Interviews

Students jet off to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress

  • When it comes to education, Diane Morrow and Michael O'Hara are a real dynamic duo. The pair founded the mTech.Academy scheme in order to deliver experiential learning to school-aged students by engaging them heavily in technology.

    The academy partners with schools across Northern Ireland and recently led a group of students to the Mobile World Congress tech event in Barcelona. Sync NI’s Brendan Drain caught up with Diane and Michael to find out more about the scheme and their successful trip to Mobile World Congress in February.

    For those who don't know, how did the mTech.Academy get started and what has your involvement been like?
    Diane Morrow: My background is in education – I was a teacher for more than a decade and then moved to Catalyst Inc., where I led the Generation Innovation programme, focusing on collaborative education for 14-19-year-olds. While at Catalyst, I had the chance to see Michael O’Hara present at the 2017 Digital DNA conference – he’s spent 30 years working for leading global technology companies, most recently as the Chief Marketing Officer for the GSMA, which is the trade body representing the world’s mobile ecosystem.

    The GSMA also organises Mobile World Congress (MWC), the world’s leading tech showcase. Michael gave a great view of the technology trends shaping our future and I immediately thought it would be fantastic if Northern Ireland students had the opportunity to see this in person at MWC.

    Michael and I kicked off a pilot programme, where I brought 11 students from St. Ronan’s College to the 2018 MWC, so they could experience this amazing technology first-hand and also to gain a better understanding of what technology and business could mean to them in their future careers. It turns out it had a major impact – eight of the 11 students actually changed their GCSE subjects after this experience, to more technology- and business-focused topics. Following the success of that pilot and after consultation with educators and industry stakeholders in Northern Ireland, we made the decision to formally launch mTech.Academy – we introduced the company at Digital DNA in June 2018 and then unveiled the Year 1 programme and partners in September 2018.

    Since then, we’ve been working with 300 students and 70 teachers and head teachers from 10 schools across Northern Ireland, and it’s culminating with the trip to MWC19 Barcelona. It’s been an amazing experience and quite unique – we’ve had such strong engagement at all levels in the schools, and we also have such strong support and commitment from industry, with partners including PwC, Grant Thornton, BT, Dawson Andrews, Instil, Novosco and Smiley Monroe.

    RELATED: Tech education startup mTech.Academy plans to double in scale

    The mTech.Academy philosophy is all about experiential learning. How does that differ from the standard curriculum you’d normally see in secondary level education?
    Michael O’Hara: We realised there was a gap in the Northern Ireland education system, similar to that facing many other countries – students are learning to pass exams, not to develop the real-world skills they will need to thrive in this new digital world.

    We also saw that shifts in technology – the move to ultra-fast 5G networks, the rapid proliferation of the Internet of Things and the growing adoption of artificial intelligence, to name just three trends – are creating a new industrial revolution, one that today’s students are not currently well-equipped to compete in. mTech.Academy combines hands-on experiential learning and exposure to leading-edge technology to prepare students, teachers and employers for this new world of work.

    For instance, as their “signature” student project this year, the students have been working on a Smart Cities Challenge. Over six months, they researched smart cities and developing solutions that they believe will benefit their communities, with the strong support from local industry. At MWC, 10 teams of students presented their smart cities visions, outlining how they will use technology to tackle a wide range of real-world issues, many of which SBRI Belfast City are working on. Their proposals demonstrate how smart city services will help decrease traffic congestion, create new transport options, improve waste management, monitor crime, make street lighting more efficient, improve student travel safety, decrease carbon emissions and give citizens new ways to communicate with their council.

    The academy now represents around 300 students across 10 schools in Northern Ireland. What kind of impact have you noticed in those schools?
    DM: The feedback from the students, teachers, and head teachers has been phenomenal. It’s been really empowering for the students – a great example is their use of Google Drive to help them share information, collaborate on projects, and communicate outside of the class. They have adopted the technology enthusiastically, collaborating as a team, in the evenings and the weekends, with no prompting from teachers.

    The teachers and head teachers really value the continuing professional development that they are getting through our partners PwC and Grant Thornton, gaining new perspectives from outside of the education sector and learning more about what employers are seeking in the future workforce.

    I’ve really enjoyed seeing how mTech.Academy has opened the students’ eyes as to the career opportunities enabled by technology – it’s not just coding or being an engineer. I’ve had students share with me how mTech.Academy has helped build their confidence, encouraged their creativity and developed their communications skills.

    What made you choose the Mobile World Congress event for the 2018 student trip, and are you considering expanding to other tech events?
    MO'H: As I led marketing for the GSMA, the organisation that puts on MWC, it was the logical choice for us. MWC is the world’s leading tech showcase, with more than 107,000 attendees and 2,400-plus companies across the mobile ecosystem participating – there are not many other places where you can see all of the technologies, products and services that are shaping our future in one place.

    The students get the chance to see everything from new 5G handsets to AI, the Internet of Things to AR/VR, connected cars to robots, drones and much more. MWC truly is a unique experience, but we’ll also keep our eyes open to other opportunities for the students. 

    The scheme has been running for some time now, do you think it's changing attitudes toward tech from teachers?
    DM: Yes, though I will say that the teachers that we’ve been working with have embraced technology right from the start. The students are using Google Drive and Google Classroom as part of their everyday work in mTech.Academy and it’s changed how they interact with each other, how they share information – they are actively taking the initiative, working outside of school hours, through these tools.

    We’ve also introduced some new technologies for teachers, with collaboration tools such as Trello. And of course, the students and teachers have been learning as they’ve researched mobile technology and the Internet of Things as part of the Smart Cities Challenge. It’s been a great process to be involved with, to see this evolution. 

    Automation, AI, and emerging tech are rapidly transforming the future of work. Where do you see this ending up and what might the job market look like for today's school-aged children when they enter the world of work?
    MO’H: Technology such as AI and robots will increasingly replace repetitive roles across both blue-collar and white-collar segments; it is anticipated that up to 20 per cent of current jobs will be eliminated by the end of the 2020s, so the world of work will look very different in the coming years.

    It is important to remember that technology eliminates jobs – not work. We have consistently seen in industrial development that as machines become more capable, humans move on to new roles that require a different skillset. This constant displacement and replacement are signs of a healthy and dynamic economy.

    Even with advances in technology, it is likely that humans will continue to outperform machines in areas that require creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. However, we currently have a workforce that is not adequately prepared to compete in this new digital world.

    It is absolutely essential that we develop education policies and programmes – at scale – that will raise the current and future workforce above the capabilities of computers and equip them with the skills they need to not only survive but thrive in the digital workplace.

    If someone out there represents an NI school, is there a way that they can get involved?
    DM: Yes, absolutely – we are in the process of planning for the Year 2 programme for mTech.Academy and we’re looking to expand the number of schools that we are working with in the next year.

    We’ve had tremendous interest from additional schools already, but we certainly want to hear from any schools that would like to get involved – please reach out to us at info@mtech.academy.

    This interview originally featured in the summer 2019 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download it here and sign up to receive the next magazine here.

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