Season 2 · Episode 8
A Learning Experience without Limits: Wiley EVP & CTO on Transforming Education with AI & ML
Aref Matin, EVP and CTO at Wiley, explains how the company is leveraging AI and ML to transform the education experience for students and teachers. He also talks about patience, failure, and the Winston Churchill quotes that inspire him.
Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast featuring tech leaders from some of the world's largest enterprises and fastest-growing startups. Hosted by DataStax Chairman and CEO Chet Kapoor, each episode follows a leader's journey to scaling a massive business while inspiring their teams. Join us to learn about the experiences that have shaped them, challenges they've overcome, and the advice they'd give to their younger selves.
Narrator: Aref Matin, EVP and CTO at Wiley, is passionate about delivering business value through technology solutions and product innovation. Today, he describes how Wiley is leveraging AI and ML to personalize the education experience. He discusses the concept of adaptable learning and explains how you can draw strength from failure. Aref also shares his favorite inspirational quotes by Sir Winston Churchill.
Chet: Aref, welcome to the podcast. We've known each other for many years. Really appreciate you making the time to do this with us.
Aref: It's really good to be here, Chet. Always great to catch up with you as well.
Chet: Super excited about this, so let's get started. You've been in the education sector for a while–Wiley, Ascend Learning, Pearson. What got you started in education?
Aref: It was kind of interesting because I also worked in other industries prior to this, but when I started in the education business, I kind of felt an affinity for the topic and came to realize that the work that I do is really important. This is a noble mission. We kind of feel very close to the people that are going through our content, learning. Trying to help improve their lives on a daily basis is really what got me hooked into this domain and I became very interested in turning this into a big chapter of my career through the journey here.
Chet: We met when you were in the telecom industry, right? We've obviously known each other for a long time since then. Is there any applicability you think between the two? Are there things you learned there that you can apply to the education world?
Aref: The trends that were happening in the telecom industry were quite amazing. And in some ways, good and bad, you can make some observations there. In the telecom industry, they went through a large amount of change and turmoil throughout the industry to try to get things back in control. In some ways, the education industry is really not that different here. The higher education space in North America has had to tremendously modify itself to accommodate the demand, find the match with the supply, and provide better and better quality material, really help get students focused on their career outcomes and not just learning outcomes. And at the same time, really make sure that everything is affordable, and people can go through this experience and come out the other end with a very positive outcome in their lives.
Aref: So there are some commonalities. If you think about how the two industries compare, you can kind of deal with drawing some analogies between the two. Technologically speaking, the telecom industry also had to really go quite a long way to get there. I actually started my telecom career way before then, and it was in the days of wireline where there was actually no wireless. And you can imagine the effort that went into the modernization that was needed, and the end user behavioral changes that were needed as people migrated from wired networks into wireless networks.
Aref: And a lot of that has direct analogies in my mind in the education industry. We are kind of going through this. There was a lot of in-person learning. Now everything is online. And for a long while this trend has been talked about, but the recent experiences in COVID has kind of led into the online education space really taking shape, really thriving these days. Every expectation is that this trend will continue. There are some people that are saying, "As soon as we’re back to normalcy, all of this is going to go away." I'm not one of those people. I think that this is here to stay for us. And a lot of people have learned how to enjoy this and learned how to deal with online education and improving themselves.
Chet: That's awesome. The parallels between the industries and what happens post-COVID is a very interesting point of view. Having thought about education at Google a couple of years ago, my mantra was: "We don't learn the way we live." I think it's so disparate, the way we live and then the way we learn? And it's a combination of different things. Do you feel the same way? And the second part of the question is how do you think about ML and AI contributing to “learning the way we live.”
Aref: I don't know of two people that learn the same. There are quite a few differences between the way you learn versus the way I learn versus the way another person learns. And we have to learn to accommodate for that. We have to try to figure out ways for the instructors, for the learners to cope with the different ways of teaching and learning in the process, so that we can actually improve the outcome. And the outcome really is improving the learning for the student.
Aref: To this end, machine learning and AI have quite a lot to bring to the table. And actually, we are one of the leaders in this area with our Knewton/Alta product. We not only help improve the learning experience, but we also personalize it to ensure that our content, our instructions, our materials are tuned to the needs of the learner and the behaviors that this learner is presenting throughout the learning process. It picks up the way I learn versus the way you learn versus the way somebody else learns. And it tunes itself to that behavioral aspect of a learning experience.
Aref: This is a powerful capability. This industry is still in the early days as far as this topic is concerned, but it goes to show that machine learning and AI technologies can contribute tremendously to this topic. We have tremendously increased the number of our learners in math, STEM, chemistry using these types of technologies so far. There's still a long way to go, but it's very promising to see how ML and AI are really improving the learning experience and the teaching experience to accommodate the specific learner’s needs.
Chet: It's not going to replace teachers, right? But I think it can really enhance teaching. And I think that's the point you're making. A lot of people who get into this– you can try to get as far as possible, but the human interaction does mean a lot.
