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 par excellence.
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
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 multitasker, 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
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?
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.
Okay, 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
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 U.S. and EDventure's High-Tech Forum in Europe.
Manville is Publisher of LiNE Zine and the Chief Learning Officer
of Saba. He writes articles like this when not working at his
day job. He welcomes comments, challenges, and questions about
anything he's said. Write him at email@example.com.
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