Master of Marlborough College Malaysia Simon Burbury says AI could be a game changer for education

The schoolmaster also shares how his eclectic mix of interests enhances his role as an educator.

Burbury: The potential for AI to enhance the human experience — for every pupil to have a virtual tutor, and every teacher to have a virtual assistant — is very exciting (Photo: Marlborough College Malaysia)

Options: How has your introduction to Malaysia been so far?
Simon Burbury
: I arrived in Malaysia mid-July last year and started my current role on Aug 1. I feel very honoured and proud to be master of Marlborough College. It is a wonderful institution and a really great community. The experience so far has been hugely rewarding, humbling, inspiring and a whole lot of fun. Every day is different and often unpredictable, from wearing my suit inside out for ‘Inside Out Day’ and running through the jungle waist-high in mud to discussing the school’s future with various stakeholders. The variety of each day is what makes being master of this college such an invigorating experience.

We also seldom hear of schoolmasters who have completed the gruelling Marathon des Sables (MdS), the toughest footrace on earth, which we were told starts with AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.
I started running 20 years ago, quite simply, to get fit. I initially struggled to run from one lamp post to the other and just gradually built up the distance until I was counting in kilometres, rather than lamp posts.

I completed the London Marathon in 2010, a major milestone, but just carried on adding distance to my runs until I found myself running ultramarathons. And so the MdS seemed like the ultimate running challenge: 50-degree heat bouncing off salty white sand, miles of energy-sapping sand dunes, beautiful mountain vistas and remote abandoned villages. It was rough but actually the camaraderie made the challenge surprisingly enjoyable. And, yes, they really do blast Highway to Hell on the start line!


Burbury at Marathon des Sables (Photo: Simon Burbury)

You were also a naval officer, concert pianist and professional scuba diver. Tell us about your eclectic career path.
These are all hobbies versus serious career ventures. However, my first visit to Malaysia was actually to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the DBKL (Kuala Lumpur City Hall) symphony orchestra. So, I took my piano-playing fairly seriously in my early years.

Scuba diving came about because I spent five years teaching in Egypt and had weekend access to the Red Sea. I became an instructor so I could take students diving and lead dive trips.

I also became a naval officer (and sailing instructor) so I could lead the Royal Navy contingent of the Combined Cadet Force on various ‘afloat’ activities, from sailing off the west coast of Scotland to powerboating around the Firth of Forth. This eclectic mix of interests has enhanced what I can offer as an educator.

How do you aim to share this vast wealth of life experiences and knowledge with your students?
By spending time with them and sharing my stories, whether through a formal lecture, assembly or presentation or, more informally, during a dinner conversation or activity. Getting involved in the life of the college is absolutely key to this.

Do you feel education has changed from the time you were a student yourself?
The biggest thing is technology. I am embarrassed to say that the internet did not exist when I was at school, never mind AI (artificial intelligence).

We had to go to the library for information — volumes of encyclopaedia were my Google. Education has changed — and is still changing — from very much a knowledge-based and assessment regime to a much more skills-based and personalised learning environment.

AI, if harnessed in the right way, could be a genuine game changer for education. The potential for AI to enhance the human experience — for every pupil to have a virtual tutor, and every teacher to have a virtual assistant — is very exciting.



What was your original childhood ambition?
As a teenager, I was quite torn between studying engineering or music. My career adviser at school pushed for the former but my heart yearned for the latter. The heart won and I have loved being involved with music throughout my career. Even now, I direct a community ‘Pops’ orchestra, which I recently set up, and always relish the chance to play the piano whenever the opportunity arises.

Given your musical proclivity, what do you enjoy playing on the piano most and why?
Popular classics — nothing too difficult. Anything that I can play without thinking about too much.

Who are you listening to right now, though?

What are you reading now?
Drive by Daniel Pink, all about how to motivate people. The best teachers and support staff need to be energised, motivated, inspiring, enthusiastic and ready to go the extra mile. The more effective I can be at facilitating that, the better — so I am always willing to learn. I tend to say that working in a busy boarding school like Marlborough is as much a lifestyle choice as it is a job.

Have you had the chance to dive in the region yet?
Sipadan, off the coast of Borneo — widely recognised as possibly the best diving location in the world — is definitely on my bucket list.

Describe your idea of a perfect weekend.
An ideal weekend would involve some kind of adventure with family and/or friends. A quick flight up to Langkawi, perhaps. Some island-hopping on jet skis or in canoes — or even, perhaps, on a yacht (I just love being on the water). A leisurely walk in the hills, to a waterfall that we can cool off in, would be lovely. And the weekend would definitely involve good food in a nice restaurant, ideally with some musical entertainment. Action-packed.


This article first appeared on Feb 12, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

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