Aref: I call this adaptable learning. Adaptable learning has a lot to do with the teacher, as well as the learner. Sometimes the learners are strong and they can pick up stuff fast. Sometimes the learners are slower and they require a lot of hand-holding. And adaptable learning basically says that the teacher also needs to come to a recognition of how this learner is actually learning. Try to provide the helping hand in the learning process. And that makes it very exciting to see that these technologies are coming along really fast to make these things happen.
Chet: As a leader, what has been hard to overcome for you personally?
Aref: There have been many things that have been hard for me to overcome. But in particular, what I think of is the fact that these days, our life is about making significant change and transformational change for our businesses. This transformational change, a lot of people think about the technology part, and sometimes the technology part is very difficult, right? I don't want to undermine this. But as compared to bringing the users along and re-engineering the processes and re-engineering for the success of the business– it is a difficult challenge for many people to deal with. It requires lots of patience, it requires that you're persistent, it requires that you are heavily focused on ensuring that the process re-engineering is going to make things better. You have to accommodate different people because, after all, we are people and different people have different paces for transformation.
Aref: And we just need to be patient more than I have liked in the past, in some cases. Which has kind of made things a little bit more difficult than I like to admit. But it's been worth the effort, because once you look at the transformational changes that come about as a result of the team’s effort, it's just like a beautiful painting. Everything coming together quite nicely, technology parts are working, processes are modified and optimized, users are much happier. Most important, our customers are much happier as a result of these improvements. I just kind of love seeing that picture. I thrive for that end goal all the time in everything that I touch. I love seeing that sort of outcome.
Chet: I was going to say, when you talked about impatience, isn't that a reality, right? Our lives are living between patience and impatience. And impatiently being patient or patiently being impatient, depending on which phrase you want to use. That's what many successful leaders land up doing.
Chet: Shifting gears, it's interesting times, right? COVID, and we talked about this, is changing your business, accelerating everything that Wiley's been thinking about doing. But I want to focus a couple of minutes on how you work. You are obsessing about users differently than you used to obsess about them. One of our values is about obsessing users and enterprises. So you are obsessing about them, yet your folks are delivering products with new experiences with ML and AI in it as you're turning and accelerating the company through this weird time. How do you inspire your teams to produce great technology, great experiences?
Aref: I try to stay very engaged with my teams and colleagues, regardless of the topic. I kind of go back to my own experiences of the past. When I had managers that were engaged in my activities and showed a lot of interest, I really thrived. And I try to practice the same for my teams in the way I conduct myself, right? Having an organization that is fairly flat and has got all obstacles removed, having a no door policy to ensure that you have access to everyone and everyone has access to you. Especially these days during COVID, just making it a point to really obsess about the delivery that we have for our customers, obsessing on the user experiences to ensure that they are optimized. We are continuously engaging with internal, external customers and clients to ensure that they are really benefiting from the contributions of the technology team. And ensuring that everyone sees and feels the impact that they're having on the business.
Aref: Engineers are smart people, and if they do not feel that they are having a positive impact with their products and technologies and projects, then they get disappointed. And I think we have to continuously ensure that they feel a part of the puzzle from concept to reality, right? And not draw organizational boundaries around them by saying, “You can only work in this area and not that area, that is somebody else's responsibility.” And I think you really need to break those barriers inside the organization to ensure that people have the freedom to collaborate openly across the board, because that is the key to success.
Chet: Who inspires you?
Aref: Quite a few, but I'm always inspired by Sir Winston Churchill, right? Some of his most famous quotes really get me going every day. I have a few that I go by. First one being, "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm." Another one which is really interesting is, "Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts." And my last favorite one is, "If you're not going through hell, then keep going."
Chet: What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?
Aref: Use that first quote from Churchill, right, which was, "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm." And I would tell the younger version of myself that they need to get comfortable with failing. We learn so much in failing, both personally and professionally. Innovation doesn't come about without failing, taking big risks. And by taking these risks, sometimes it will become a major self discovery process, and gets us back to learning more and more every day about innovation.
Chet: On that note, Aref, I want to say thank you very much. This has been a great discussion. I hope you enjoyed it, as well.
Aref: Thank you, Chet. This is always great to catch up with you. Great opportunity. I think you are really inspiring people by doing this activity here.
Chet: Thank you. Appreciate it. I'm sure we'll talk soon. Take care.
Narrator: In Aref's words, "No two people learn the same way." With new technology and adaptable learning, educators and education systems can deliver students more personalized experiences and help them achieve better outcomes. As you facilitate cultural change inside your company, make sure that everyone knows their role and impact. And most importantly, Aref reminds us that innovation doesn't exist without failure. So don't be afraid to take risks.
Narrator: Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests and amazing stories to come, so stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new episode is released. And for Apple podcasts listeners, please rate and review the show to help give it a wider reach to listeners such as yourself. And feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.