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Transforming 2021

The future of learning lies in fostering creativity

Adobe's lead education executive on how educators should be thinking about tech — and what tech can't achieve.

The future of learning lies in fostering creativity

Mala Sharma is invested in students' success.

Photo: Adobe

When it comes to classroom education, Adobe is probably not the first company that comes to mind. But Mala Sharma, vice president and general manager of Adobe's Creative Cloud, would like to change that.

In 2012 Adobe launched its Creative Cloud, allowing customers to use its core programs for a monthly fee — and giving access to a larger, and younger, audience. Adobe is helping in more subtle ways, as well: It launched Acrobat Web earlier this year, which makes it easier for people to convert documents to PDF on the web; it brought several of its core apps, like Photoshop, to the iPad; and it's working to bring processes like Document Cloud, Adobe Sign or Acrobat into schools so they can be more efficient.

In a conversation with Protocol, Sharma described the ways Adobe is helping students and teachers stay connected and engaged while learning online, and explained why fostering creativity is not only important for students, but for their future careers as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Do we need to rethink our approach to education in the U.S.?

There's a few things that have been consistent in education that haven't changed. This is something that we've tried to do over centuries: The first one is making sure the students are successful. It's about making sure that they have a holistic learning experience, not just about their academic success, but also that they become great citizens as they enter the world. The second one, that's also been an area of focus in education, is how do you engage a student? How do you make sure that they're paying attention in class? This has been a perennial problem. It's gotten only worse and exacerbated with remote learning because now the teachers are not right there to observe what the students are doing. [Students] could close their camera, they could be on their phones on the side. It's hard to manage. The third area is the way that schools operate efficiently. Budgets are typically constrained, and the importance of being able to operate efficiently is even more paramount, even more so now with distance learning.

Those three things have been consistent. What has changed because of COVID is the urgency to address all of those has just gotten exacerbated. Schools have been operating the same way for hundreds of years, but in one stroke, COVID required that education completely reinvents itself. And what I think I see as the opportunity for change given all of this, is when it comes to student success, it's very much about [whether] the student learned what the teacher is trying to teach them.

How is Adobe thinking about bringing its products into the classroom?

We believe that one of the most important ways of assessing that a student has learned is by having them create something. With the flipped classroom, the teacher gives the student an assignment and they come back and talk about it, which is great, but it's somewhat insufficient. The student could still just do research on Google and give the answer whether they've learned it or not. There's a taxonomy, called Bloom's taxonomy, which declares that somebody creates something, it is the most discernible and definitive way to assess whether they've learned something. If you're an engineer, and what you're trying to build is an application, one way for the teacher to assess that you have understood the concepts is to have you create a prototype. Just like a photo is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings. When COVID happened, we created a distance-learning hub for our teachers, called Adobe Education Exchange, where we created a curriculum for teachers to go and bring into their classroom, to help them figure out how to bring creativity into the classroom.

We've been hyper-focused on how we give the teachers the tools to assess whether the students [are engaged]. In fact, there's a teacher who I met during this whole COVID phase. She works up in Napa at a school called New Technology High School, and she was sharing with me, she was like, "Gosh, I'm really nervous about my new batch of ninth-graders — how am I going to connect with them? Normally we have some sort of a class party, it's a welcome thing, and this is going to be on Zoom or some other platform, and it's going to be terribly boring." What she decided to do, which was really cute and fun, but also compelling, was to use one of Adobe's products called Character Animator, where you can create a little character, and you can animate it based on your movements. She was planning to use that in her classes to drive student engagement, as there would be the surprise factor to have the students be attentive.

Hiring managers shared that one of the most important skill sets they're looking for is creativity and communication, because the problem set at work is changing. There are abstract issues. You have to bring critical thinking, critical problem solving. For you to stand out at work, you could do a memo, but creating a compelling document that has videos, photos and designs to help the person who's reading has become a really important skillset. That's, I think, a recent change, and an important change, in how teaching needs to get more engaging.

Adobe is [also] hyper-focused on how we get processes like Document Cloud or Acrobat into the working operations of schools so that they can be more efficient. We have a product called Adobe Sign where you can now sign documents digitally. This was a huge issue in the pandemic, where if you're a special-needs kid, you have to apply for grants and many were not being given the grants because the parents didn't want to go into school, and schools didn't know how to get to the parents with the physical form. So how do you digitize these workflows? How do you make schools digital to make them more efficient and trackable, but more importantly, provide access, during remote learning?

Those are the things that are changing and are really important, but I think the big one for me is how creativity comes into the curriculum. STEM is great, computers are pretty good at math and zeros and ones. What computers are not good at is abstract creative thinking and decision-making, and that's where our human creativity comes in, and therefore infusing creativity into the curriculum is really important. Recently the government of India announced that they have officially made STEAM a priority and not just STEM, which is phenomenal. And I think that's really important in the U.S. in particular. I think it's great all the efforts that people are doing around, learning how to code and STEM, all of that's fantastic, but one thing all of us are born with is creative expression. We're trying to help teachers and arm them with information on how bringing creativity into the classroom ups students' success.

