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[Tuning In] Seth Godin on the future of education and technology’s role in civil society

Seth Godin discusses the waves of change in education brought on by COVID-19, as well as the digitization of political engagement.

Seth Godin is a bestselling author, entrepreneur, and speaker. In addition to launching one of the most popular blogs in the world, he has written 19 best-selling books, including The Dip, Linchpin, Purple Cow, Tribes, and What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn). His most recent book, This is Marketing, was an instant bestseller in countries around the world.

Though renowned for his writing and speaking, Seth also founded two companies, Squidoo and Yoyodyne (acquired by Yahoo!).

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Seth Godin, author and entrepreneur 

KrASIA (Kr): How will the pandemic alter the future of education, especially in the US?

Seth Godin (SG): We need to differentiate between education and learning. Education serves as a powerful sorting function worldwide because it creates scarcity. It says: Here’s a group of people who could afford to spend the time and money to get a certificate, who could sit still long enough to work their way through the assignments. Education is about compliance and trading your time and energy for a certificate. That’s not the same as learning. Learning is voluntary and happens when we willingly become incompetent on our way to getting better at something. Online learning offers an extraordinary future for people, but we have to be honest that it’s not the same as online education.

Kr: There are some challenges to adopting widespread online learning, like access to the internet. How can online learning transcend these challenges?

SG: Universal education is super important. There is more availability and access to the internet than in-person education has ever offered. We’re talking about two billion people who would have no trouble whatsoever accessing things like Wikipedia or the Khan Academy. We do have a way to go before we can call it universal, but it is so many orders of magnitude bigger than the number of people who can access scarcity-based education, that I don’t think there’s any comparison.

Kr: Let’s talk about the fallout and results for these traditional institutions of higher education. What is the road ahead going to look like for them?

SG: The ones that are at the top of the pile are going to do fine because they have a big endowment and their certificate is so valuable. Where we’re going to see really significant fallout is in the tier below that. These are institutions with only a couple years’ worth of expenses in the bank, who charge an enormous amount for what they offer because they have facilities including gyms and dorms. They’re basically running a luxury hotel right next to a place of education/learning, and their degree is of indeterminate value. Those places are going to go through a massive shift and many of them are going to disappear.

Some colleges are figuring out how to game the accreditation system, which exists primarily to create scarcity. They make up rules to limit the number of people who can go to a school. But if you’re adroit and quick-witted, your university can get accredited by a different group. Suddenly, instead of graduating 1000 people, you can graduate 10,000 people, because you’re doing it online as well. As accreditation standards lower in terms of permitting online learning, that scarce diploma in the short run [will be] worth more because more people know about it, and in the long run, it is probably worth less because these things are all based on scarcity.

Kr: What kind of adjustments do educators have to make to adapt to a new reality with more online learning?

SG: The pandemic has been a real problem for many teachers because they want butts on seats and pencils on paper to prove compliance. But they’re not actually teaching anything, because they haven’t earned the emotional connection of the people they’re seeking to teach.

I can visualize a compliance-based regime in which we tell a student that they have to be in this digital room until they pass this test. Every time you get it wrong, a videotape will teach you a new lesson. And at the end of however long it took, you demonstrate that you know how to do a fraction, for example. If we’re going for compliance, that’s the way to do it. It doesn’t make any sense to do it in sync, in real-time.

Kr: Online education has muddied the lines between active childcare at home versus childcare at schools. How can we adjust to make online learning fit in a world with childcare needs?

SG: One of the side effects [of public school] was that it permitted moms to work outside the home because from 9am to 3pm, they were “off-duty.” Now we’re saying you need to be back on duty, but we’ve built our economy on the idea of two people working outside the home. The pandemic isn’t going to last forever, but while it’s lasting, we can’t even put people together.

One of the post-pandemic bright spots, I think, is a group called the Acton Academy. [They] build small schools with 40 or 50 people in them that only have two adults running the place. And the entire model of the school is that adults don’t give you any instructions. You figure out what projects you want to do. You teach other kids, other kids teach you. Kids are fully enrolled in self-directed project-based learning. But it doesn’t work if you can’t get 45 kids in the same building. I think it’s going to take six months before we [start] grouping up again. But after that, I think we’re going to see computer-augmented learning showing up in traditional places where kids come together.

Kr: What intangibles will we be missing out on as a result of not doing traditional in-person education? Are there missing pieces that this generation of college students will not experience?

SG: If you ask most people to describe their college experience, the amount of time they spend talking about what they learned in class is close to zero. These ‘intangibles’ are the actual benefits of a residential, expensive, scarce college education. The certificate and classes are excuses for community living, homecoming games, finding your way in the world. It’s four years to grow up away from home before you have to make decisions about who you want to be as a human.

We can simulate all of those things without the overhead that an accredited college brings with it. I could see putting groups of 10 or 12 people together and having them go off for a year to do community-based project work that actually benefits the community. In that time together, they will mature even more, the outcomes will be even more direct, and the experiences will be far more memorable.

Kr: Do you think that online learning and travel restrictions will lessen the demand for international students coming to the US in the coming years?

SG: One of the things that has contributed to the cultural hegemony of the United States is that elites from other countries came here during their formative four years to understand our culture and build connections with people from the United States and other countries.

And it’s going away, partly because of our current leadership, the pandemic, and a shift in what and how people are learning. I don’t see a lot of good outcomes coming from that. I think that we benefit as a planet when people are in sync. We could be in sync around a different thing, but I don’t see the different things showing up for us to be in sync around.

Kr: How can we use technology to help people engage in civil society more and solve pain points to create a more active political body?

SG: Technology on a large scale is scary for people. There are lots of ways to create a verifiable, auditable trail, and open-source, digital election systems. I think this is our opportunity to put in place a different regime for how you run an election. I would propose rank choice voting, instant runoffs, even experimenting with an election that ran for 30 days, and you could change your vote as many times as you wanted. All of these things are technically possible now and likely to create more widespread acceptance of the results.

Kr: What are some key challenges we have to solve in order to gain people’s trust in these digital products?

SG: Two approaches appeal to me. The first one is based on authority, which basically says, if we had an open-source system that was auditable, then people who were trusted could audit it, and speak up in its defense. The alternative is to make it so that you can actually see your vote sitting there in the database anytime you want. There are plenty of examples of that in the real world, and there’s no reason it can’t be done here.

Technically, it’s not hard to do, the same way you can go to your ATM and see your balance in the bank. Have a balance in the bank because the money isn’t there, there’s just a number. But knowing that it’s there today, tomorrow, and the next day gives people a lot of peace of mind. The same way that a bank can be audited and that every depositor can see their balance is similar to the way you could increase trust in the election because it’s more profitable to steal money from a bank than it is to steal from an election. And people aren’t stealing money from banks, people believe in banks, because of this emotional audit ability.

Kr: Do you think that the ability of technology to empower more citizens is something that could and would invigorate younger voters?

SG: I think the key is not to increase voter participation for its own sake. Voter participation is only important in the sense that if you vote, you feel ownership. It’s a symptom of how we have failed to invite younger people to actively get involved in their community. If you get involved in your community, you’re way more likely to vote.

So what would it mean for younger people to create the next generation of parks and libraries and schools? What would it mean, for them to shift from being itinerant digital nomads to people who say, this is my community, and I’m going to volunteer here, I’m going to help at the food bank? In my experience, people who do those things also vote.

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Disclaimer: This article is part of our “Tuning In” series.  All answers reflect the personal perspective of the interviewee himself, and not KrASIA’s. If you’d like to contribute as a writer or nominate someone for our “Tuning In” series, you can email us at community@kr-asia.com