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Dueling Keynotes: How Two ESOMAR Speakers Reveal Very Different Takes on Technology

Who, how and why people learn is fundamentally changing due to economic and technological factors. At ESOMAR Congress we heard two very diffeent views on what this might mean for our industry and society as a whole.


By Kathryn Korostoff

José Ignacio Wert, Minister of Education, Culture and Sport of the Kingdom of Spain (and past president of ESOMAR, 2005-2006) spoke on the broad topic of education in the 21st century. This is a topic of interest to many as a general topic—as parents, future-thinking citizens, or even just as social scientists. And to be honest, I have a special interest in this topic, as I run a training business (Research Rockstar).

Mr. Wert shared various interesting statistics about changes in educational activity and participation, mostly due to technology advances. My highlights from his talk may seem disparate at first glance, but they do share a common theme:

  • Millions of students now study outside of their home countries. Today the number is estimated at 3 million and this is expected to grow to more than 8 million by 2020.
  • As Mr. Wert points out, “education is a competitive weapon” for both emerging and developed countries.
  • Investment levels (by country) do not always correlate to better educational results (countries that spend less, as a percentage of the GDP, but get better than average results include Japan And Macau).
  • Corporate Universities are on the rise, through which larger employers provide professional skills training which is more effective and efficient than general universities can offer.
  • Lifelong learning” is essential for all workers—both to maintain their own personal happiness and to maintain employability (the Leonard da Vinci quote, “Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind”, came to mind as Mr. Wert shared some proof points on this sub-topic).
  • ICT, as he and other government types often refer to computer-integrated learning, changes the role of the classroom teacher from human encyclopedia (focused on delivery of facts) to that of a coach (who stimulates conversation and provides feedback).
  • Online learning, and here he cited the example of Khan Academy, offers an exciting way to support lifelong learning and bring world-class learning to everyone.  One anecdote offered as an example of the benefits showcased students being able to learn material at their own pace—without a teacher standing over them impatiently probing to see if they “got it” yet (at which point in the speech, flashbacks from middle school geometry flooded my brain).

As I wove this list of facts together for myself, I found the theme distills down to a simple conclusion: who, how and why people learn is fundamentally changing due to economic and technological factors. Who is now nearly everyone regardless of age and nearly regardless of location. How is now aided or entirely delivered by online platforms. And why is often either self-fulfillment or employability.

But what does this have to do with market research? This is, after all, an ESOMAR keynote.  Mr. Wert’s focus was recommendations related to assessment (assessing effectiveness of educational materials and programs), and a vague suggestion to conduct more forward thinking research. But I would have liked a clearer appeal for innovative market research. What kind of market research could be conducted to uncover emerging educational needs? What type of project might close the gap between employers’ emerging skill needs and employees’ current skill sets? What role could corporations play in funding related research? While he left me wanting more of a market research call to action, Mr. Wert also left me with an inspired, hopeful feeling about how technology can aid society on a global basis by enhancing and delivering educational content.

In contrast, keynote speaker Sherry Turkle’s presentation, Online Identities: The Person in the Machine, was more ominous in tone.  Throughout her presentation, her quips and comments made it clear she has some personal biases on the matter, including her humorous though pointed observation of how her own child uses texting to be unsocial while social (texting with her head down while sitting with her friends doing the same).

One of Ms. Turkle’s key points was that people feel as if, “I share, therefore I am” and that this is a pervasive driver of online communications. People who share online can get constant feedback, and this shapes their preferences for communication modes.  Of course, to market researchers, this is not a bad thing—as it means we can now observe a lot about how people think and feel (and want to be perceived) through online research methods. It also raises challenges: how do we know what aspects of online communications are actual versus aspirational? And when does that matter, or not matter?

However, while she segued some brief research examples to reach a more culturally disturbing conclusion that the quality and quantity of conversations is eroding, she seemed rather quick to point to online communications as the root cause of all evil. Her conclusions that “communications get dumbed down” did not seem to be fully supported by the research she described, which left me questioning her conclusion that online communication is the cause of declining quality of human interactions. (Of course, one can argue whether or not human interaction quality has declined in recent years or is simply just different—but let’s put that aside in the interest of time).

I can’t help but want more facts to support the conclusion that online communications is the root cause of various issues she cited, including anxiety that some people may now experience about real-time communication. Might this seem like an obvious connection? Perhaps. But there are easily three other factors that I’d want to test before I draw this as a causation relationship (over-scheduling of school-aged childrens’ activities, the impact of dual working parents on conversation quantity and quality in the home, and the role of TV viewing easily come to mind). Have these been ruled out in Ms. Turkle’s research? Perhaps, but she did not mention this aspect of her investigation.

Ms. Turkle’s keynote was often entertaining (for example, as she pointed to the sad though humorous problems of having a culture of distraction in which pedestrians fall into manholes while walking and texting).  Still there seemed to be personal biases woven throughout and her speech struck me as an overly negative condemnation of online technology on human communications and an even human relationships.  Luckily, some balance was injected during the Q&A session, when Diane Hessan of Communispace thankfully asked the question that I had my hand raised for as well—to ask about the issue of “online candor” and could there be positive (gasp!) effects as well? Until Ms. Hessan asked her question, the tone of Ms. Turkle’s take on the impact of technology on society was quite opposite of what we would hear the next day from Mr. Wert.

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