Has Adobe taken into consideration the digital divide when rethinking the approach to helping students and educators adapt to this new reality?

There's a lot of work Adobe's doing in this area. From an education standpoint, whether it be through our CSR efforts or our education efforts is recognizing where the gaps are.

On my sabbatical in India, I saw the digital divide in reality. I was working in a school with sixth-graders from kids from very challenged backgrounds. And I realized that, when we gave them [our] software, they could all use it. Kids can do anything, you just have to give them access. We did this really big partnership for the government of India where a million students were given access to our software, to allow them through their schools access so that they could create. We've had this great partnership with National Geographic in the U.S., and they were addressing students from challenged backgrounds and underprivileged backgrounds, giving them access to software, so that they could learn.

How will these shifts in technology play out when in-person learning can resume?

The digital divide is one of the things that we are hyper-focused on: getting our software to the web, because the web is accessible from anywhere. We launched Acrobat Web earlier this year, which brings the access of converting your documents and creating PDFs and several such capabilities on the web. We also partnered with Google's ".new domain," where people can get access to key actions within the Google framework, to make the product more accessible and available.

In terms of what happens when COVID goes away, I believe strongly that distance learning is here to stay. Especially in higher ed, it's going to either be dominantly distance learning so people can sort of tune their learning experience, or it'll be hybrid. And self-based learning, [like] what Khan Academy created. The biggest thing that they created was your self-based learning. If I need more time, I need to study in the night, I can do that, but still graduate and learn.

I [also] don't think that is going away in terms of K-12. I do think that, especially for maybe the K-5 schools, [they] also serve as, to some extent, a daycare. Parents have to go and work, and I do think that in those early years of schooling that we'll probably go back 100% to in-person learning.

But middle school and high school, I think that there will be a certain percentage of your learning that will happen online. Whether it is through special classes that you want to take, or projects that you might do, this isn't going away. It will, I think, help and aid the learning process. It'll make it more efficient as creativity becomes more ingrained into the curriculum. And they will learn how to use these tools, whether it's video or prototypes or whatever much more naturally, because that's how they'd have to submit their projects, which would prepare them for future employability much better.

Education has changed forever. This change has been needed for a really long time. So thank you, COVID, for really pushing this vertical to modernize. It's a bit of an oxymoron. If you think about the students or the kids of this age, they are so digitally savvy, but they were learning in a non-digital way. If you go into work, it's all digital, but these kids were not learning digitally. They were digital outside of the classroom. So it's brought their reality into the classroom, which I think gives education or an opportunity to be more compelling, to be more engaging and preparing these students for the future of work.

Are there any specific ways that Adobe is developing its softwares to facilitate the shifts in technology?

Probably the two biggest or most-used platforms after the desktop are people going directly to the web and people on their phones. And so a lot of our new development is in those areas. I mentioned Acrobat [for] web, which is about taking our 30-, 35-year-old developed software, which is incredibly rich, and breaking them down into tasks. So for example, you could use InDesign to create a poster or a flier, or you can use Adobe Spark and just, say, make a flier [from] templates. Adobe is trying to simplify the creation process on these more modern devices and platforms like the web and on your phone. We introduced Photoshop on the iPad about 18 months ago, we introduced Illustrator on the iPad last year, and we had this really fun application, called Fresco. It's a drawing and painting app for your iPad and your phone, and making creation available and accessible on platforms that are more modern and more easily available as opposed to having a desktop. A big old computer with high-end specs is still important for professionals, but our mission [is] to enable creativity for all. Making software accessible [and] workable on the web and on the phone is really important.

And the second piece is using our heritage and making that accessible to artificial intelligence, whether it's Spark, whether it's Photoshop Express, Photoshop Camera, which is an application which brought the best of Photoshop effects and made it a single touch for users to create. So it's about how we simplify access to these technologies, to the masses.

What are your thoughts on apprenticeships? How necessary are they to fill the skills gap in the U.S.?

Incredibly relevant because, especially if you think about the significance of the gap that we have, the number of jobs that need to be filled, schools can certainly help. I think the creation of all of these alternative education platforms, whether it's the [video courses] of the world, or the other training platforms that are out there [for] certification [are] great and necessary, but apprenticeships, especially for professional work, [are] a really important way for people to learn on the job and start becoming effective on the job rapidly.

Adobe has an apprenticeship program that is a CSR effort we have where we bring some students in [who] want to reinvent their careers or people who are working today and are looking to shift their jobs from backgrounds where they may not have the ability to go and re-educate. It's been a great way to be of service to society, but more importantly, bring in talent, and get them to be successful in the work. And then I do hire them as permanent employees. And these employees tend to be more engaged and more effective, which is great because they're learning on the job.

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