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Marlene Olsavsky, Managing Director, Pearson Canada

With a career spanning several countries, Olsavsky has spent 22 years working with Pearson. She told The PIE about how the intersection between education, technology and employment was a central theme at the Canadian Immigration Summit, and Pearson’s work in Canada.


Photo: Pearson

"We can fight anti-immigration sentiment with facts"

The PIE: What were the main topics of discussion in relation to international education at the Canadian Immigration Summit?

Marlene Olsavsky: It was inspiring and invigorating to spend the day with such a diverse group of leaders, all of whom understand the importance of immigration as a vital asset to Canada. The agenda was built around the core themes of technology, employment and skills learning, and that’s a lot of the work we are doing here at Pearson – it was really interesting to see that parallel.

“It was so inspiring to see governments around the world highlighting the positive impact that immigration”

It was also really refreshing to hear that everybody believes that education has never been more important in an ever-changing and increasingly globally connected world.

There was a lot of talk about how people pursue education to get a better job and have a more prosperous life for themselves and their family. That’s the main driver for so many people coming to Canada.

One of the big talks was around the intersection between technology and learning, and one of the debates that was put forward at the conference was: will technology and especially AI take over the jobs of the future that so many people are coming to Canada to attain?

Our point of view on this is that technology is not going to displace workers, but we are going to figure out a way to see the marriage of human skills and technology and bring that to life.

And for me, what is so promising is that we are already doing this at Pearson. We are seeing the marriage of human skills and technology come to life with some of our products on offer. For example, Pearson’s own test of English was designed and developed by people, but it’s administered and evaluated by machine learning.

There’s actually a lot of benefits to this, because we use machine learning to quickly score English speaking and writing test, and the artificial intelligence underpinning of our program eliminates the bias on test taker’s looks, their accents, or other factors from scoring.

We are really proud of what we have been doing with technology, and I think we can prove that you can build fit solutions that complement human skills and technology together.

The PIE: Canada is very successful right now in the international education arena. But what are stakeholders’ main worries?

 MO: There was a lot of discussion about the anti-immigration sentiment that’s beginning to emerge as a result of the proactive immigration policies of the government. The immigration minister Ahmed Hussen talked about this when he opened the conference.

“We can do more to tell positive stories”

While it’s disappointing to see that’s happening, it’s inevitable – but it was so inspiring to see that the government of Canada, and governments around the world, are taking increasing measures to highlight the positive impact that immigration is having on individuals, on communities, and on the entire society.

One thing that’s really interesting is that IRCC launched the #whyimmigrationmatters campaign: it is a great example of an initiative to create awareness of the beneficial impact that immigration is having in revitalising communities across Canada.

Personally, I think, as individuals, friends, members of our community, we can do more to tell positive stories, and we can fight the anti-immigration sentiment with facts. That’s the message that minister Hussen left us with: you need to fight fear with facts.

I am going to adopt that stand and make sure we highlight the positive stories that are happening within our community and our business.

The PIE: What market trends are shaping the work of Pearson in Canada?

MO: It’s an exciting time to be at Pearson, in Canada and in the education space. Everywhere you look right now you can see the impact of technology and globalisation on education, we are seeing the change happening in the communities we serve. Our objective is to help Canadians and people who plan to make their life in Canada acquire the tools they need to thrive and improve their employability outcomes.

“We are seeing the demand for solutions that are more culturally relevant”

The first trend that we are seeing is an increase in demand for more resources to support English and French language training, and for more accurate and secure English language assessment.

We have been working really closely with colleges and universities and professional bodies across Canada to invest more in building up those solutions to meet the needs of the market.

We are also seeing the demand for solutions that are more culturally relevant. People who are coming to Canada or are in Canada want cultural examples to be embedded in their academic material, real opportunities to develop the skills they are going to need to apply when they are in the workforce.

Providing culturally-relevant content has always been a strength at Pearson, but we are doing more to reflect the growing and evolving diversity of Canada and we are working with a lot of partners to leverage technology, including AI, to build simulations of skills-based learning, so that students leave college and university with the skills they need to be successful in their first job.

Finally, we are seeing an increase in demand for resources and services for pre-arrival through to settlement for international students and newcomers in general.

There is a really vast ecosystem supporting this work, and we have been working closely with institutions, with local, municipal and federal government, and other partners to figure out how we can collectively work together to improve outcomes for international students and newcomers in Canada.

“I think both French for academic purposes and general French will grow a lot”

I don’t think any single organisation is going to be able to address this demand on its own, so it’s going to take partnerships and collaboration between the business, academic and political community to satisfy this need.

I think there are a lot of opportunities for Canada overall, and for the people that are coming to our wonderful country.

The PIE: How is the French training sector developing?

 MO: Certainly, there is an effort from the government to try and promote French language training. French is a really key skill for people moving to Canada.

There is funding flowing from the government into French training and assessment, and although it’s still too early to say how it will all play out, we are seeing an increasing demand for more materials available in French and more resources to help support learners that learn French for the first time. I think both French for academic purposes and general French will grow a lot.

It’s an exciting area for us, and Pearson in Canada has two main headquarters: one in Toronto and one in Montreal, and our Quebec office leads operations for training in both French and English. I think we are uniquely placed to work with the institutions and the government that are putting funding into these programs to support French language training.

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