Welcome to a new series featuring interviews with Women of Blackboard—an opportunity for us to celebrate the females who work within our organisation and, more importantly, be inspired by their passion and contribution to STEM.
Our first interview is with Nicole Wall. As the Director of Consulting Services at Blackboard, Nicole learned early on that coming from an academic environment and adapting to the fast-paced realm of commercial business would mean stepping out of her comfort zone. With a strong background and skill-set in research, Nicole’s path at Blackboard was set, but this was only the start. Her tenacity and persistence has also been the secret to her success.
In this interview, Nicole shares her journey into technology, the advice she’d share with others and what it is like to drive and shape strategy through technology within Blackboard.
Q: Nicole can you tell us what first sparked your interest in technology and ultimately led to the career path you took?
That’s actually quite interesting as it wasn’t my intention to go down a strictly IT path. My journey at university started and then ultimately ended with a multimedia degree and whilst the first year of the degree required us to complete foundational IT subjects, my interest still lent towards the more creative aspects of the multimedia course.
My Honours thesis and PhD focused on usability testing, which in fact could be applied across both multimedia and stricter information technology disciplines. It was around this time, I realised just how much I enjoyed teaching, the postgrad study allowed me to indulge this passion through lecturing and tutoring, and I loved leveraging the educational technologies to help reach the students under my tutelage. I found myself using a lot of data to inform my teaching and as a result more or less fell into the learning analytics side of technology. When the position at Blackboard came up to run the analytics space across Asia Pacific, it was a role that immediately piqued my curiosity and fortuitously, I was able to draw on my earlier technology experience whilst in the world of academia.
Q: How has being a woman shaped your experience working for a technology company such as Blackboard and more broadly in the industry?
I actually find being female in a technology driven company is a benefit. When I look at universities, they have many women leaders, particularly in the EdTech space, instructional design and educational design disciplines which are in fact quite female oriented. For me, where my stronger IT skills have been an asset is in that crossover between the education and technology groups. Understanding and talking to the technology now comes easily but I also bring a different perspective and approach when talking to our customers. It's a good balance internally at Blackboard and externally.
In terms of being a woman in the technology industry, there’s a high level of respect from other women. I’ve lost count of the number of times where I've visited an institution and the women, albeit lecturers, the academics or the managers have expressed their gratitude in having a female with a technology background working with them. They are very complimentary and respectful; this has certainly helped me in driving innovative ideas and projects within Blackboard.
Q: We are being told there is a shortage of women in STEM careers, what do you think is Blackboard’s role in addressing this issue?
Blackboard is uniquely positioned given we are in the STEM category but we are also in the education space. Ultimately, to encourage more women into jobs within STEM, you have to direct them into educational programs in STEM. Blackboard is in the rare position of working with educational institutions and has the opportunity to demonstrate that women in this space are needed and in turn encourage those institutions to promote STEM as an educational pathway to pursue.
STEM programs that work with girls as early as primary school age is a great starting point, it helps to normalise STEM. To one day get to the point where the idea of a girl doing a science degree is considered ‘normal’ is a goal I’d like to see achieved. From an early age we all look to our parents or extended family for encouragement, guidance and as role models. At present society is still struggling with this. There aren’t enough mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins or female friends in the STEM space. Girls need these relationships connected to STEM to have something to look up to and as a catalyst to the possibilities of a career in this area.
To get more women in STEM is a long-term goal, yet what we need to be doing in the short-term is promoting women more broadly who are in this space similar to what Blackboard is doing with this ‘Women of Blackboard’ piece. The future narrative would be ‘yes there are a lot of women in this field, they are successful, they are recognised and valued’. This is something I want to work towards for myself.
Q: Are there any family, colleagues, friends or people in the industry you particularly look up to or are inspired by?
It's my father without question. Dad always held very high-profile positions and was a leader in his industry. He instilled in me that you can do anything you put your mind to, it was never even a question. His motto was if you're respectful of other people and you've done the hard work you can do anything and go anywhere.
Seeing my Dad in a leadership field, how respectful he was and how he promoted women in his team including the encouragement he gave his daughters, has inspired me to want to be a leader in STEM.
Whilst he didn’t come from a STEM background, I still remember when I was maybe six years old Dad telling me about this thing called the Internet and email. His organisation was one of the first to get it. You could say this was the true start of my foray into technology, at the very least seeing it working in those early days certainly fostered an excitement.
In a similar way, joining Blackboard all those years ago was just as exciting. It was innovative, it was new. When we release new products like Blackboard Data or Blackboard Ally for instance, this is what gets people interested and is what we should be promoting to girls, and boys for that matter, to encourage them into STEM fields more broadly.
Q: In your opinion what has been the greatest transformation in technology that you've witnessed so far in your career?
It's definitely the rise of big data. I'm probably a bit biased because of my background in analytics but I think how we've started to collect information and use that information is massive. Whilst we haven't created a ‘new Internet’, it’s about the underlying technology and how we're using data that is collected leading to some quite amazing results. If you think about predictive analytics and the prescriptive analytics space, it's really exciting. In education we take a lot of that from what the commerce sector has done (in marketing and business for instance)and are now starting to apply that in education. For me, that has been over the last probably five to ten years the biggest innovation and change that we've seen in the EdTech space.
Q: What would you like to see happen in EdTech in the next ten years?
In education I think it's about the affordances of big data moving into true personalized learning. Using artificial intelligence to drive learning in a very personalized way. I believe the educational model right now is for lack of a better word ‘old school’, for example, why are students designated a set time frame to learn a certain amount of information when potentially they have already covered that content previously or transferred courses. We should be offering students a more personalized experience and the technology should empower that. If I were to obtain an MBA for example it should be based on the skills that I need to achieve the learning outcomes, not because someone somewhere prescribed sixteen courses over a two-year period.
Q: Nicole how do you keep yourself up-to-date with the latest trends in technology?
With a background in research and having spent so many years at university, I read many academic journal articles. One of the great benefits from being in the education space is that I have the opportunity to meet a number of university academics and people in the industry. I’m constantly learning from what they’re doing, because they're always at that forefront of R&D and identifying the next best thing. I think being connected to that space is incredibly useful.