INTERVIEW: The Future of Education with Marina Gorbis

Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 2.13.12 PMMarina Gorbis (@mgorbis) is executive director of the Institute of the Future and author of The Nature of the Future.  In this interview, which is also available as an audio podcast, she talks about hwo technology is changing the world of education, what motivates people to learn and digital literacy.


Eric:  What is “socialstructing.”

Marina:  There’s a new way we are creating value. The ways we’re doing things that were not possible before are, all of a sudden, possible. The kind of things that previously you needed the whole organization to do, now you can do it with one person or a few people.

Sometimes, we can do unimaginable things with the power of these technologies and connections with each other. The idea is that we’re creating. We’re doing something in new ways. We’re structuring things in new ways.

The other part of it is that the way we’re doing it is through connections with others, when you’re using social media, social technologies and ultimately connections to multitudes of others who we can engage in whatever activity we’re doing.

Eric:  How do you see social media changing education in a professional context?

Marina:  One of the important things that we see is that a lot of education is moving out of institutions, and the kind of resources that previously resided just in organizations or were closed are now widely available.

Content itself has become a commodity. There’s a lot of content. Almost anything you want to learn is out there between Khan Academy, Coursera, all the MOOCs ‑‑ but not just MOOCs, but all kinds of other platforms where people share.

WikiHow, Wikipedia ‑‑ you can think of Wikipedia as a learning resource. The content is all out there. It’s moving from institutions into these flows. Imagine that there is a river of resources out there, and it’s always there.

The challenge becomes, what makes people want to dip into those flows? What makes you motivated to dip into those information and content flows and ultimately learn?

Eric:  What motivates people to learn?

Marina:  What motivates people are very different things for different people. If you’re a professional, and you need to learn, and you need to pass the test or exam, or you need it for your professional development, you can do that for that reason.

I think for all of us, a lot of the motivation is ultimately social. If you’re a young person, your motivation to learn is to be in a conversation with the kind of people you want to be in a conversation.

If your social group is all about philosophy, you want to learn about philosophy. If your social group is about math or coding, you want to learn that. It’s both for professional reasons, but a lot of that motivation is really social motivation for a lot of people.

That’s why what’s interesting is what I see happening is people signing up for online courses but then organize the meet‑ups in physical spaces with the same people who are taking the same course. There they engage in peer‑to‑peer counseling, and people learn from each other.

There’s a lot of that going on. What’s interesting is that they’re bringing this online content and bringing it into social spaces.

Eric:  Several years back, people were speculating that, in the future, inner‑city folks, or people with less money wouldn’t have access to the Internet, so there would be this digital divide between those that have access to the Internet and those that don’t. Now, we’re seeing that that’s less of a factor.

Marina:  I think the kind of divide we’re seeing is in agency and motivation, and that goes back to that social.

If you grow up in an environment where people don’t read books and they’re not motivated to learn, and they have different kinds of ideas about what’s important in life, that’s a kind of divide. Or if you don’t have the self‑agency to engage in that and take advantage of all those resources out there and nobody’s there to show you that that exists and those resources are out there…that’s the kind of…I would say…it’s motivation but also, it’s social divide.

Eric:  It’s interesting because originally we thought that technology would be this great leveler and it would put everyone on an equal playing field. Of course, Friedman, who mentioned you, speaking about the motivational divide in his column, wrote this book, “The Flat Earth,” which says everyone will be on an equal playing field and big can compete with small.

I think a lot of us really believed that, but then we saw that the net result of all that information online was that…I guess some people who could collect that data and store that data would have an upper‑hand because obviously they could use that information against us.

Now that we’re sort of moving into this era where we’re starting to realize that when we take conversations to a public environment where they’re recorded and stored, that information out of context could be used against us. What sort of education do you think people need moving forward to learn to be able to use these tools responsibly without creating some sort of archival record that could maybe someday haunt them?

Marina:  I’m not sure that you can totally avoid all of that information because it looks now the government gets the information and a lot of other people have access to the same information. I think media illiteracy is a critical part of education and talking about these issues…about what happens to this information and also where it’s going to go because even the kinds of things that may be protected today, I always feel that whatever I put online is ultimately public information.

Whatever is private today may be public tomorrow. We may develop other kinds of techniques for protecting our information. I certainly hope so. For now, you just have to assume that all of that information is public in some way or another. I do think that media literacy is something that needs to be taught at a young age and it needs to be taught to adults also.

Eric:  For those that are growing up in this environment, they have an opportunity to learn as they grow, but for those of us who are living through the transformation, some of us need to be skilled later in life. Often, the skills we need aren’t clear.

