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Linda Feng

Architecting the Future: Insights from Linda Feng on Software Development and AI in Education

Can you start by sharing who you are, a bit about your family and yourself?

I'm Linda Feng, the VP of Architecture at D2L, deeply rooted in the ed tech field throughout my career. Growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the United States, our family values prioritized education above all. Both my parents, a PhD in applied mathematics and a computer scientist, were lifelong government servants at the US National Institute for Standards and Technology for over 50 years.

Raised just outside Washington, DC, in Maryland, our dinner table conversations often revolved around standards. My mother's involvement in the original ANSI SQL committee and her representation at IMS (now 1EdTech) shaped my path. Now a second-generation standards person in this space, I'm proud to continue the legacy.

✨ Pearl of wisdomSSoftware architects are akin to real architects. While developers and engineers build specific software components, architects are responsible for broader considerations. Much like architects designing a building, they decide the size of supporting structures, plan surrounding infrastructure, and assess environmental impacts.

Having that reference from your parents, what was exciting about what they did?

Growing up, I was drawn to the spirit of inquiry and the familiar setting of education. After enrolling at Stanford to study Engineering, I chose Electrical Engineering with a Computer Science subspecialty due to my affinity for math and the desire to apply science and technology.

In the late '80s, my mom suggested Oracle for a job, noting their leadership in standardizing databases on ANSI SQL. Despite the competitive landscape, Oracle emerged as a leader, leading me to work on public sector enterprise software applications. It was in the late '90s that I transitioned into the education space, initially with Oracle's student information system.

Since then, I've embraced the mission-driven culture of the education industry, making deliberate choices to stay in this field at pivotal career moments. The sense of purpose and community around our work keeps me committed to the ever-evolving landscape of education technology.

✨ Pearl of wisdomAt D2L, we intentionally structured our team to avoid creating an ivory tower. Our group of senior engineers, some with the title of architect, actively engage with specialized engineering teams, preventing silos and facilitating cross-team decision-making. This approach has been crucial in driving platformification and cross-cutting initiatives.

Could you explain what an architect does for a product or platform, especially for those not in the developer or software engineering field?

Certainly! To simplify, software architects are akin to real architects. While developers and engineers build specific software components, architects are responsible for broader considerations. Much like architects designing a building, they decide the size of supporting structures, plan surrounding infrastructure, and assess environmental impacts.

This role involves extensive communication, coordination, and a holistic perspective. Personally, I find it suits my personality, allowing me to balance the big picture with a deep understanding of technical components. As a woman in a technical field, my career took a unique path. After a leave of absence to focus on my children, I returned, choosing an individual contributor role within the architect domain. Over time, I've transitioned back into leadership positions, demonstrating the versatility and growth potential within the architect track.

✨ Pearl of wisdomThis transformative period calls for collective consideration of how AI impacts education, fostering collaboration to address challenges and ensure equitable application. Despite so many complexities, being in the educational technology space at this time is truly exciting.

How do you stay updated and shape your architectural vision? How do you ensure collaboration across teams to align with that vision?

In terms of staying current, especially as a consultant, I pursued certifications in AWS, Google Cloud, and Azure, aligning with the evolving skill sets associated with the architect role. Unlike some professions with clear-cut certification paths, architecture is more flexible, with different individuals possessing varying skill sets.

At D2L, we intentionally structured our team to avoid creating an ivory tower. Our group of senior engineers, some with the title of architect, actively engage with specialized engineering teams, preventing silos and facilitating cross-team decision-making. This approach has been crucial in driving platformification and cross-cutting initiatives.

The role of an architect varies, attracting individuals with diverse backgrounds and specializations. Some are hands-on coders, while others focus on data modeling or cloud architecture. This diversity mirrors the medical field, where different specialists address distinct needs. Understanding these nuances is key to effective collaboration and decision-making within architectural roles.

What architecture and technology trends are vital for the future of an LMS platform? 

With the shift to cloud infrastructure and the emergence of OpenAI's Gen AI technology, education is at a transformative juncture. AI's potential to offer immediate and abundant expertise challenges traditional learning models. Imagine an AI tutor providing real-time feedback and resources, reshaping the learning experience at scale.

At D2L, we are focused on supporting this evolution. We want to lean into the learning moment and make it conversational, personalized, and social. The goal is to make rich, immersive content more accessible so students can conveniently practice and improve their skills.

This transformative period calls for collective consideration of how AI impacts education, fostering collaboration to address challenges and ensure responsible and equitable application. Despite so many complexities, being in the educational technology space at this time is truly exciting.

✨ Pearl of wisdomTTwo key trends are emerging. Firstly, the traditional model of a sage mentor is shifting towards leveraging AI to replicate effective tutoring behaviors. Secondly, there's a move towards developing high-quality content with intentional curriculum design, aiming to scale it for a large audience.

You mentioned scaling certain reinforcement patterns or interactions with students. What will be expected from instructors in the future, considering these trends?

Two key trends are emerging. Firstly, the traditional model of a sage mentor is shifting towards leveraging AI to replicate effective tutoring behaviors. For instance, Khan Academy's AI tutor, Khanmigo, employs learning science principles to guide students thoughtfully. This approach emphasizes probing and encouraging students to think differently.

Secondly, there's a move towards developing high-quality content with intentional curriculum design, aiming to scale it for a large audience. This involves delivering content locally with instructors managing small teams, ensuring quality while avoiding the need for each instructor to create specialized curriculum. This model, seen in scenarios like fitness classes at studios, combines standardized content with local guidance, providing a personalized experience within a scalable framework.

Do you believe an AI-powered instructor could pass the Turing test with a student?

