While Amazon’s search for a location for its second headquarters and the opening of its 40,000-plant greenhouse/workspace have made headlines recently, another new move by the Seattle-based tech giant is getting less attention but may prove just as consequential, if not more so: namely, the hiring of Candace Thille to serve as its director of learning science and engineering.
“Thille will work ‘with our Global Learning Development Team to scale and innovate workplace learning at Amazon,’” a company spokesperson told Doug Lederman of Inside Higher Ed, who refers to Thille as a “Higher Ed Superstar.”
Hardly a lifelong academic, Thille brings a balanced background from nearly 20 years working for corporate training company Interaction Associates, LLC, reaching the Executive Vice President level before beginning her graduate studies. She founded the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, working as its director from 2002-2013 and earning a Masters in Information Technology 25 years after completing her Bachelors in Sociology from UC-Berkeley. She earned a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania before starting at Stanford. Her research has focused on non-traditional learning, applications of technology in education, and data-driven approaches to training.
“She has done groundbreaking work on using cognitive science and rich data on how students learn to try to transform the teaching and learning process,” Lederman adds. Her move to Amazon, the purpose of which neither she nor the company is discussing in detail, has set education experts abuzz with speculation as to what she will be doing there:
Several observers of the education-technology landscape said they were unsurprised that a company like Amazon, whose business depends heavily on data analytics and near-constant experimentation, would turn to a high-profile learning scientist to help it improve how it trains employees.
“Amazon is experimenting with new ways to offer products and services five times a day in different places around the world,” said Louis Soares, vice president for policy research and strategy at the American Council on Education. “You need learning [for employees] that keeps up with it, almost in real time.” It’s hard to imagine anybody better than Thille to attack a problem like that, he said.
The learning and development function is a large budget line item at many organizations, making it a prime target for technological investments to improve its cost-effectiveness and outcomes. Amazon’s primary focus is on retaining, developing, and upskilling its own workforce, which is set to grow to over 500,000 employees once the second headquarters is established. We’ve seen other employers, particularly in the tech sector, adopt university-style internal education programs to bridge skills gaps, such as Airbnb’s “data university” initiative.
Whatever innovations Thille helps Amazon develop in its own training programs, it may eventually open some of these programs to the public, like Salesforce did with its Trailhead offering. If it does decide to do so, Amazon sits on an embarrassment of riches in terms of the raw material it might use to create such products, including the content from millions of books, consumer data on purchasing and reading habits, and more (Indeed, Lederman notes, the opportunity to learn more about using big data to shape education is likely part of what attracted Thille to Amazon). Conceivably, Amazon could even launch a library of online courses that would be competitive with providers like Coursera and Udemy.
This move highlights the continuing trend of top tech companies taking charge when it comes to preparing employees for the workforce needs of the future, both within their own walls and beyond. For example, Google has launched a scholarship program for IT Support training through Coursera and Oracle is hosting a digital-focused high school on its campus, while Microsoft partnered with a local university to build a data analytics program and other companies are working with providers like EdX to fill similar needs. Both Facebook and Apple recently expanded their digital training initiatives into Europe. Workers now have more options than they did a year ago for keeping up with employers’ growing range of digital needs, which hopefully will help address fears of mass job loss due to automation.