Dr. Caroline Steel
This month we sit down with Dr. Caroline Steel a senior strategic consultant with Blackboard to hear about her journey in EdTech and a few nuggets of wisdom on leadership.
Q: Caroline have you always had an interest in education?
When I think about my involvement in education over time, I was privileged in a way. Growing up on a farm in Northern New South Wales, I had an amazing experience attending a little one-teacher primary school in a single classroom with kids of varying ages. Being so small, we had to learn how to work independently and collaborate and learn from others. We also worked at our own pace – we could jump ahead in subjects when ready or take more time. This was during the 1960s and at that stage there was no formal Indigenous curriculum in Australia, however, we were fortunate to have Indigenous elders drop by the school ocassionally and we would spend some time with them in the nearby bush. These were very authentic and memorable experiences.
In reflection, these early experiences contained all the elements of great educational practices we still aspire toward today: flexible, self-paced and personalised learning. It was often authentic and it was definitely active, I think it really set me up well to understand what education could be. However, my experiences and my interest in education have been variable over time.
Q: How did you land on technology and how has it shaped the direction of your career?
Those early years of school had all the right elements, though the only thing missing from that experience was the technologies. Later, in the 1990’s, I worked in the Vocational Education and Training sector teaching Japanese and English. My approach was very learner-centred and I promoted active learning, which students seemed to enjoy. It was during that time I attended a conference where a speaker was presenting on technologies and language learning. That's when I had this revelation that technology in education was the future.
After further study and leading a few technology innovation projects, I moved into an academic position at the University of Queensland, where I led a million-dollar technology enhanced learning project for one of the faculties. I guess you could say this was the real start of my career in EdTech.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your role at Blackboard?
I’ve found my role at Blackboard to be highly stimulating and creative. My association with Blackboard started during my academic career at UQ in the early 2000’s, when I led the implementation of Blackboard’s LMS across the university. However, my consulting position in Blackboard is actually technology agnostic. I have the freedom to utilise Blackboard products and the bandwidth to go beyond to consider the future and what’s coming down the line, to work at that more strategic level and think about what universities are really trying to achieve in terms of student learning, their pain points and whether the solutions are actually technological ones. I would say it is the creative aspect of the job that I find compelling.
Q: Have you reached any milestones in your career that you are particularly proud of?
I would say earning four degrees including a PhD was up there, particularly as I didn't actually finish school, such was my level of interest in education during high school! From a professional point-of-view being President of ASCILITE was also an important milestone. Successfully moving from academia to corporate was another. This gave me a unique insider-outsider view of higher education.
Looking to the future, whilst I don’t think so much in ‘milestones’, my job is always changing which is exciting and stimulating. Recently I've been working with clients and industries using co-design and design thinking to reimagine future learning and programs. I love using innovative methodologies and ways of getting in behind challenges and truly thinking differently about the ways students can experience learning.
For example, employability is a hot topic, how can we set students up for success in their own futures? My thinking and work with industries have highlighted the need to explicitly link learning and assessment to future employability and encourage learners to develop metacognitive awareness around their employability development. Students need that awareness to develop their own narrative around why they are employable in a desired future work context. Beyond their formal education, they will also need the capability to identify what they need to learn, when, and how best to gain that knowledge, with speed, in the flow of work.
Q: What’s the best piece of professional advice someone might have given you?
Whilst I’ve received advice from various people over the years, to be honest, I’ve come to realise the importance of finding a work-life balance and knowing how to work strategically. You can actually be more productive and creative with that balance. Taking time out from technologies - to walk and move to free up your mind is essential. Being strategic about what tasks you choose to focus on at work by evaluating which tasks have high priority, impact and value. I actually rank them at the commencement of each work week.
Q: What do you believe are the characteristics that make a good leader?
I think a good leader is a leader who can bring people on a journey with them towards a shared vision. A leader who is enabling of others, and who can value diverse expertise and can see how that diversity can work together in complementary ways. Enabling people to do their job well, supporting them where they need support and giving them opportunities to grow. These are paramount. At the same time, a strong leader also needs to make some hard choices at times and that can be difficult.
Q: How can schools, professional organisations and companies work together to empower women entering STEM?
In 2018, I did a lot of interviews and focus groups with industry leaders across Australia and New Zealand and I heard the term ‘STEAM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Maths) being used over STEM. STEAM acknowledges the value of an Arts-Philosophy education which encompasses the human aspects of work and life.
Back to your question, I think there could be great value in running initiatives such as multi-industry boot camps for younger women and girls. These might include programs that provide women with opportunities to consider all kinds of career choices that are future-focused and more inter or multi-disciplinary in nature. Industries could also benefit from listening to young women to understand how they are thinking about their futures and what they anticipate their career and life needs will be. These kinds of insights could contribute to future changes that create better workplaces and options for women in STEAM.
Q: What are your thoughts on the next transformation in the technology space and how this might be applied to the higher education sector?
I’ve been investigating augmented reality, particularly when associated with learning in the workflow. As we move forward in this fast-paced changing era, people are going to have to learn more rapidly on-the-go and during work tasks. I'm very interested in the potential of technologies like augmented reality which can offer a digital layer of information, collaboration and training whilst dealing with real world work problems. The power of being able to harness a range of information and data from a spectrum of sources; to tap into other expertise from around the world while you're actually doing your job can help you problem solve and make better decisions. This takes learning on the job to a new level, where it’s learning in the flow of work supported by a digital technologies.
The potential of this technology truly excites me.
Q: Is there a book you may have read that has had an impact on your life?
A wonderful little book that has often inspired me over the years is called “The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinking” authored by Krogerus and Tschappeler.
It presents different models for decision making, with a couple of pages dedicated to each model with visual representations. So it’s one of those books you can just flick through on-the-run for ideas. What I particularly like is that it includes some interesting ways of thinking about innovation and thinking outside the box. It also provides tools to support you in making difficult decisions, something many of us find a challenge in life.
This book is really quite amazing. I’ve used it frequently over the years and I will continue to be inspired by it for years to come. I always keep it close at hand.