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Q&A with Colin Stoddart

Reading time: approx 11 minutes

As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Colin Stoddart, Chief Marketing Officer at UCD Professional Academy.

UCD Professional Academy was founded in 2020. Specialising in live online learning, the organisation was in a unique position to take advantage of the switch to remote learning following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. It now employs more than 70 people across the organisation and offers over 40 courses in a range of areas, including project management, leadership, digital marketing, cybersecurity and both the technical and social science aspects of artificial intelligence.

A native of Scotland, Colin earned his undergraduate and master’s degree in management from Glasgow University. After leaving third-level education, he held marketing roles in the hospitality and transport sector before moving into financial services, first as a Marketing and Customer Relationship Manager with FBD Insurance in 2005 and then later as Marketing Senior Specialist with Zurich Financial Services in 2011. A year-long stint as Head of Conversion with CarTrawler was followed by a three-year spell as EU Digital Marketing Director with J2 Global, which he joined in 2015. Prior to joining UCD Professional Academy, Colin worked as Head of Digital with the Digital Marketing Institute for three years.

Colin joined UCD Professional Academy in 2021 as Director of Digital Marketing and has held the role of Chief Marketing Officer for 12 months. The role involves the management of a broad range of professional academy diplomas and course materials, with a specific focus on individual and corporate learners. He also oversees an extensive programme of research which tracks areas where UCD Professional Academy is meeting the needs of students as well as opportunities to improve.

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

Firstly, as a marketing and customer-orientated guy, I feel blessed to have found this area because I enjoy my work and get great satisfaction out of it. The big lesson I’ve learned, and one I try to instill in my teams, is that your work and output should satisfy you.

Secondly, I’ve worked in very small companies with a handful of employees and very big companies with workforces of thousands. The recurring lesson from those experiences is that 80% is often good enough. If you’re building projects or trying to innovate, don’t hang around expecting perfection. The anti-perfection mindset helps keep energy levels up to complete projects and allows for learnings and iterations to be planned.

Thirdly, as a leader I’ve found that the most rewarding aspect of any project is when your team is working well. Working together towards common goals is so professionally rewarding. It’s a cliché, I know, but any success that I might have had individually as a leader, it’s really been down to the team working with me. They’re delivering that success.

What was the best advice you ever received?

I once had a mentor who advised me to break down any task into its component blocks, then look at the most difficult bits and break them down again. I’ve even applied that to situations outside the professional context. I renovated a house recently and I used that principle. It’s a useful way of compartmentalising the difficult bits and allows you to keep up your enthusiasm and foresight. In a digital world, maintaining energy and enthusiasm can be hard – especially over Zoom.

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

When I first became manager of a large team, it surprised me how rewarding I found it. I like forging teams and celebrating the wins. I’ve become more of a leader at heart and think more about how my decisions affect the teams. A mentor told me in the past: enjoy your work but maintain a lightness with it; be serious and focused and committed but keep a professional distance from the serious stuff. That’s the best way to keep going.

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

As much as team culture is important, there’s also a data-driven mindset that’s important in the teams I run. In terms of marketing, digital marketing and customer and business growth, data is such an important thing to be able to grasp. For me, this skillset is as important as any of the more creative and softer skills in marketing. It’s important to understand the general ideas of trending and forecasting and, wherever you’re deploying your resources, being able to measure the impact of those decisions.

How has AI impacted your organisation/industry?

I don’t think that we really know yet how AI is going to fully affect the industry or the world of work but, within the world of education, AI is fascinating. The UCD Professional Academy formulates its strategy and thinking about AI in three ways. The first is content and course creation; generative AI is a great opportunity for us to short circuit that process, test ideas and simplify our outputs. The second is assessment methodology; the whole question of learning assessment will become philosophically complicated when AI is adopted on a mainstream basis in the next few years, just in the same way as the internet was viewed with suspicion but is now completely mainstream. The third area, which is the most interesting, is adaptive learning; the idea that an AI tool or programme can personalise a curriculum towards individual learners based on recurring feedback. It could also adapt to different learning formats. For instance, if the AI senses that someone is a more of visual learner, it could provide more visual content. It’s an emerging field and one that that I’m very interested in. I can see how AI could affect learning at all levels – from childhood learning to professional learning. Traditional ideas of fixed curriculum and delivery methodology are entirely understandable from a practical perspective, but now we have AI tools that can personalise the learning experience. That creates new and fascinating learning opportunities for people with disabilities, divergent students, and others.

