Leadership in Transformation: Dr. Elka Walsh’s Key Takeaways from the Connected Learning Conference

In October, Microsoft hosted the 2019 Connected Learning Conference in Quebec City. The conference brought experts in industry, technology, and education together to share ideas and best practices surrounding education transformation and the future of learning. The conference’s theme this year was Unlocking Limitless Learning. Leaders from 38 K-12 districts across Canada participated and shared how they leverage Microsoft technology to empower students to achieve more in the classroom. We had a chance to catch up with some of them and ask them why they choose Microsoft as their Education Transformation Partner. Check out the video below to hear some of their responses.

Video for Leadership in Transformation: Dr. Elka Walsh’s Key Takeaways from the Connected Learning Conference

Dr. Elka Walsh: Learning and skills are at the heart of preparing for an uncertain future, and as many educators will tell you, creating a resilient education system is complex. It’s too complex for any one person to have all the answers. That’s why this week, I was invited to be a part of Microsoft in Education Canada’s Connected Learning Conference. Over 100 leaders in education and IT came together for three days in Quebec City to share innovations and insights into how we can fundamentally evolve learning and prepare students with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed they’ll need for the digital future. It was a transformative conference, and I wanted to share the biggest takeaways that might provide prompts to learning leaders as they imagine the possibilities of future-ready education.

First, A.I. and data analytics have the potential to fundamentally shift the student experience. Microsoft in Education Canada’s Wemba Opota shared ways that A.I. is helping educators uncover insights into how we can help drive student success. For one example, check out Dr. David Kellerman’s use of Chatbots and machine learning at UNSW to see how he has fundamentally shifted student engagement and progression. It’s inspiring!

This next lesson is close to my heart. If we aren’t creating inclusive learning that helps everyone unleash their potential, then what’s the point? Thanks to research and a pilot project at Louis Riel School District in Winnipeg, we’re building strong evidence that truly inclusive learning environments are possible. The multi-disciplinary team behind the Louis Riel School District Assistive Technology Project included teachers, students, psychologists, and occupational therapists who came together to change the learning experience and leverage assistive technology to increase student investment, support mental health, and empower academic achievement. As a result, they saw a marked increase in self-esteem, autonomy, and engagement. If you’re designing a learning experience, you need to bring everyone along.

The all-women panel on inclusive learning was a tour de force of experiences around leading transformational change initiatives in government, industry, and education. Margaret Meroni, VP Learning at the Canada School of Public Service, shared the importance of staying agile in developing and delivering professional learning experiences. Her insight? Create structures and processes to empower learning with accessible tools, and review to ensure the outcomes you want are being achieved. Then iterate! Lauren Ryland from Microsoft Education highlighted the importance of managing change initiatives that mobilize key leaders. In education, that means we need teachers to be part of designing new learning models. Finally, Toronto District School Board’s Manon Gardner was frank in her observation that learning, students, and teachers are at the core of any kind of skills-based economy. In the era of digitization and rapid acceleration in innovation, nurturing global citizens means that learning is essential. And teachers are the key. Ultimately, they teach for the good of society as a whole.

A final highlight for me was the reminder that all leaders need guidance from mentors about how they can take care of themselves and keep things in perspective while leading change. Catherine Zeisner challenged us to listen to the voices of students because in the end, learning is for them. Personalized learning means we can accelerate academic and cognitive growth; students learn better when they have voice and choice with personalized feedback. And as leaders, we need to ensure that those voices—even the quietest ones—are part of the equation. Catherine takes her leadership inspiration from one of nature’s most unlikely creatures: the prickly, plodding lobster! Often, people don’t respect this bottom-dwelling crustacean, but lobsters shed their exoskeleton when it becomes too tight and uncomfortable. That’s how they grow. She challenged us to learn from that behaviour, to expand beyond our conventional boundaries, even when it’s intimidating. That’s the space where real transformation happens.

These are the key insights I took away from this year’s Connected Learning Conference. I hope they shed some light on my thinking about education, and how I structure my work at UDiscover Learning. I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to Microsoft in Education Canada for bringing this group of innovators together. When education leaders gather in the spirit of serving students, they lay the groundwork for truly inclusive, future-ready learning.

Dr. Elka Walsh is a leader in education with over 20 years of experience ranging from executive positions at colleges and polytechnics in Canada, to Chief Education and Learning Officer at one of Canada’s largest science centers and now as founder of UDiscover Learning Inc. – a company on a mission to empower schools, colleges, universities and corporations to amplify their impact and achieve more student success with innovative education strategies, impactful learning design and thoughtful quality assurance. Through her consultancy UDiscover Learning, Elka has been contracted by Microsoft Canada in the newly created role of Future Ready Skills Leader to help ensure the next generation workforce have the skills needed to be successful in the future, and to work with education institutions to create innovative new learning opportunities. Elka serves as a member of the Board for Learning Disabilities Association of Alberta and holds a PhD from McMaster University and has taught at Humber College and McMaster University.