It's possible, and recent developments suggest we might be moving in that direction. The focus is shifting from providing answers based on prompts to guiding students through logical progression. However, there's a need for a public discourse on labeling AI stages and understanding their maturity and reasoning abilities. While current AI, like ChatGPT, may be at a certain level, the progression toward artificial general intelligence requires careful consideration of its implications. As advancements accelerate, staying informed is crucial, even leading to discussions with my mother about it.

I'd like your perspective on the role of integrations in making products within an ecosystem work seamlessly. With the increasing necessity for applications to integrate, how does this process unfold?

Certainly, there's much to discuss in the realm of integrations. Let's start by emphasizing the critical importance of data visibility, especially for instructors in the era of AI. At a recent conference, dedicated researchers focused on the data challenges in education, particularly with AI now in play. The essential link here is integration; systems generating data must communicate effectively. Consider the complexity of tracking a learner across various systems—each using different identifiers and contexts. The ultimate goal is a comprehensive, 360-degree view of the learner, encompassing not just academic data but also aspects like mindset and emotional state. This becomes crucial when contemplating replicating instructor-student interactions with AI.

Reflecting on my career, I began at Oracle, working on student information systems and learning management systems. The need for basic roster data integration between these systems was clear. However, early standards like IMS enterprise had limitations, prompting a reform effort resulting in the Learning Information Services standard (LIS). This standard, now widely adopted, ensures interoperability between Student Information Systems (SIS) and Learning Management Systems (LMS) in higher education. As technology advances, initiatives like Eduapi within 1EdTech are pushing for API-based interfaces to address evolving use cases, such as competency-based education and comprehensive learner records. This ongoing work, coupled with increased industry awareness and certification standards, is crucial in advancing the integration landscape.

✨ Pearl of wisdomThe organizational aspect tends to be the crux, but it's a synchronized dance. Success often involves identifying a critical mass of key stakeholders eager to address a shared need. Collaborative efforts emerge, even among competitors, as we agree on standardizing non-differentiating elements. This unified foundation allows us to compete innovatively above it. The benefit extends to institutions and students, emphasizing simplicity.

What's more challenging, aligning many people on a common architecture or navigating corporate interests and business decisions? Is the difficulty more technical or on the business side?

The organizational aspect tends to be the crux, but it's a synchronized dance. Success often involves identifying a critical mass of key stakeholders eager to address a shared need. Collaborative efforts emerge, even among competitors, as we agree on standardizing non-differentiating elements. This unified foundation allows us to compete innovatively above it. The benefit extends to institutions and students, emphasizing simplicity. Modern APIs offer flexibility, allowing connections even with slight variations. The key is ensuring unambiguous data interpretation, balancing standards, best practices, and iterative cycles to refine and solidify the pathway, akin to letting a path emerge organically based on user needs.

What do you consider your career's greatest achievement?

Reflecting on my career, orchestrating collaboration for the LIS standard stands out. As Oracle, we could have led in isolation, but we actively involved competitors like Ellucian with Banner and Datatel, enriching the specification and ensuring broad adoption. Beyond the technical realm, my involvement in organizations like 1EdTech allowed me to step outside my job role, fostering personal and professional growth. Serving various roles and being known as the social director for our industry gatherings, organizing activities like karaoke, has enhanced relationships and effectiveness within the community.

I'm also thrilled to share that I've been elected to the IMS Board of Directors. My four-year term begins in January, marking a significant milestone in my career. This opportunity is the culmination of the effort and work I've dedicated to 1EdTech and the education technology industry. It's a new chapter, and I'm eager to contribute in this new role.

What's your biggest challenge today at D2L?

Balancing the tension between addressing current pain points and anticipating future challenges. Prioritizing between immediate needs and projected trends is crucial. It's not just about our product but understanding the evolving education ecosystem. Considering factors like AI, shifting learning patterns, and future educational landscapes is vital to stay ahead. It's about projecting ourselves into the future and aiming for what we want to become.

✨ Pearl of wisdomBalancing the tension between addressing current pain points and anticipating future challenges is my biggest challenge today. Prioritizing between immediate needs and projected trends is crucial. It's not just about our product but understanding the evolving education ecosystem. Considering factors like AI, shifting learning patterns, and future educational landscapes is vital to stay ahead.

What moments in your career did not go as expected?

During the early stages of creating the learning information services with 1EdTech, we focused on SOAP-based APIs and designed around 200 endpoints, but only a few were used. The lesson was clear: avoid overdesigning. Now with APIs, we prioritize flexibility, starting with basics and allowing organic growth. Another lesson came from building real-time notifications in Peoplesoft. While we thought it was groundbreaking, most users stuck to the nightly batch snapshot mode, revealing that customers might not be ready for a significant change. These experiences shaped our approach, emphasizing adaptability and understanding user readiness.

Any advice for your 20-year-old self?

Reflecting on my early career, I was fortunate to work with someone more experienced, around 20 years my senior. She joined Oracle in a director role, having already navigated multiple careers. Observing her confidence and composure, I realized the value of taking time in the early stages of my career. I learned not to rush, understanding that career fulfillment doesn't have an expiration date. Though she passed away later, the lessons I gained from her influence still resonate with me.

🔥 Rapid fire questions
Ed or Tech?
When it comes down to it, I think the Ed has to win over the tech.
In person or remote?
You can do virtual work, but you can't just do virtual work.
Would you rather be stranded on a desert island with marketing people or sales people?
I would choose salespeople, just because I think they're probably more resourceful.
Specialist or generalist?
You could get AI to be the specialist, but you have to be the generalist.
Discipline or talent?
I have a bias for discipline because I'm not sure I have a lot of it. That's why I appreciate it in other people.
Thinking or doing?
You can't just think. You have to do. So if you asked me to choose, I would say do.