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Donna Hay: Legacy of learning

Sep 24, 2021
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I often find that it is those of us with important-sounding titles who get the most recognition for our work, and sometimes for what doesn’t even feel like our own work. Too often, there are those who make a lasting and important contribution who don’t get many awards and accolades, and this couldn’t be more true of our own Donna Hay. This week, we were deeply saddened to learn that Donna has passed away. We know that Donna wasn’t motivated by titles, awards or recognition, but we wanted to honour and celebrate the contribution Donna has made and the legacy she leaves behind.

Donna joined Apps for Good in 2015 after a career as a computing teacher, one she started after 13 years in industry with HSBC. Donna was Apps for Good’s Senior Learning Manager, but that title doesn’t do justice to the role she played. Donna created all of our learning materials, from the content teachers present in the classroom to the support and training we provide to them. If you have ever taught Apps for Good or been one of our students since Donna joined, you have used materials Donna has created. When Donna started she quickly built on our existing model, bringing her wealth of firsthand experience and insights as an educator. She has shaped this content so much that our colleagues in Portugal simply call it ‘The Donna Content’.

The breadth of content Donna has created is too long to list here, but I know she was most proud of our Machine Learning programme. When starting to write this course, Donna wasn’t an expert in the topic, but she dived into the challenge, taking courses, absorbing as much as she could reading books and online sources, and learning from fellow educators and from industry experts. She went on to create the UK’s first comprehensive machine learning programme, one that has been used by thousands of students and hundreds of teachers around the world. This spirit of taking on challenges went across everything Donna did. No task was ever too great for her. In fact, she thrived on learning and it was this love of learning she brought to Apps for Good.

Donna wanted young people to be independent and empowered digital citizens. She never shied away from difficult topics or conversations. She often used her swimming pool analogy: “You don’t keep young people safe in the pool by keeping them out of the water. Instead you teach them to swim.”

Donna cared deeply about the teaching community; she was a staunch supporter of teachers and their rights and needs. She always strove to be one step ahead so that teachers had everything they needed in and out of the classroom. This was never more apparent than during the pandemic. Within days of the lockdown, entirely without direction from anyone, Donna announced she had created a Home Study version of our most popular course, one that went on to be used by thousands of students. During the rocky and uncertain return to in-person schooling in September 2020, Donna kept a close watch on the education sector, making multiple adaptations to our courses so they worked in all different scenarios, even where teachers didn’t have access to computers.

Outside of work, Donna’s family was the centre of her life, her home a hub of activity. She had recently taken courses that she acknowledged were outside her comfort zone, such as philosophy and literature, and most recently, pottery. She always updated us on her progress, or lack of, with a joyful smile and sparkle in her eye.

Hundreds of thousands of young people and thousands of teachers globally will continue to use ‘The Donna Content.’ She leaves a lasting legacy for computing education, one that will continue to enrich classrooms for years and decades to come. From her I know they will gain her love of learning and that same bravery and resilience to keep striving forward no matter what comes your way. At Apps for Good, she leaves a huge gap in our team and our hearts. We too plan to carry forward with that spirit of bravery and resilience and challenge to keep on learning.

Heather Picov, Chief Executive Officer, Apps for Good

Below we have asked others who worked with or knew Donna to share their thoughts. If you’d like to add something here, please email us at natalie.moore@appsforgood.org.

Whenever someone asks why I continue to work at Apps for Good after so many years, my first answer is always because of the passion and commitment of our small yet ambitious team. The team that continues to deliver and put our students and teachers first, no matter what challenge is thrown at us. There is no denying that Donna was an absolutely fundamental part of that team, and right now, it’s hard to envisage a future without her. I first started working with Donna in 2013, she was a teacher delivering our App Development course at Abbeywood Community School, I specifically remember supporting her to get her students entries in for the Awards that year. Donna then transitioned from teacher to team member, and as mentioned above, the learning content that she has created over the years has gone on to inspire thousands of young people around the world. I had the pleasure of line managing Donna for the last couple of years and we would catch up over Google Hangouts every Tuesday afternoon. We would always spend the first 15 minutes putting the world to rights, gossiping, venting and most importantly talking about Donna’s family. Her children, grandchildren and kittens were her everything. No challenge was ever too big for Donna, she absolutely loved to learn, and that’s a legacy that I’ll ensure lives on. You’ll be missed more than you'll ever know Donna x

