Before joining Hibernia College two years ago, Francis had spent most of his career in the commercial world. He was with CBT Systems for 12 years. CBT, which changed its name to SmartForce and is now Skillsoft, was the first Irish tech company to go public on Nasdaq and is now the biggest e-learning company in the commercial space. Francis then set up (and later sold) his own company, InnerWorkings, which was focused on software development training. Francis went into consultancy and always had an interest in the role of technology in education so when the role at Hibernia College was advertised, it was a good fit for him.
What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?
One lesson is the importance of leadership. We have all experienced good and bad leadership and it makes such a difference to an organisation. I have also learned the importance of good communication skills. This is undervalued sometimes but it so important for organisations and for teamwork. Also, the importance of persistence. Change doesn’t happen quickly, so you need to stick at it. And, don’t get too carried away with anything as outcomes tend to contain their opposite. Your big win can have disaster looming and your failures can have seeds of something that can be really fruitful down the road. So, stay cool and stay focused.
How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?
You are probably better asking the people who work with me that question to get a fully rounded answer! I like to collaborate; that is really important to me. I also like to think that I hold high standards. I work closely with the team and like to empower them. Leadership is also about developing new leaders. Nurturing leaders, innovation and personal initiative are things I place a high value on. I’m also actually really interested in what I do, and I have a passion for it, so I feel I am energised at my work.
What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?
Again, it is the importance of leadership and of paying attention to people. You have to listen to people and try and understand where they are coming from – even if it is uncomfortable. Teamwork is so important, and the health of the members is crucial to the proper functioning of the team, so you need to spend time and attention on them.
Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?
It is absolutely critical. The rate at which technology changes continues to accelerate but the rate at which organisations can adopt those technologies is significantly lower. It is not possible for any organisation, no matter how big, to stay on top of all the changes in technology. I believe that you need to have people who can move ahead of the organisation and study what is going on and its implications for your business and help bring that into the organisation when needed. The role of R&D is to close the gap between the technology changes that are going on and your organisation’s ability to handle those changes and be ahead. My group has an important R&D role for the college. We need to be systematically looking down the tracks, so we can inform the academic teams and work with them to absorb technology changes when the time is right.
From your experience, what are the current trends in learning?
In higher education, I guess the big one is blended learning because of the pandemic. Here at Hibernia College, we have 20 years’ experience of this approach, so we have a lead in that regard. Blended learning is tougher than people realise as it has all these different components that have to fit together in a seamless way. It has to be a really good experience for students and it requires IT rigour. When you do it for thousands of students, there are disciplines that have to be learned and most of the education system is early in this journey so there is a huge amount of learning still to be done.
Other things we are focused on include collaborative teaching and learning and student engagement, especially if they are 100 per cent online, which was a big issue during the pandemic. We are starting to see some compelling uses of AI and machine learning in education. I expect we will also see some interesting uses of Augmented Reality in education in the next few years with Virtual Reality probably a bit further down the road yet.
How should we prepare for the future of work?
Micro-credentialing is definitely going to be an important consideration for universities and higher education. Continuous learning is also a huge part of future work; there is a need for people to stay flexible. Both of these will be disruptive to traditional models of higher-level teaching and learning and we will continue to explore their implications as well as alternative routes to higher education for those who seek it.
What impact has Covid-19 had on your organisation and on your customers?
From a teaching perspective, we had to go from 50 per cent online to 100 per cent online. Moving everything 100 per cent online during the pandemic challenged us in terms of optimising the student experience in that environment. We have spent a lot of time working and reflecting on that and, at the same time, engaging with students on their experiences.
What are your favourite tools and resources in work?
My favourite tool is my 12.9 inch iPad Pro. I have been using the iPad for 10 years and it is my trusted device. Two recommended apps on my iPad that I love and use all the time are Drafts and GoodNotes. I am a fan of good collaboration software. We worked with Moxtra in Silicon Valley to create the Hibernia College Cohort collaboration app, which is integral to our work here.
What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?
I recently read Martin Weller’s ‘25 Years of EdTech’ which is a really good read and nicely written. On the darker side of technology – which we all should be aware of – there is ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ by Shoshana Zuboff and ‘We have been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State’ by Kai Strittmatter. Very good but scary reads.
Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?
It feeds back to why R&D is so important. It is crucial to stay abreast of what is happening and to meet with people in other sectors to share ideas. Learnovate is a dedicated learning institution with people, both in the commercial sector and in higher education, bringing different parties to the table and allowing and encouraging participation by member organisations in research projects. This is all really good and accelerates progress for us. It is part of us needing to stay on top of what is going on and Learnovate helps us to do that. If R&D and Learning Technology is important to your company, you should take a look at Learnovate to see if it is a fit for your company.
What does Learnovate do well?
Learnovate’s partner communication is very good; it is very disciplined and clear. We are formally doing a research project with Learnovate at the moment to see how our collaboration platform helps us build communities of learners. Our academic team in the School of Education is working with Learnovate to study the impact of introducing this technology. Everyone is so busy and sometimes things can slip so it is brilliant to have the backbone of a research group to support and keep us on track. Learnovate’s experience of doing technology-based research projects with different sectors is really helpful for us. I also enjoy being part of Learnovate’s Thought Leaders Circle where people from different sectors and geographies share ideas and work experiences.