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Building Learning Experiences: Alex Grady, TIE'20

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Technology, Innovation, and Education reflects on his time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Alex Grady

Alex Grady: "I spent a lot of time at the Gutman Library this year. The sign outside the library reads, 'Learn to Change the World.' Coming from New Zealand, a country that often gets left off the map, this seemed like a pretty daunting call to action."

Photo courtesy of Alex Grady

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes 13 Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Alex Grady will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Technology, Innovation, and Education (TIE) at HGSE's Virtual Commencement on May 28.

Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt, faculty director of TIE, comments on Grady's selection: "Alex is totally engaged in our classes, and especially in the co-curricular life of TIE, where he consistently demonstrates leadership in organizing special events and promoting learning opportunities.  As usual, the students are more eloquent than I could be … so listen to some of their comments in nominating Alex as this year’s Intellectual Contribution Award winner:

  • Alex’s interest in learning design and his efforts to create industry-student communication was a key student initiative. This to me is an important perspective to maintain, given the fast-moving nature of the world today and the rapidly changing circumstances we all operate within.
  • As one of the co-leads of the HGSE Design Club, Alex did a great job of bringing relevant speakers to TIE. The lineup of professionals from Amazon, Duolingo, and IDEO (among others) was very timely for those of us who are pursuing a career as user experience designers.
  • Alex helped create a space where we could learn from and about different companies in tech and education. This helped many of us think critically about our learning at HGSE and our future careers.

"Serious study, leadership in connecting students with professional practitioners, and relentlessly positive disposition are qualities we highly value in TIE, and Alex Grady clearly demonstrates those virtues every day."

We spoke to Grady about his time at HGSE, his future plans, and what the new normal in education might look like:

What does the photo above mean to you?

Alex Grady: I spent a lot of time at the Gutman Library this year. The sign outside the library reads, "Learn to Change the World." Coming from New Zealand, a country that often gets left off the map, this seemed like a pretty daunting call to action. The library wasn't just a place to trawl through textbooks and finish assignments, it became a second home for a lot of us at HGSE, many who had traveled to Cambridge from all parts of the globe. It was a place to meet for coffee, plan events, support one another in our work, and discuss global education challenges. Most days, on my way to class, the sign was ignored, especially when it snowed, but I really have left this place feeling encouraged to think big and strive to have a positive impact through my work.

What are your post-HGSE plans?

AG: I'm working at Unity Technologies, leading a project to improve learning experiences for educators who teach 3D development. I'm also involved in a start-up with a group of fellow Harvard and MIT students. We've developed a training program for university graduates in Nigeria, setting them up with entrepreneurial and labor-demand skills and supporting them through placements at innovation-driven start-up
 
I aim to keep driving the creation of learning experiences at scale with mindful and human-centered practices that are informed by current theories of how people learn and how they engage with technology. The TIE Program has encouraged me to acknowledge bias and think intentionally about decision-making. It has also instilled in me the drive to continue to learn and to follow new developments in the field.

"I'm optimistic about the potential of things like artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality to address some of the issues in education and hope advances in the field may make learning more meaningful, motivating, equitable, and inclusive." – Alex Grady

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education?

AG: I was pretty worried ahead of starting the program at Harvard that I was going to be surrounded by people who knew a lot more than I did and had a heck of a lot more experience. This assumption was confirmed within minutes of arriving on campus. I found, through the year, that classmates, teachers, and alumni were excited and keen to discuss shared interests and provide insights from their experiences. This really opened my eyes to new areas, ideas, and ways of thinking. The network at Harvard is extraordinary. By seeking opportunities to surround myself with people who knew more than me, asking questions, and challenging ideas, I was able to learn new things and be continuously inspired.

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?

AG: Karen Brennan played a crucial part in my success and enjoyment of the program this year. As an adviser and teacher, she was supportive, generous, kind, and always positive. Her course, Designing for Learning by Creating, encouraged me to think in new ways and gave me confidence in bringing creative ideas to life. I learned lots about creating compelling, large-scale learning experiences just by seeing how she masterfully planned and facilitated her class of over 100 students each week. It's a testament to her dedication that she sits down with every student in the final week for 20 minutes to provide feedback and encouragement. Do the math on that. It's crazy! The donuts and coffee she provided each week were also pretty neat. 

How has the pandemic shifted your views of education? 

AG: I think the pandemic will have significant impacts on education. The last few months have accelerated the trend towards online learning and technological innovation, which has made much of what we've been learning in the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program this year seem very relevant. I'm optimistic about the potential of things like artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality to address some of the issues in education and hope advances in the field may make learning more meaningful, motivating, equitable, and inclusive. Professor Dede, who has encouraged my fellow students and me to think critically about what this crisis might mean for education, captured it nicely when he said, "Necessity is the father of transformation." I hope that the tragedy might lead us to rethink systems and practices in education that don't work for everyone.