Natalie Moore, Chief Operating Officer, Apps for Good

So sad to hear of Donna’s passing. I have such fond memories of working closely together at Apps for Good. We worked together in little bursts on educational content. We would meet every week and critique and develop content together. She was such a joy to work with. I learned so much from Donna. Thoughtful, kind, empathetic, curious. So many more words but I’m sure they’ll be said. My heart goes out to Donna’s friends and family. Losing someone is always sad and hard to comprehend. I only knew Donna in a professional capacity. I’d like people to remember that her work has been super-important to 1,000’s of children across the UK and further afield, and she’s left so much behind so that others can grow and be better people. Rest in peace, Donna x

Noam Sohachevsky, Co-founder, Design Club and SIDE Labs

Donna has been a crucial part of the team for many years now and played such an important role as a former teacher who had taught our course, but also as a role model for other teachers. On Sunday night I posted a message on LinkedIn for the centenary of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who underpins a lot of the work we do at Apps for Good with the quote "There is no teaching without learning" and Donna did just that. Working on new course content, whether that was machine learning & AI or now more recently climate action & wellbeing. She would always get stuck in and enjoy the challenge or learning something new. There is a quote that summarised well for me Paul Freire's role for teachers as a person in the background supporting them: "it's impossible to live without dreams". I feel Donna played a very similar role for many of our students: in the background, training teachers, creating great learning content and constantly improving it. That's how I will always remember her as a person who helped others live their dreams.

Iris Lapinski, Chair, Apps for Good

I met Donna almost fifteen years ago when I was running a secondary school IT centre and library and Donna had been given it as a teaching space because there weren't enough actual classrooms. She soon felt like a 'mate' as much as a colleague - we bonded over a love of all things geeky, a passion for creative teaching, and time spent marvelling at the technical ineptitude of our management team. She was an enthusiastic, generous and dedicated teacher who cared immensely about the quality of learning her students received. It has been such a joy to continue working with her through my involvement with Apps for Good - to be working alongside such a creative powerhouse and vibrant, fun person to share ideas with. It really felt like she'd found her place in her working life, somewhere where she could put her inventiveness and love of learning to best use without being limited by the constraints often found within the school system. Whenever we worked on a project together we always caught up on each other's lives briefly and it was wonderful to hear Donna speak with such love for her mum and kids (and the next generation!) and to hear her pride as her youngest grew into adulthood. I shall miss Donna very much, but I shall always remember her with a smile and a chuckle... and will vow to myself to try to be as principled and full of life as I found her!

Vic Jenkins

Whilst members of the team and I spoke to Donna a lot during design and discovery sprints, she and I also generally spoke about non-work related things - i.e. young people, the government, and generally putting the world to rights. In every conversation, I always went away feeling great about speaking to someone who cared so much. She was kind, truly passionate about supporting young people to thrive, and used all her expertise so generously. Although the world is a smaller place without Donna, it will grow again through her magical work that will continue to touch young lives up and down the country for many years to come. We'll miss her.

Darshan Sanghrajka, Founder, Super Being Labs

It was a total joy working with Donna. Her passion for learning, teaching and transforming the curriculum was evident in all that she did. I had the pleasure of working with Donna for several years at Apps for Good. She grasped challenges with both hands and got stuck in. The Machine Learning course was a major triumph for Donna – something which has impacted so many students and engaged so many industry and funding partners from Day 1. The development of the App in a Day course opened up new avenues for Apps for Good to keep growing and innovating, and Donna was always keen to find new ways to deepen our impact. The student and teacher experience was always at the forefront of Donna’s mind – the very core to Apps for Good’s continued success over the years. Donna’s enjoyment for teaching and learning was only outshone by her joy and love for her family. My thoughts are with them at this very difficult time, and I know she will be so greatly missed by so many.

Sophie Ball, Strategic Development Manager, University of Salford

Donna played a key role in the Gender Balance in Computing team due to her expertise and insights into effective pedagogy and curriculum content for the computing classroom. We valued her knowledge and experience, as well as her passion for developing the best possible learning experiences for young people. When it came to adapting content to take into account recent research findings in computing education, Donna always committed to getting the job done with inordinate enthusiasm and tenacity, and to an incredibly high standard. She was a fantastic person to work with and she will be missed by us all.

Sue Sentance, CLO at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, on behalf of the Gender Balance in Computing partner organisations and team