What are the opportunities and/or risks from AI to your business or sector and/or the learning technology industry?

For me, the opportunities far outweigh the risks. Any emerging technology will carry some degree of risk but I’m an optimist at heart. AI represents a huge opportunity, particularly with adaptive and personalised learning. Education institutions of all types have a chance to embrace this technology, to create welcoming environments for all kinds of students. AI can help with making education more accessible to more people.

Why is R&D important in your industry?

It’s critical. In terms of the delivery of learning and education, it’s important that educators are up to date with the latest technologies – whether that’s physical technologies or software that facilitates learning over remote distances or in remote environments, or classroom technologies that facilitate live feedback from learners.

The Professional Academy is part of UCD but we are operating in a very different educational sphere to the university itself. The learners we support are in a very different place in their careers so it’s important that we maintain the integrity of our existing courses. With our courses in AI, or the project management and leadership courses we provide, we are making sure that our 12-week Professional Academy diplomas are in line with the latest thinking. We look to the market and listen to our students to meet the challenge of ensuring the course content is updated and goes through a regular refresh cycle.

How should we prepare for the future of work? Does AI have a role to play in this?

We don’t know what the long-term implications of AI are going to be. Any emerging technology, whether it’s the internet or the invention of the printing press, will bring a transitional period in which certain roles become less important – but I don’t see any reason to believe that the net employment figures won’t be positive in the end. Job descriptions that we never heard before will become common in 10 years’ time. Change is inevitable. Coding and some of the harder technical skills are going to change significantly because one of the key use cases of ChatGPT is code development. That will move core skills development to softer skills.

What are the biggest skills challenges to your business or sector?

Soft skills are critical and are most popular in business-specific management areas. We’re broadening our AI courses and will be taking new angles on programme development over the next year or two. Whether you want to be coder or content creator or build your leadership capabilities, skills attainment is the ongoing ambition for students and learners. That mindset is becoming much more natural. UCD can be proud that it has delivered an operation that allows people to learn in formats and across timescales that suit them. This has registered with the market. People tell us that 12 weeks is a perfect length of time for a study programme. People may not want to study for a solid two years, but they do want to learn and progress in their career. We fit into that lifestyle choice.

What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?

Learning Technology: A Complete Guide for Learning Professionals by Donald Clarke is a fascinating textbook and contains a memorable opening chapter about how cave paintings represent the first example of learning technology.

On business, The Structuring of Organisations by Henry Mintzberg is a classic tome on how to build organisations and teams of any size. I still dip into it and the themes are still relevant now as they were in 1979 when Mintzberg was looking at car assembly plants.

Another one that I enjoyed was Leadership by Alex Ferguson. I find it inspiring that a guy from Glasgow has achieved so much and is so internationally renowned and respected. The book is very much about how to get the best out of people and managing their different quirks. His longevity and success are fascinating if you look at how much the industry changed over his career.

What are your favourite tools and resources in work?

From an AI perspective, we use ChatGPT for idea generation. It’s a great tool at which to throw ideas and create a starting point. We are exploring AI for video production, translations and subtitling for our video content. That’s critical for our video strategy so we’re exploring a few technologies that allow us to do that better. We use some clever CRM and web automation technologies and integrations that allow us to optimise our traffic acquisition, conversion and media design.

Any interesting podcasts or other media do you consume that you would recommend on learning, technology or business?

Lex Friedman is a tech podcaster and lecturer in MIT. His podcast is released weekly. Each of them is three or four hours long and he has a good range of guests, including Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI. It’s a great format and allows for in-depth conversation that goes beyond simple news bites.

New York Times’ Hard Fork is also a useful, light hearted and detailed view of tech and marketing.

On a personal note, I enjoy The Celtic Exchange podcast, which covers all things related to Celtic Football Club, and with a love of music, I’ve recently been enjoying Questlove Supreme’s long-form interviews.

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?

Learnovate builds a vibrant sense of community across various strands of the Irish education sector. Whether you’re a vendor or supplier, Learnovate brings everyone together in a lively and enjoyable way through its annual Learnovation conference, which is a fantastic event and a great chance to meet your peers in the sector.

For the UCD Professional Academy, it’s important that we can demonstrate value to our customers, particularly our corporate and business customers. We aspire to lifelong learning, but what’s critical for businesses of all shapes and sizes is to be able to demonstrate the impact and commercial value of that learning investment. Demonstrating genuine strategic value is a challenge. We love to demonstrate the commercial numbers where we can. And Learnovate is vital to helping us do that.

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