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HRx Radio – Executive Conversations: On Friday mornings, John Sumser interviews key executives from around the industry. The conversation covers what makes the executive tick and what makes their company great.

HRx Radio – Executive Conversations

Guest: Tracey Burns, Senior Analyst, OECD
Episode: 354
Air Date: February 21, 2020




Important: Our transcripts at HRExaminer are AI-powered (and fairly accurate) but there are still instances where the robots get confused and make errors. Please expect some inaccuracies as you read through the text of this conversation. Thank you for your understanding.

Full Transcript with timecode

John Sumser 0:13
Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations. I’m your host, John Sumser and today we’re going to be talking with Tracey Burns, who is a senior analyst at the OECD Center for Educational Research and Innovation. That’s a mouthful. OECD is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and it’s an international organization that works to build better policies for better lives. Tracey, how are you?

Tracey Burns 0:39
I’m great. Thank you very much for inviting me to join you this morning.

John Sumser 0:43
Well, You’re quite welcome. It’s gonna be a treat. Would you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your story?

Tracey Burns 0:51
Sure. I’d love to I’m Tracey burns. It’s my name as you said, I am a researcher who studies child development and wellbeing of children and then have now I’ve now moved across the pond to Paris, I’m originally from Canada, moved across the pond to Paris to work with educational stakeholders on their issues and concerns around their children, them and sort of the future of education.

John Sumser 1:20
Interesting. So how did you do this? I can’t imagine that as a small child, you sat in the sandbox and went, I know what I want to be when I grow up. So how did you get here?

Tracey Burns 1:32
Yeah, well, I mean, absolutely not. In fact, I used to be envious of people who were certain of what they wanted to do with their lives. And now I’m almost slightly suspicious, but that might just be self justification. For me, it was very much a question of being passionate about the research questions I was doing which were in experimental psychology, and then eventually thinking that I wanted to do something a little bit more applied a little bit more day to day and for me, the obvious blinkers to go into it. Education Research, which is much more applied to the day to day life with children. And to be very honest, I simply applied online for my job. It was a one year position. I thought it looked great. And I thought one year in Paris would be a wonderful opportunity and a really exciting adventure. Yeah.

John Sumser 2:16
That’s a great story. So you get there, you’ve applied for this job for a year you get there, and it turns into a major chunk of your career. There’s gotta be some thread of deep curiosity that compels you to do what you’re doing. What’s that about? What are you curious about?

Tracey Burns 2:34
Yeah, I mean, for me, I have to say one of the reasons it’s been 15 years now that I’ve been there, and one of the reasons is we work with a governing board of countries and the countries that that sort of dictate what it is we’re working on. It’s not a standard research institution. And one of the things that I’ve always deeply appreciated is the freedom that were given to pursue intellectual interest. We’re in the Center for Research and Innovation. The innovation is important. And being able to sort of turn and twist and follow interesting issues that are important for countries, but also intellectually important also for myself, as well. As for the research world has been, I would say what kept me so motivated and so connected to this to this work?

John Sumser 3:19
So what do you actually do? What’s your job?

Tracey Burns 3:22
Yeah, well, I’m a senior analyst, which is OECD speak for Team Manager, project leader researcher. It’s a very different set of tasks. Actually, my day to day is thinking about if I’m in Paris, thinking about my teams and my projects and kind of setting the strategic vision for our work and sort of our research questions and making sure everything is lined up so my teams can do their job if I’m not in Paris, which is fairly often I’m traveling around normally countries will invite me to, for example, give keynote to start a strategic they often are right now doing two years strategic planning processes where they want Someone like me to come in and give a speech, start them off and inspire them to think a little bit about the broad picture before they get into the nitty gritty details of their own system. So depending on where I am is giving speeches, meeting people, forging partnerships, or getting with the team back in Paris and coming up with the next cool questions that we’re going to answer with our research.

John Sumser 4:20
I noticed that your PhD is in language acquisition, and it happens to be a particular interest of mine. What did you learn studying language acquisition that oriented you for this work researching digital wellbeing?

Tracey Burns 4:38
Good question. I mean, I was originally hired, I can say this for anyone who’s wondering about the transferability of PhD research skills, I was originally hired simply because I had good methodological research skills. And my actual background was not particularly relevant to the tasks that they wanted me to do, but the tools I had where the content I had was not as important to Now it’s come full circle. And because I’m working with issues around children and technology, a lot of that does connect to child development sort of added in its basic form. And also as part of that social development, psychosocial development. And of course, linguistic development,

John Sumser 5:16
That’s very interesting. So let’s step back out for a second. Tell me about the OECD Center for education, research and innovation. What’s the charter? How do you tell if you’re doing a great job? And what are some of the landmark things that would help me understand the role and intent of the Center for education, research and innovation?