If you were charged with skilling a generation of digital immigrants ‑‑ and I know you say we’re all immigrants to the future ‑‑ what specifically would you do to prepare the workforce of tomorrow to be able to participate in social media conversations without necessarily leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs that could someday harm them?

Marina:  I’ve seen some really good media courses. Howard Rheingold teaches a course on media literacy that involves multiple components. First of all, understand that the kind of technology that is available…I’m constantly surprised how little people know about some of the platforms. For example, things like

ODesk and Elance, for doing jobs and tasks and all kinds of interesting platforms.

In the future you look at these things all the time but not many people do, so just tracking and then just saying what technologies are out there and what’s coming online is one thing.

The use of technologies and how you present information is a skill. Creating video is a new literacy also, so people need to be able to create video. You need to be able to assess the truthfulness of video and online text. There are all kinds of courses of interest in terms of how do you assess the veracity of this information. So all of those things are important. How do you communicate in email in user groups. How do you use comments and what’s a good way to be online?

Eric:  Do you foresee subjects like privacy rights and surveillance rights of employers beings the types of things that workers need to be skilled in and you think that that becomes routine, part of the on‑boarding process that companies?

Marina:  I certainly think that that should be a routine, understanding how you use company email, understanding how you use instant messenger and apps that include access to that, all of that is very important.

I think it’s in the interest of the employer to be transparent about it, because there’s nothing worse when something happens and people find out that you were looking at their data.

Eric:  When you’re doing your work at the Institute, it’s one thing, obviously, to take a class from somebody like Howard Rheingold who’s brilliant in the area of media business and is a futurist, but when you think about an organization, any organization with high turnover and a lot of entry‑level employees who may not have advanced degrees coming in and out of the ranks, if you have to teach these types of subjects to them, how do you do that, how do you make it so simple that anyone coming in for minimum wage or slightly higher job can learn things like privacy and disclosure and ethics and transparency?

Marina:  I see that as part of basic orientation. I think a lot of employers have orientation in which they talk about health benefits and other things that are just basic routines of the organization. I see that as being part of that orientation talking about data rights and data privacy and how to use online platforms whether they’re probably provided by the company, all of those things I see as part of orientation.

Eric:  Tell us about the Institute for the Future.

Marina:  The institute has been around for 45 years. It is a non‑profit research organization originally spun out of Rand, the large research organizations. At the Institute, we’re able to say “We don’t predict the future. The purpose of thinking systematically about the future which is our mission is to help people make better decisions today.”

So we use a whole variety of methodologists, scenarios, scanning, artifacts from the future, mapping, surveys, data, all kinds of techniques we say that they’re methodologically agnostic. Ultimately, the purpose is to help people create that future landscape looking five, ten and more years out ask themselves questions “Well what do I need to do today or tomorrow to prepare for that future or shape a more desirable future?” Many have this process yet…

Eric:  Now, in terms of your role as Executive Director, you’ve been there a while now, how has the way you do what you do changed as a result of technology?

Marina:  We’re experimenting with a lot of different platforms in terms of doing research. Some of our people use platforms like oDesk or Elance and others to engage more people in doing research with us and for us online.

We sometimes go experimenting in breaking down research tasks into smaller tasks and using people online in doing some of that work. I think that’s a really exciting area of development. That’s one area that we’re really experimenting with.

The other area is we’re using a lot of online platforms. We have a platform called the Foresight Engine, which uses some of the gaming elements and it engages large groups of people in thinking about the future together and what are some of the potential side effects of different scenarios. What are some of the exciting opportunities.

We have something thousands of people participating in a conversation. So, that’s really exciting.

I guess the third area where we’re changing is we are increasing from just being a research organization or thinking about the future. We’re bringing people here who are called practical visionaries. People who are actually doing something that to us is a sign of the future and we fellowship here at the Institute with affiliates, working closely with them to help them in whatever things they’re doing but also to bring their input into the Institute.

Eric:  Final question, total non sequitur. Looking at your bio, you’ve done some very high‑profile keynotes. You’ve keynoted the World Economic Forum. I can’t imagine anything, from a keynote standpoint, more intimidating than that.

Talk to us a little bit about, from the emotional standpoint, what you go through before going on‑stage with the World Economic Forum to give a keynote and how you get through that.

Marina:  My largest presentation was for 5,000 people, and I’ve never seen 5,000 people assembled in one place for a presentation. That was a couple years ago, and it was just amazing and, of course, I was really worried but then it went really well and took me 20 minutes of terror, right?

After you’ve done that, nothing else scares you more. It’s sort of “Oh, hundreds of people. I can do that.”

I always try to, I never use the same speech so I always think about my audience and who the people in the aud