Can-do childhood reflected in Tech Lab founder's approach to digital education

Reading Frances Valintine's dazzling list of achievements and awards in the field of digital education, it would be easy to feel a little intimidated about meeting her. Until you actually meet her. Yes, she is whip-smart, speaks at pace and has a formidable memory for statistics, but she is also warm, empathetic and thoroughly likeable.

Our interview venue is Tech Futures Lab - Valintine's latest venture - tucked away behind the shops in Newmarket. In partnership with Unitec, the Lab helps businesspeople future-proof their careers through workshops, or a recently-introduced one year Master's degree in Applied Practice-Technological Futures.

It is an extension of The Mind Lab, which Valintine created for schoolchildren and their teachers to "offer learning experiences that support the development of the next generation of makers, doers, inventors and creators".

Valintine grew up on a farm on the side of Mt Taranaki and laughingly describes her childhood as "always feeling cold - unless I was right next to the fire". Having little to do with the closest town of Hawera until high school, Valintine needed to be self-sufficient and invent her own entertainment, which involved a fairly high level of trust from her parents. Naturally creative, at 7, she asked her father how to make a giraffe. "Cut it out of this," he said, handing her a piece of wood.


"I said, 'what do I cut it with?' and he said, 'with a jig saw, of course.'"

She attributes her entrepreneurial skills largely to her upbringing, which was responsible also for her fearlessness and resilience in overcoming failures. "I did things the wrong way so many times, and that manifested itself in wanting to create The Mind Lab, where kids could fail but where they could really understand and learn from that experience."

Valintine realised teachers needed a hand up too and says because they're a critical part of building children's confidence, it's vitally important for them to keep learning.

"When you invigorate teachers to learn again, it changes their outlook. They get the learning bug."

The experience of upskilling teachers led Valintine to the creation of Tech Futures Lab.

"I realised educating adults is the most empowering thing to do. With Tech Futures Lab, I work with companies to understand their changing needs as they move increasingly into tech-enabled businesses, with a focus on things like big data, cyber security, automation and online platforms."

She says companies often think they should hire young people for their technology needs. But with many talented millennials heading offshore and competition with other nations for tech-savvy immigrants, the reality is there aren't enough people to do the work we need, she says.

"So it means we all have to reskill. We have to say to everybody in the workforce, how do you go from what you know today - which is probably a bit outmoded - into the next stage of your life?"

It's going to be so critical to be fully engaged in the new technological world. To have capability and to collaborate and talk the same business language


With us heading to a likely future retirement age of 70-75 and life expectancy of 85-plus, Valintine says 40-60 year olds have a long career ahead, and our ageing population is a big challenge because we need taxpayers to earn at higher levels to ensure continued prosperity.

"It's going to be so critical to be fully engaged in the new technological world. To have capability and to collaborate and talk the same business language."

Valintine says this takes on extra importance because New Zealand will be disrupted by significant global entities.

"If Google took on the meat industry with stem cell grown meat or Fonterra by producing the best synthetic milk in the world, we'd be in big trouble because we don't have the capability or time to out-innovate them. And they're doing that, sector by sector. Just take 'Apple Pay'. A year ago, the banking sector would never have imagined their competitor would be Apple."

Though this sounds alarming, Valintine says the answer lies in education, but acknowledges that fear is an obstacle.

"There has been such rapid exponential change that in totality it can look overwhelming, but we just need to break it down. It's about encouraging people to learn again and for employers to value and invest in professional development."

However, self-preservation is a very real thing, says Valintine.

"When you tell someone who's done the same job for 20 years that their role will be automated so they can do something more interesting, most will say, 'forget the automation - I'll just keep doing what I do'," she laughs.

According to the NZ Association of Chartered Accountants, 46 per cent of all jobs in New Zealand (885,000 jobs) will become disestablished, and Valintine says people have the choice of reskilling or risk finding themselves unemployable in the new roles that are emerging.

"The worst situation is when people are literally driving toward that cliff and still haven't reskilled. It doesn't have to be that way because education is now so accessible. There are incredible online programmes, and institutes offering many interesting things."

Valintine was 40 before she did a degree, a Master's in tertiary education management. Then CEO of Media Design School, she felt a real need to find out what it was like to study within the university system at a time when education is preparing students for a new world.

The Tech Futures Lab's Master degree is weighted equally between students having an undergraduate degree, or having experience.

"If you've worked in the same sector or progressively through similar roles over 10 years, your learnings are enormous - more than comparable to a three-year undergrad degree."

Students undertaking the degree have a choice - they can be onsite for a year with a view to becoming self-employed, or they can work for their company at the Lab for 12 weeks, formulating and developing a concept under supervision of mentors and returning to their workplace to continue the project for the rest of the year.

Valintine is passionate about encouraging women into technology but thinks they're put off by the perception of it.

"Often people think tech means programming and coding when actually the majority of tech roles are basically business roles - marketing, project development, logistics and distribution, roles which need a really organised mind, and women are great at that."

Her goal for the future is the concept of "positive education". This is the idea that children don't have to suffer a deficit-focused Not Achieved on their report card, but instead gain credits as they progress through school for the things they have managed to learn and achieve.

And in the pipeline is a plan to develop a STEM Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) charter school, as a "school within a school - like a plug and play" that in existing schools could provide a non-university option. Valintine is in the early stages of validating the concept.

"I would absolutely love to get to the point where we wouldn't need a Mind Lab for kids or their teachers."