Tracey Burns 5:36
We have 36 member countries in the OECD, the Center for Educational Research and Innovation was the first body within the OECD that was established to look at education. And this is you know, a long history of being primarily motivated by technology in the labor market and then realizing educate others about is worthwhile and in fact, extremely exciting. things to look at. And we were tasked with a center was trying to think through the future of education. How can we prepare students for the world? education is by itself an exercise and teacher preparation, because the children of today will be the parents, etc, of tomorrow. And so one of the things was really having the conversation around is education. What can we do to innovate? How can we move to the time? And how can we build the research base as needed to understand and inform policy? So we work with our countries and I would say that the biggest clarity we have on whether we’re doing our job, right is whether the countries are happy with our work or find it useful are using our work. It’s very nice to write long research report, but if they’re not actually making a difference in countries, then we’re missing our mark.

John Sumser 6:47
So overall, the Center for education, research and innovation is focused on the relationship between education and sort of successful life in the nation at some time out in the future, I assume that means that you do some thinking or at least the center does some thinking about what skills we’re trying to develop. Is that right? And how do you think about that?

Tracey Burns 7:13
Yeah, I mean, that’s a huge topic and not just ours. We’re part of a broader Directorate for education and skills. And that’s one of the main topics or the director does a whole thinking about competencies for the 21st century, the kinds of you know, the basic skills around arithmetic and literacy and numeracy and and really thinking Well, okay, if we’re going to have a much more global and interactive world, we’ll need some global competencies. If we want children to be more creative, or if we expect the workforce be more creative than we actually have to think about social and emotional skills, things like collaboration and being able to work together and problem solve together. Those are the kinds of skills that are also very much a part of the mandate of the broader Directorate where we’re trying to really think about balancing the traditional understanding of what education is preparing students to do. What we would expect people to need in the modern world. And that conversation is very much alive and very much playing out in all of our countries. Because of course, the more new things you want people to teach, the more you have to question if there’s time for the old thing. And for teachers, this is a very different role for them. They have to switch what they’re doing. And the content and our evaluation mechanisms aren’t always very well lined up for that. So it’s not always a smooth transition for education systems. And that’s one of the things we’re really working on helping them with.

John Sumser 8:29
That’s interesting. Let me ask you another quick question. Well, it’s not a quick question, but I’ll pretend the education systems that I’m aware of are really great at producing industrial workers. And there’s some pretty significant question about whether their purpose for producing capable members post industrial society, I assume that’s something that you think about, and that there are both structural and content components to your thinking. Can you give me a couple of minutes about, I assume there’s a link there with being responsible digital citizens and the outcomes of the education system. So let’s start there.

Tracey Burns 9:09
Okay, how much time do we have?

John Sumser 9:13
It was a quick question [laughing].

Tracey Burns 9:15
I love the quick question. Which are actually incredibly difficult to answer. Well done, ya know? So I mean, if we want to think about digital citizenship, I mean, if you think about, okay, let’s break that down. You need to think if you’re an education system, or in fact, if you’re a country, you need to think Okay, can we give access to the technology for children and for adults have to of course, and the good news is in most OECD countries, the answer to that that first digital divide, do people have access to the technology, the answer is yes. 97% 98% of 15 year olds report that they have access to the internet on a day to day basis? The second element is as the skill piece, you know, so can you use that internet and Do you understand what your opportunities are, and this is where it’s Much more dismaying because we see a huge gap developing between not just countries. But there are of course, differences between better off for the wealthier countries and less wealthy countries, but within citizens within an individual country was being a very clear and growing distinction in the kinds of skills that young children and students are developing and very much favoring the ones who are most traditionally advantage. So that’s concerning from a from a policy perspective, as well as, of course, the general education perspective. And then when we think of digital citizenship, we go even one step further, which is, okay, it’s not just about using the computer to do your emails or to write the report you need to write but thinking about sort of the holistic person, being a citizen, contributing, being positive and proactive, the sort of etiquette that we have, and the norms and values that we have as individuals in our day to day life are also important to translate to a digital sphere. And that’s, you know, that would, I would say, is the This looming policy challenge for countries as they start to address youth divide can, you know building up the skills of of their students? They also then have to think about, well, you know, one step further, how do we develop these very well rounded citizens, because it’s not just about preparing people for the labor market. as you point out, the labor market is changing all the time, we do expect a very fluid and flexible set of skills from graduates. And that’s something that education is really pushing itself to keep up with. And I think some countries have, you know, are rising to the challenge. I don’t think it’s quite as focused in an industry industrial market, as some people might think it is. But there’s definitely room for improvement. And certainly with this third step, the sort of broader citizenship questions. I think that’s where we’ll be seeing a lot of action in the years come from country.

