From Political Pioneer to Edtech Leader: A NEJHE Q&A with Jane Swift

“Traditionally, New England has been at the forefront of the leading innovations in education and I am hopeful we will give birth to some exciting new models again that will deliver value to learners and meet the needs of our economy.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift became president of the education innovation organization LearnLaunch in July 2019.

In 1998, Swift was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Three years later, when Gov. Paul Cellucci resigned to become U.S. ambassador to Canada, Swift became the youngest female governor in U.S. history.

Besides being recognized for her work in education and innovation, Swift is a leader on women’s issues and work-family integration. At the time of her elevation to governor, Swift was eight months pregnant with twins.

As governor, Swift is credited with improving public education through strong accountability and high standards and by aligning statewide curriculum while implementing remediation programs for struggling students.

Recently, Swift was appointed Jerome Lyle Rappaport Visiting Professor in Law and Public Policy at Boston College Law School for the spring 2020 semester, where she teaches a seminar on “Governing in the Facebook Era: Privacy, Propaganda, and Public Good.”

In the following Q&A, NEJHE Executive Editor John O. Harney asks Swift about her insights on higher education, technology and more.

Harney: What have you learned so far since taking over LearnLaunch?

Swift: The five founders of LearnLaunch created a vibrant ecosystem with enormous potential. We have significant mindshare, particularly among early-stage entrepreneurs in edtech and the most innovative education leaders in the K-12 systems in Massachusetts—the early adopters, if you will. Learnlaunch has provided high-quality services to those early-stage companies and early adopters. We also established a vibrant conference that brings together a diverse set of education innovation stakeholders. Our challenge now is to extend our reach to achieve sustained leadership impact across the education technology and innovation ecosystem.

Harney: What are real examples of ways ed tech can help close the equity gap?

Swift: It is critical to remember that technology is only a tool. Serving all students requires excellent teaching which can be enhanced and augmented by tools and innovations, technology tools being one example. There is research from MIT demonstrating the efficacy of middle-school math edtech tools. Oftentimes, we forget that implementation requires training that is not only as important but perhaps more important when using innovative new teaching tools.

Harney: In addition to the marquee sessions at Across Boundaries events, what are some of the “sleepers” this year?

Swift: On Friday, we are convening a “Future of Work” showcase for the first time where some of the most innovative providers of adult-learning opportunities will be gathering. We’ll be pulling together table conversations during that time, and what happens there will be fairly organic. With some advance planning, I’ve found that the partnerships, synergies and solutions that can be formed and sustained after the conference is packed up for another year often happen when people have the time to discuss issues in-depth with like-minded individuals. This is where the real progress happens. We are hoping to seed some of that magic.

Harney: What are some of the other important things happening in the LearnLaunch “community”?

Swift: You will see the first event of our new partnership with ASA (American Student Assistance) at the conference with some keynotes, panels and activities. We will be following up later in the year with a summit we are co-hosting with them around helping students to discover their passions and possible pathways to careers and training opportunities as early as middle school. It is something I have done a lot with my three daughters, so it is an area of personal passion but also incredibly important in this dynamic, technology-driven economy we live in. We are also hoping to secure final funding to support the development of a strategic plan that will help LearnLaunch take advantage of its many assets, refocus our efforts, and better assert our leadership in Boston, in Massachusetts and in New England.

Harney: What are some of the key topics in your BC course?

Swift: Social media and the speed of innovation more generally are challenging government in ways we have never experienced before. This is happening in education where the tools available to students and teachers like AI (artificial intelligence) and AR (augmented reality) are flying at them fast and furiously, and where the demands on our system to prepare the next-generation workforce are dizzying. But really, it is happening in every sector of the economy and it is happening fast. Yet, government isn’t designed to work fast. So the class, called “Governing in the Era of Facebook: Privacy, Propaganda & Public Good” will explore how that plays out at a really practical level: in campaigns and communication for elected officials at the state and local level and in many different policy areas. One reason I love to teach is that I find that a well-constructed course can lead to the teacher learning as much as teaching and that is certainly an outcome I am aiming for this semester.

Harney: What do you make of the recent travails of higher education, including closings of several New England institutions under pressure from declining enrollment, state and federal cuts and changing perceptions of value?

Swift: As a parent of three traditional college students, I am not sure your article is long enough for me to answer this question. As parents and students, we know the world is changing quickly and I see that in ways that have important implications. Innovators have jumped in to respond to the gaps that have developed where learners feel their needs may not be met in the traditional system. The capacity of the traditional system to pivot is constrained by myriad factors. Change creates uncertainty and that combined with the demographic shifts in New England will reshape the landscape of higher education for a generation. Traditionally, New England has been at the forefront of the leading innovations in education and I am hopeful we will give birth to some exciting new models again that will deliver value to learners and meet the needs of our economy.

Harney: You’re from North Adams, Mass., and you went to Trinity College in Hartford. How have those communities informed your outlook? How important is a sense of regionalism and “New Englandness” to today’s challenges? How has technology changed the importance of “place”?

Swift: You are asking tough questions that are difficult to address with short answers. My journey from North Adams to Trinity College to the professional success I’ve had inform everything I do. My hometown did not have the highly rated public school system that many of my classmates at Trinity were privileged to attend. I had to work hard to catch up—but, I still was very, very fortunate to have access to a top-notch college education with the assistance of lots of financial aid—that gave me unlimited opportunity. I have worked throughout my life to democratize access to excellence in education and to have that equate to unfettered access to opportunity to find a job that you love, that can be rewarding, and to break down class barriers. We have made advances in education excellence in Massachusetts and that has been a national model, but there is still a lot of work to be done particularly on the equity front. And yet, at the same time, on the issues of access to affordable postsecondary options which provide limitless opportunity and, yes, upward mobility, I feel like we’ve hit some real roadblocks.

Harney: What do you make of the recent Boston Globe piece about women’s places in the top-paying Massachusetts jobs?

Swift: Progress for women has been slower than I would like in many areas. We still have gaps in our childcare system and in offering maternity leave. But I do see progress and one of things I am most excited to do in my return to Massachusetts is to keep working with women and men to nurture the next generation of leaders. My appointment at Boston College is just one way I am hoping to do that.

Harney: What’s next for you?

Swift: I have been lucky to find platforms in my career that allow me to work on issues I care about. I have a pretty good number of those right now—the ability to implement and drive change at LearnLaunch, to teach and learn at BC Law, and to work with great entrepreneurs and leaders, many of whom are women, through the board work I do. I find it tremendously rewarding and sometimes a little chaotic.




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