One of the most prominent researchers and critics of how learning technologies are built and used in higher education is joining, temporarily, one of the biggest tech companies in the world.
As first reported by Inside Higher Ed, Candace Thille, an assistant professor of education at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, will be working for Amazon as the company’s Director of Learning Science and Engineering. She will be taking a leave of absence from Stanford.
Neither Thille nor the company commented on what she’ll be doing specifically, other than working with Amazon’s “Global Learning Development team [to] help scale and innovate workplace learning at Amazon,” a company spokesperson wrote via email.
Thille’s new position is an internal-facing role that focuses on supporting the company’s workers across the world. (Amazon has an estimated 541,900 employees, according to an October story from Business Insider.)
The move may seem unusual particularly as Thille, a frequent speaker at education conferences, has openly questioned the role of technology companies in developing learning technologies. Considered a pioneer for her work on open and adaptive learning software, Thille has critiqued education companies for their lack of transparency in explaining how the “black box” algorithms behind their software operate. That’s a problem, she argues, as these tools increasingly inform the decisions that instructors make. “To just say: ‘Trust us. Our algorithms work,” I would argue that’s alchemy, not science,” she told EdSurge last November.
Perhaps ironically, Thille declined to shed light on the motivation behind her personal decision to work with Amazon. The same company clarified that Thille will focus on workplace learning efforts explicitly for Amazon employees, so it is unlikely that Thille will be involved in the company’s public-facing education offerings.
Amazon operates its own education division, Amazon Education, that currently offers products and services aimed at K-12 classrooms. These efforts include TenMarks, an online math and writing program, along with Inspire, a directory of online educational materials where teachers can find and share teaching materials.
Thille’s new gig may have caught the higher-education community by surprise, but it is not unprecedented. Large technology companies have hired former educators to lead training and education efforts. Kristen Swanson, a former teacher, administrator and research director at edtech startup BrightBytes, has led professional learning and development programs at Slack, the workplace collaboration company. Chris Noon, a former Oxford lecturer,has led seminars on technical topics for members of Dropbox’s sales team.