this year’s PC Forum, Esther Dyson’s annual conclave for both the digerati
and glitterati under the Arizona spring sun, the main theme was about
“making virtual businesses real.” In the shadows and hallways, among the
deal-making and networking, there were lots of other thought-provoking
conversations—including one I had with Esther herself. “So what about,”
I asked, “the real future of learning and how technology is going to change
it, make it better, or make it different. What do you think?”
enough, straightforward question, asked lots of times in magazines and
meetings, of lots of people, probably every week for the last many years.
But I’d never heard an answer from this lady, a guru-ess of the internet
to this kind of “big idea” question are hard, even harder when you ask
someone who’s obviously given huge amounts of thought to this and a thousand
related things to the basic “internet-changes-world-we live in” topic.
Her first reaction, courteous but thinly veiled bemusement, was delivered
via pure body language: “What am supposed to say? Like do you want the
one—all-singing, all-dancing epigram—that will wash away human confusion
in one sentence?” She smiled at me.
I persisted. She grabbed a small fruit tart from the
lunch table nearby, and we sat down in the conference tent and began to
talk. An unapologetic multi-tasker, she spoke while also clicking away
on her laptop, but answered my follow-ups patiently. Some highlights of
the twenty minute exchange.
“Let’s start with learning and education per se. Begin with some inevitability.
Money in the world is now in ample supply and physical manufacturing is
becoming a commodity. So, what else are people going to invest in long
term except learning? This will only get bigger. The world has no need
for more physical workers. It needs mental workers.”
“But a lot of people still don’t get that. Why isn’t that part of more
future planning and investment?”
“Look, learning as a topic is still not sexy. People think about their
own, usually terrible, school experiences, and stop there. They can’t
make the leap to imagining something else. Also, they just assume the
government is supposed to do it for them.”
“So what about the technology revolution. What’s really going to be different
in the future regarding learning?”
“Well where we are today is obviously still pretty primitive. The future
will show that stuff like CD-ROM courses will not be very significant.
Learning doesn’t go on online; it goes on in your head. The real impact
will be things like just-in-time learning approaches and performance support.
Audiences like sales people, things like building motivation.”
you’ll see—and what we already see—is technology helping to do the rote,
unimaginative tasks, and freeing people to do the value-added human things.
With technology, the FedEx guy can stop worrying about the package and
spend more time smiling and talking to customers. And that’s important
learning. Learning is about reassembling mental models. That’s still going
to be a people thing.”
“Any other promising technologies?”
“Well, there will be some value coming from technology approaches based
on simulations. Those start to get at human mental models. But in general,
it’s hard to describe the future paradigm based on specific technologies.
Communication is clearly also a major part of the story, but again let’s
not overemphasize it. The ‘net enables communication to take place faster,
and at lower bandwidth. It speeds access to other people; it speeds ability
to talk back. Communication among people is tremendously important for
learning, and technology obviously helps here—but it doesn’t change the
circuits in your brain. That only comes when technology and organizational
approaches are combined in new ways. If I had a billion dollars to invest,
I’d invest it in teacher training. The leverage is in the people who have
to do things in new ways and teach others.”
“OK, let’s finish up with some advice. If one is interested in this topic,
what are three things to consider or focus on in charting the future?”
Esther: “Well…first, I just want to reemphasize
the need to focus on the people who teach and learn—really understand
the human processes and only then how they use technology to augment them.
Second, anything that helps rearrange mental models will be important.
Simulations are very promising, but there will be other things too. Third,
people have to understand the need to invest in themselves, and begin
conscious programs to manage their own professional destinies. We’re going
to see more codification of skills and competences as the whole employment
market becomes more ‘liquid.’ Emphasis on portability. Technologies and
structures that facilitate the talent market for skills will be critical.”
she walked away.
Dyson is the chairman of EDventure Holdings which publishes the influential
monthly computer-industry newsletter, Release 1.0, and sponsors two of
the industry's premier conferences, PC Forum in the US and EDventure's
High-Tech Forum in Europe.