John Sumser 11:46
So I hear a lot of talk about moving people towards, I’m not sure I like the term, soft skills, but skills that are less technical and at the same time, because I research AI pretty intensively, what I’m noticing about the different of AI is now we’ve got a bunch of machines that have a bunch of opinions and they present information as casino odds, and they’re often wrong. And so one of the skills that may not be so soft that I wonder about is teaching people how to use probabilistic information that teaches people how to consider all the time that their machine partners may be mistaken. Is that part of your horizon line for what children need to know to be effective?

Tracey Burns 12:31
Absolutely. I think I mean, I think that just to start with the soft skill comment, one of the things we point out is that you know, the heart of computers and under digital skills are often considered art skills. But when you look at sort of digital skills as a, as a composite, you see the technical skills and you see sort of programming skills as part of it operational skills, those are all part of a definition of digital skill, but so our creativity, so is the social aspect of using techniques. So even with the in so called hard skill, like digital skills, you’ve got very important social components which are actually embedded in there and which are just as important, some would argue more important to being able to eat in a digital world to go to your broader question around what do children you know, I mean, absolutely being able to access and verify the authenticity of information, which adults have a very hard time doing. Even very, very sophisticated and skilled adults. That is definitely one of the skills that they will increasingly need to be able to home they themselves admit, I mean, the research we’ve done, it’s quite clear that they don’t feel comfortable, they’re not sure. And they’re aware of that there. They don’t they, when they’re very young, they trust everything that they see. But as their awareness grows, and especially if they’re trained to identify sort of security issues or potentially false information, they do get better at knowing that they don’t know they don’t necessarily get better at identifying the false information that they at least know that they shouldn’t trust. blindly, which is a first good step. But this is absolutely on our radar, this kind of being able to test the quality of what we’re being fed question some of the basics and the algorithms that have shaped the information that we’re being fed thinking through some of the implications for the choices that were made way in a way upstream, that is now producing this current set of search results, for example, these are all things that are part of the discussion.

John Sumser 14:24
That’s great. So you recently pulled together a report about teaching children about being responsible digital citizens. Tell me about the research and what you discovered.

Tracey Burns 14:34
Well it was super fun.

In my nerdy research hat, we got to, you know, we wanted to really think outside of education, so sort of to push our education counterparts and countries to lift their heads from the day to day of their work and look around at broader well being issues around physical health, emotional well being the power and risk of technology, and also families and peers a relationship with a form and how digital Technology is influencing it or being influenced by it. And so one of the things that we did is really start to ask the questions, okay, we say the project is called 21st century children, which is a very catchy name for the OECD. We’re not marketing people in the name and you know, it evokes a lot of excitement. People are very excited. The new century, so much has changed. There’s all these new things. And as part of that comes quite a bit of hype. No, and potentially some around, you know, the fact that the world is totally different for children has totally changed digital natives. My god, they’re totally different than everybody who came before. And so one of the things we wanted to do was kind of question some of those things, and start also with an examination of what has not changed. For example, children still need love. They still need affection. strong relationships are important precursors to every positive outcome that we know whether it’s social, cognitive, physical labor market later in life. And so to really base the discussion on research and strong research to be able to To work with our policy audiences and help them understand how and what is important for education for us, starting with that research and kind of debunking some of these claims, was a really important issue. And so just the three big conclusions we have is we’re mostly around policy and research. But one is that there is simply because we’re an international organization became very, very clear that we need to refine measurement. If you work on digital literacy or digital skill, I’m sure you know that everybody has their own definition. And that’s within a country. So if you’re trying to compare research from across countries, and everybody’s defined it in a different way, you have no meaningful way of understanding that and four of tracking trends. So and that’s just a precondition for understanding what’s happening. The second one is thinking about, well, you know, policy environment, what do you what are we going to do to address this, and most countries is incredibly fragmented. So just thinking about how to protect children from online safeguard protecting children online, on average was six to seven ministries involved in that. It was many Many different frameworks and many different Krysta stakeholders, and they don’t always talk to each other. And so that that’s a huge one. And the third big, you know, the big point that we lead with is, is really including the voices of everybody in this line of work, because it’s very important to go back to the research. But it’s equally important to talk to the kids and their parents, and find out what’s worrying them and also what they’re excited about. Because kids are the biggest users of new technologies. And they’re the ones on the front lines in many respects. And that optimism and that hope is something that doesn’t always get translated into a policy context where there’s often a much, much more year for example, or worried about children. So that that’s sort of our three big takehomes that we pulled from this work.

John Sumser 17:45
So I am of the opinion that digital tools are the equivalent of contemporary literacy and that more is almost always better. But I imagine you found some pros and cons about kids use of digital tools. So could you talk about that a little bit? What are the strengths and the weaknesses about the way we’re, we’re letting children be on the front line?

