Valerie Schreiner of Turnitin: “My advice for anyone in technology is to be constantly learning”

My advice for anyone in technology is to be constantly learning, to not let anything limit what you learn. Everybody in tech has to have an attitude that everything they know is outdated in 12 months. And because that’s true, it’s far less about gender or any other demographic and more about your ability to […]

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My advice for anyone in technology is to be constantly learning, to not let anything limit what you learn. Everybody in tech has to have an attitude that everything they know is outdated in 12 months. And because that’s true, it’s far less about gender or any other demographic and more about your ability to see trends and integrate them wisely into your work.

As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Valerie Schreiner, Chief Product and Marketing Officer with Turnitin.

Valerie Schreiner is the Chief Product and Marketing Officer with Turnitin, a company that develops academic solutions that support educators and students in fostering original thinking and academic integrity. Schreiner leads product development and marketing at one of the largest education technology companies in the world. She has a long history in the education and edtech industry and has served on the board of several successful technology start-ups.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?

Mypath has always been to find ways to use technology for good and to help people. In this current climate where everyone is worried about COVID-19 and schools and businesses are locked down, this value seems more relevant than ever. I’ve never worked anywhere that my job wasn’t about that core principle of working with technology in ways that benefit and help real people.

I started working in technology in 1988, which is a universe ago relative to technology progressions. In 2005, I joined a company that was among the first to use video conferencing for education. One interesting and a fulfilling application was that the technology was used to teach midwives in Africa how to reduce infant mortality.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

Technology does not have to be about efficiency and speed — it need not be soulless. Right now while we face the first modern pandemic of a global scale, we don’t need speed. We need tech that humanizes, brings people together or gives them ways to keep on working, teaching, and living their lives in productive ways. In the right setting, with the right goals, technology — especially for education — can be a real force for good. It can significantly change lives. The lesson is if you want to do good things, commit yourself to find those opportunities be they through your vocation or your avocation.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

I’m excited about a tool we’re building to help colleges and universities detect whether student work is original or not. In partnership with several universities, we launched a beta version of this tool last year and it continues to get stronger and more effective. This is about more than detecting plagiarism, it can identify work purchased from outside sources — otherwise known as “contract cheating.” Our product uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help educators identify work that may require a closer look.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There have been many, honestly.

One was Maurice Heiblum, Elluminate’s former president. He saw something in me when I was in a sales role. He gave me the opportunity to be a product manager, build a team, and take ownership of a technology project. I have forever been appreciative of his willingness to cede some responsibilities to me. He has continued to mentor me through my career, offering advice about what jobs and companies I should pursue.

What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry?

Most of what I’m excited about is at the intersection of AI and education.

One is the potential for AI to reduce costly, repetitive tasks for faculty and teachers — the kinds of work that take a lot of time and take away from directly interacting with students. For example, AI can improve efficiency in the areas of grading and paperwork.

Another is the ability of AI to play a role as a real-time tutor during reading or writing. Good AI can make suggestions, flag problem areas, and help students improve as they work, not after.

AI has the ability to create personal learning pathways for students, which is again critical in the world when COVID-19 is forcing students to learn remotely. One change that I believe will remain after students return to school is how AI can be used to assign appropriate work and research based on a student’s interest and ability — allowing them to move at their own pace.

Universities can employ AI and data analytics to look at students holistically and identify students at risk of dropping out. Then, the software can suggest support services optimized for the student’s individual needs, increasing the likelihood that the student successfully advances.

AI can help facilitate faster connections between graduate students and researchers around the world at the forefront of solving hugely significant problems like the need for a COVID-19 vaccine.

What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?

We have to be careful about two primary things. My first concern is the confluence of data and bias. Where bias exists in data, AI cannot only replicate it but exacerbate and amplify that bias. In education, that has serious, even life-long implications.

Data privacy is also an ongoing issue. We must strike the right balance between privacy and be able to use data that can teach and inform.

As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?

We can’t forecast too far into the future. Such a debate is, at best, premature. For now, AI is an efficiency multiplier that has immense potential across a number of important endeavors.

What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?

Listening to data engineers, designers, and developers is a good start. Their conversation and perspectives here are valid, well informed, and from my experience, sound. They are consistent in saying it’s nothing to be worried about for a long time. I will say that diversity in AI development is one way to head off the problem of potential bias. AI needs large sample sizes — diverse samples — to develop algorithms. At the current stage, we need diversity on every level from programmers to visionaries to the data itself.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

I believe that the technology companies and deployments I’ve worked on and helped lead have saved lives, raised graduation rates, and are, right now, helping students get the most from their educational experiences while freeing teachers from mundane tasks so they can focus on what they love. A Chemistry professor stated it best when he said about using our solution: “[Gradescope] has become such a transformative tool for those of us who use it that I can’t actually imagine teaching without it. I would love to see more colleagues have a similar experience.”

As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?

I don’t fixate on gender in my role or any other role in this industry because I choose to think about the entire chain of events in developing AI technology for Turnitin. But as a woman, I am a different voice and a needed voice in what is typically a male-dominated field.

My advice for anyone in technology is to be constantly learning, to not let anything limit what you learn. Everybody in tech has to have an attitude that everything they know is outdated in 12 months. And because that’s true, it’s far less about gender or any other demographic and more about your ability to see trends and integrate them wisely into your work.

Can you advise what is needed to engage more women in the AI industry?

In education, we need to have programs that let young girls know it’s cool to be in tech. It’s very appropriate to fund programs like Girls Who Code or to be visible to students in mentoring or classroom visits.

But this work starts in informal ways, too, which maybe even more important. For me, my upbringing was part of the reason tech was appealing and not something out of reach. I worked on cars with my father and it was never implied that it was a thing girls did not do. I just shifted my skills from working on car engines to working on servers and eventually software. More girls need to see the same perspective whether in their home or in schools or in the media.

How can our readers follow you on social media?


Twitter: @valschreiner

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