Education technology venture aims to get them young

By Gill South

Education bright spark's new technology venture aims to get them young, writes Gill South

Frances Valintine wants her Mind Lab to equip kids for a technological future. Photo / Greg Bowker
Frances Valintine wants her Mind Lab to equip kids for a technological future. Photo / Greg Bowker

Entrepreneurs are driven by the next big idea, the next big trend, and New Zealand has a number of prominent people leading the way, including Xero's Rod Drury and the Ryan brothers of YikeBike fame.

For Frances Valintine, the businesswoman who set up the high-profile Media Design School in central Auckland with her mother, Liz, 15 years ago, the interest is education, an area typically ignored by entrepreneurial types.

When the school sold 2 years ago to the world's largest private university group, Laureate International Universities, it barely raised a media ripple. Laureate educates about 750,000 students, has 70,000 staff around the world and was looking for an institute of excellence in the region. It was introduced to the Media Design School by Investment NZ.

The successful deal proved the gap in the market seen by the former marketing director of Auckland Zoo was correct. Valintine set up the school so mature graduates in the workplace could upskill in new media, but for the past few years the school has morphed and built a reputation as the go-to place for bright young techies coming out of school, wanting to get into game development and animation as a career.

Thanks to Valintine's networks, they've had the opportunity to work on projects with future employers such as Weta Workshop and Oktobor Animation, as well as ad agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi.

Media Design School graduates now provide a very useful talent pool for companies looking for skilled workers equipped with Bachelors of Art and Design, (3D animation or visual effects), Software Engineering (game programming) and Creative Technologies (game art) as well as Media Design (graphic design, interactive design or motion design). There will be a Masters of Interactive Design from next year.

"The school has a 90 per cent job placement rate," says Valintine, who sits on the NZ Game Developers Association board. She says the school has educated 4500 graduates including Stephen Harris, co-founder of local success story Ninja Kiwi.

After the sale to Laureate, Valintine stayed on as CEO and has been applying the Media Design School model to other international markets. It now has sister schools in San Diego and Milan, among others. Now chairwoman of a new board for the school, Valintine has also brought in a new senior team to manage the 75 staff and 700 students.

Her new chief executive is Darryn Melrose, a former CEO of M&C Saatchi, and Fionna Scott-Milligan, who was dean of research at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design, is the academic head.

These senior appointments free Valintine up to take the lead in New Zealand's next big education trend, giving kids aged 4 to 14 the skills to equip them for the digital world of the 21st century.

The Mind Lab is set to open its doors in Newmarket's Carlton Gore Rd late next month. It will be open seven days a week to a wide variety of children coming after school, school groups and under-5s during the day, and for weekend and school holiday programmes.

Topics will include game development, robotics, science technology, electronics, animation, film and programming. Classes will have 16 children, with four labs running through the day and an after-school club with access to qualified teachers.

Valintine researched the idea internationally before coming up with the concept.

She had found at the Media Design School that 18-year-olds were enrolling with an excellent grasp of programming and graphic design. And in most cases this was because a parent or family friend had helped them along the way.

The Mind Lab is for the people coming through who don't have a mentor or a parent in the tech industry. "This is an opportunity to help kids take on jobs that will prepare them for the future."

To anyone who knows Valintine, they will not be surprised at her latest venture. "I never sit still, I've got a finger in every pie, I'm constantly trying to make sense of where things are going."

Valintine has looked at the international scene, from education programmes Microsoft founder Bill Gates is funding to what the Scandinavians are doing.

"They were getting children engaged in things that were very educational for them at a younger age, giving kids practical, unstructured learning," she says.

"The Mind Lab is a great opportunity for non-structured learning. Once you go to high school, it's very hard to find time to teach like this because of the curriculum."

Four is a perfect age to start, says Valintine, who explains the trigger for her starting the Mind Lab was seeing a 2-year-old with much older siblings play a game expertly on an iPad.

"If that is what they can achieve, what are the implications?" she asked herself. "Kids may not have the maturity but they have zero fear of technology," she says. And they don't need to be able to read.

There was a significant shift of behaviour in students when the iPad came out, says Valintine.

Interaction was not by type, but by dialogue, with no knowledge of the written word.

"It's all about contextualising learning," she says.

Valintine, who has two teenage boys, has chosen the centre's premises carefully. "I talked to a lot of kids about that. They didn't want it to be cute. They wanted something that didn't feel like it was treating them as adults but also didn't feel like school. It's a very different physical environment from school, it's going to be fun.

"The Mind Lab is a learning centre or learning facility, not a school."

At this point she has hired eight fulltime staff and 20 part-timers. Some are former teachers or trainees, and people wanting to give back. Parents are already signing up on the website, themindlab.com.

The centre will have a cafe and Valintine is hoping parents will watch their kids through the glass walls between classrooms.

"I want to encourage parents to stay. A lot of the learning is not just the child - we can teach parents how to use robotics as a learning tool in the home environment."

Valintine brings a philanthropic side to her businesses. "For me, the big drivers are being more able to bring access to all schools - it will be heavily subsidised for school groups.

"I have a huge passion for relevant education. Education can only be authentic if students truly engage. Otherwise we're not going to get inventors and entrepreneurs coming out of New Zealand."

At her leaving party from the Media Design School, someone told her it wasn't possible to do the Mind Lab in her time frame.

"My response - obstacles are only there due to history or an individual. If it's due to history, let's move historical barriers; if it's an individual, let's work with them."

- NZ Herald

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