Tracey Burns 18:08
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s pretty clear. I mean, a used to be a sort of all or nothing argument, you know, like, more is better or no, everything’s terrible. And we must at all costs of children from using the internet, I think it’s pretty clear agreement now coalescing around the importance of a moderate use of digital tools. So if you look at emotional well being results from a set of different datasets from around the world, for student achievement resolved or life satisfaction results, what you find is that the kids, it’s an inverted you. So the kid to use it deletes to who aren’t on it at all, are less satisfied than one just moderate us. But Conversely, the ones who use it the most, that have 60 or more hours a day are also less satisfied than the ones who have modern, sort of, it’s been called the Goldilocks effect. You know, not too little, not too much in the middle research from Oxford. That seems to be a very clear pattern, and Merging not just an emotional well being but also in sort of student achievement is work. So that seems to be you know, there’s a sweet spot there for what you’re going to get the most out of it. And I think it is important to think about the positives, you know, there’s a really obviously shoes access to huge amount of information, connectivity all over the world and the ability to connect to different groups that you might share interest with mature small kid in a small town and you have a particular interest. Well, you can find people who are interested in the same thing without having to go to a big city, which is, you know, what it is in the past. And of course, it’s not even such such a new thing. I mean, if you talk to any preteen, they’ve got their friends, that’s cool. But they also have a continuation of those friendships online. And that’s just a part of their day to day so that they’re just, you know, chatting after school or videoing each other. I mean, this is just part of normal life, which is what you were saying, you know, it’s something that we just have as part of our lives now. And that’s something that children have completely adapt to. So that’s the pro I would say is it’s pretty much it’s very much Life as normal, and it has all these amazing potential. Of course, the negative is that every time you use a digital device or are in a digital environment, you are digital risk, they do exist. And it’s important to think about how we want to protect children from them how we want to raise awareness and how we want to help them manage the risk, because you know, that’s the old argument around should we protect them so much that they never see the risk? Or should we let them have a bit of guided exposures that they can understand what they are? That seems pretty clear as well. The research is pretty clear that in fact, being able to sit down with a with a responsible adult and understand what some of the risks are, and how you might want to react and be able to identify them. Tell your parent if you feel uncomfortable to question or ask for help if you don’t know if you’re not sure. Those are all really important skills that children need as well. And so protecting them to the extent where they can’t even identify risk is also not helpful for their wellbeing.

John Sumser 20:53
So tell me a little bit about about the risks that you think we’re protecting children from. There’s a spectrum from predatory behavior by other human beings to being enveloped in a filter bubble, and those are all risks. What of the most important risks maybe not so much in terms of what’s scary, but in terms of what’s likely?

Tracey Burns 21:17
Yeah, and that’s a great distinction. So when we as countries this, their number one worry is cyber bullying, which is, in fact, of course, incredibly scary. But if you look at the percentage of children who are seriously are actually experiencing cyber bullying, it’s actually not a huge percent. It doesn’t mean that country shouldn’t be worried, I think absolutely, they should be. But if you want to start ranking, what is the most likely to least likely cyberbullying is not at the top, the top is actually contract with so marketing aimed at children being exposed to inappropriate contact, content being exposed, whether it’s violent or sexual in nature, being marketed at very young age is being marketed products but children are able to buy if they’re, if they’re able to access parental controls haven’t finished out those kinds of contracts with. So giving away your data, for example, because you don’t understand what it means to give away your data. If you’re very young child, those are the risks that are actually much more common, and which children face every day. And in fact, from a policy perspective, there isn’t a very good response yet to that. And the attention is not really there yet. That’s something we need to work on.

John Sumser 22:27
So we’re going to close with a question that you’ve got this risk, I’m a parent, what’s your advice to me to balance my interest in protecting my kids with their need to become proactive participants in their lives? How do I do that?

Tracey Burns 22:43
Talk to them. I mean, talk to them. Honestly, it’s of course parents are doing that but being able to hear what it is that they like also what it is that they like about their digital experiences, setting up boundaries together, thinking through how you can take advantage of the opportunities and reduce the This together is a really powerful way not only to build digital skills and children, but also to build trust and digital trust between amateurs, which is only going to be helpful as children continue to grow.

John Sumser 23:11
Well, I’m so excited about your research and we’ve exhausted our time together. But I’d love to hear more. And I’m sure other people in the audience would love to hear more, could you reintroduce yourself and then tell people how to get in touch with you? And please accept my deep gratitude for taking the time to do the show.

Tracey Burns 23:29
Of course, it’s been a real pleasure and thank you for your somewhat challenging questions. Always good to be asked the hard questions. My name is Tracey Burns, and I work at the OECD in Paris, The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And if you google Tracey Burns at the OECD, you will find me and and my email. If there’s any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.

John Sumser 23:51
Thanks very much. And thanks again for taking the time to do this. You’ve been listening to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations, and we’ve been talking with Tracey Burns from the OEPD. Thanks very much, and we will see you back here next week. Bye bye now.

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