Google’s Head of Education, alumna Liz Sproat, talks work, The Welly, technology in teaching and following your passions.
Liz Sproat is far from the only student to turn up at Freshers’ Week to embark upon a university career without a clear notion of where she would expect it to take her. She can certainly not be criticised for failing to predict where she would end up. Her current employer, Google, didn’t exist and hadn’t even been imagined when Liz commenced her studies.
Liz came to Hull from Penrith in 1991 to do an English Language and Literature degree. She was the first in her family to go to university and her mum in particular was worried about how career-ready a degree in English would make her.
“There was a lot of discussion about law and subjects that would guarantee a career and a profession,” says Liz. “When you’ve not been to university, you just want the best for your kids and you want to make sure they’re going to be successful at the end of it.
“But I was really passionate about English and it was the course at Hull that attracted me. The decision was to choose something I was passionate about, acknowledging that university is about much more than just the end result. It is a developing, experiential time of your life and to have that time when you do feel a real passion for your subject is something of a gift really. It was a really good decision.”
Having been a driven school pupil involved in all aspects of school life from sport to music, Liz describes her university life as a period of more personal choice. “It was quite liberating. I was passionate about my subject but definitely did have a lot of fun at the same time and developed myself socially and personally. I learned how to get on with totally different people to myself and the Hull community was really diverse.
“The real highlight for me was the music scene. I was into going to The Welly and there were loads of great funk nights. We always ended up living in the grittier parts of the city – we had a place on De Grey Street, which was pretty special. Hull was a cost-effective place to be a student. It wasn’t prosperous, it had its share of challenges but it was real. That was much more connected to me as a person and my experience in life.”
While her studies and social life gave her new skills and confidence, one experience in Hull helped shape the sense of purpose that has taken Liz so far in her career. Wanting to make a contribution back to the city that had taken her in, she volunteered at a reading scheme at a school in the Bransholme Estate.
“Parts of Bransholme were pretty impoverished at the time so I wanted to make a contribution to that community. I also wanted to assess whether teaching and remaining in education was something I wanted to do. I did really enjoy it, but life took me on a different path. While I remained connected to education, it wasn’t directly as a teacher. But once I’d had that experience in the school, I knew I wanted to remain in some way connected to learning,” she says.
With her passion for education sparked, Liz’s career took her to academic publishers Routledge, then several roles at Pearson Education and eventually to Google where she is the Head of Education for Europe, Middle East and Africa working with schools and universities to bring technology into classrooms.
Early days of EdTech
Just as Google hadn’t been conceived when Liz began her studies at Hull, the technology available in education (or EdTech) is unrecognisable today from what she used in primary school or even at university. She was amongst the first pupils to use BBC Micro computers in school. In Hull she used a digital typewriter to write her essays and searched for articles using the library database before pulling the hard copies off the shelves, which seemed amazing at the time, but feels positively archaic now. Email was still several years away for most.
“Now, you can pull up all the articles at the touch of a button. That democratises education tremendously.”
And yet, while technology has fundamentally changed the way we live our lives, its impact on our schools has not yet been as profound. With Google and other major players like Apple and Microsoft investing heavily in education and competing for contracts, that will surely change.
Liz says: “Most countries that I deal with are using technology in schools, but for many there was a point where technology was seen as the solution in and of itself, and that purely by buying interactive white boards and devices and putting them in classrooms you would have some kind of transformative impact on how kids learn. The good news is that that philosophy has fallen away and there is much greater debate happening about how you equip teachers to be successful with technology. Rather than being the catalyst, it is simply a tool in the kit to help drive greater improvements.”
Liz admits that in the past the technology itself hasn’t quite been right and the industry needed to reflect on what schools really need – namely, affordable devices that turn on instantly, are easy to use, can get the right content to the right child based on age and curriculum needs, and have the right safety policies in place. The countries now having most success with technology have direct policy initiatives that clearly identify where it can be of benefit and mechanisms to help schools get the right impartial advice and support. Liz says: “There are good examples of how technology is enabling improvement, but the challenge is making it happen universally and at scale and finding out how you can mobilise an entire system.”
The falling cost of technology means its impact will be felt more and more as the next decade progresses. Schools will manage and store more content in The Cloud. As parents become more used to technology in their everyday lives there will be greater expectation that they can easily understand their child’s progress. Personalised and adaptive learning will become more effective as technology gets better at understanding each child’s progress.
Controlling the learning journey
There are more than 60 million people now using Google services for education. Kelvin Hall School in Hull has adopted GSuite for Education and uses more than 750 Chromebook computers. James Shaw, one of the school’s Assistant Head Teachers, says: “Technology has helped teachers collaborate and improve visibility of pupil progress. Pupils love it because it gives them greater control of their own learning.”
But undoubtedly there is more to follow. Liz says: “At Google we’re still figuring out what some exciting areas we’re working on will look like. One of the other things we have done in the Hull area is called the Pioneer Programme where we take Expeditions tools to schools. Expeditions helps you run a virtual field trip. You get a Google Cardboard or another virtual reality viewer and a tablet and phone and you, as a teacher, can guide a set of students through a field trip. You can go to Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque and the children get to experience places in the world they would never otherwise get to. But, of course, it’s always about the people and with any technology it’s about how confident people feel and how well equipped they are to use it.”
Google has recently started offering services for higher education through Google Cloud Platform to help universities store and manage data and applications and potentially build major apps. Other developments like Big Query will allow universities to interrogate significant amounts of data. “The potential application is huge,” says Liz.
Liz spoke about Google’s role in education recently at the University of Hull on the occasion of International Women’s Day. Her mother and grandmother were two very strong female figures in her youth and shared a view that women could do anything they wanted, and the role of women in the workplace is something she has found herself increasingly focused on throughout her career.
“While technology has advanced massively since I left Hull, you could say that the advances in gender equality are not quite as far ahead as I thought they would be. It’s something I feel quite passionate about and something I am focused on within Google, which is quite active in this area. There are lots of subtle ways you can be more conscious of the debate and raise awareness about some of the challenges that still exist.”
Now, as a mother of a 12-year-old boy, there is an extra layer to her passion for education.
“The main thing I want for him is to feel joy and passion through education,” she says. “I don’t mean it needs to be easy. The joy comes from watching him being faced with something he can’t do, realising that it is difficult and having the tenacity needed to keep going and try different approaches to understand the problem.”
When it comes to tenacity he will certainly have his own strong female role model to follow.