persistent.

What was the best advice you ever received?

If you have to deliver bad news, head it off early. If there’s a problem, fess up early, ask for help and admit you are stuck. There should be no surprises for your boss or team.

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

It depends on any given day. Honestly, it’s a bit haphazard. It depends on the time of year and what we are dealing with. Where I am now, I am less focussed on the detail of the day-to-day business. I have a great team who work on the day-to-day and while I need to pay attention to it, I also need to be thinking about the bigger picture; to see what partners we can be working with. I think about the medium and long-term.

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

I have been blessed with really capable, strong people who make my life easier. Microsoft has put a huge effort into professional development for managers to deal with the challenging times in the tech sector where we are seeing rapid growth and changing demographics. There has been some insightful parts of the training and one key point I took from it was that, rather than trying to solve everything yourself, you need to empower individuals to come to the solution on their own, knowing you have their back. I have been trying to do that more over the last year, to varying degrees of success. You have to listen to people and be open and supportive because if you don’t do that, they won’t take risks. The culture in Microsoft has really shifted towards allowing that and having a ‘growth mindset’ and that’s what I try to encourage.

What are your favourite tools and resources in work?

We use Microsoft Teams the whole time for collaboration and workflow. I also use mind mapping software. When thinking about strategy, I like to use mind maps. I draw them out in bubbles and then use software to make them prettier and integrate into my documents. I love a sharp pencil and blank piece of paper.

In what sectors and markets do you see untapped opportunities for Irish and Northern Irish companies?

I think the L&D stuff that we are doing with Learnovate is still very nascent and ripe for innovation. In certain aspects, in the skills domain, the issue of learner-centred content is still wide open, certainly within Ireland and the public sector. There are broader issues around digital transformation and this transformation is going to accelerate. Over the last 18 months, survival was key, and technology underpinned that survival.

There has also been an amazing amount of artificial intelligence (AI) and I think the issue is how to take some of that innovation into the mainstream. There is a whole pervasive nature – even if you look just at wearables – and I think over the next couple of years, that will become ripe for business and commercial opportunities.

I do think the education sector in Ireland is ripe for some of this transition and change. The whole teaching and learning piece needs to change. Reflecting over the last 18 months, the word that comes to mind is ‘patchy’ especially in areas of social inclusion and disadvantage. The question for me is more about societal good and impact and creating a society where everyone gets an equal shot. That’s not necessarily a commercial opportunity but it is a business one and ignoring it is not a good thing. If you ignore it, you are going to create a wider notion of digital poverty. I think we really need to think about that and not allow that to get lost in all of this reframing. There is core stuff we need to deal with on a societal level and the system needs some leadership here. I’d be more concerned about focusing on that – how we can collectively support those who don’t have access.

Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?

R&D is crucial; it is fundamental to the whole thing. If you look at how AI is going to fit into all these emerging learning technologies, the more research and development, the more agile processing, the more proof of concepts and demonstrators we do, the better. It is all underpinned by R&D. If you look at SFI and the HEA, they are looking at huge stuff like cyber security, sustainability and all these really important things but, on the other side, we need to look at how we can make teachers ready for all of this. We need to join the dots between the two and R&D can do that. We need to rethink teaching development and ensure it is underpinned by solid research and the development of innovative and useful products.

From your experience, what are the current trends in learning?

I see a couple of things. Interactive student-centred content is critical, particularly in the skills area in a way we haven’t really dealt with before. I also see the notion of personalised learning in terms of platforms being more personalised to the learner, which allows for greater interactivity and instant feedback, which is going to be a big thing. Social emotional wellbeing will also be a massive trend. It will be key to see how, in an increasingly technological world, you mitigate the areas of isolation and engagement. This is going to dominate for quite a while.

How should we prepare for the future of work?

It depends on what we think the future of work will be. In this country, it will be some sort of hybrid model so therefore there needs to be a base level of skilling so that everyone can use the technology. We also need to look at what wider skills we need to drive the growth. Is it going to be all data and AI or do we shift to more reliance on medical skills based on what we have learned. It’s a tricky one but all this will be underpinned by being able to work in teams, to talk, to communicate effectively – those 21st century skills will be critical in any workforce. Diversity and inclusion are also huge; a greater focus on humanity and the common good. Sustainability and driving the green economy will also be a huge factor. All those ideas will impinge on the future of work and the younger people coming through have a wider sense of those areas.

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?

The membership is very important. We have been involved in a number of projects that have been really good. It is useful to hear what is coming down the line from the other members. It informs my thinking in terms of where the industry is going, what other people are doing, who we could partner with, where we could leverage and where we should pay attention to. Learnovate tends to respond well to industry needs and they create a forum for dialogue which is important. They do good work in terms of projects they come up with and the work they deliver.

What impact has Covid-19 had on your organisation and on your customers?

Covid has had a huge impact on us as people didn’t come to work for 18 months and everything was online. We benefitted immensely from it as we were a technology company espousing this model of work for quite a while – that you can use technology to do work anywhere, anytime. That strategy was borne out by the fact that people had to do that.

From a societal perspective, it also opened our eyes to where the gaps are in terms of digital poverty. We set up an office with the UN out of New York to look at these issues in terms of skills and how we can support society around skills. We refocused some of the work we were doing.

In terms of my own team, productivity went up but I think generally creativity is impacted when you are working from home.  Part of the value of going to work is that you meet someone and it sparks a conversation or an idea or you solve a problem very quickly. You can spark ideas without having to set up a meeting to spark ideas. You do also miss the bit of craic and the bit of banter. I think a lot of people have struggled in their own ways but the effect of that has yet to emerge.