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Tech, Higher Ed, and the New World Order:
Interview from Lawlor Review
than two decades John Seely Brown, Chief Scientist of Xerox and former
director of its Palo Alto Research Center, has contributed ideas and
innovations to the high tech revolution. But Brown’s contribution
far exceeds what one might expect of a Silicon Valley scientist. Yes,
he has worked on the cutting edge of microelectromechanical systems
and intelligent software agents, but equally important has been his
contribution to a broader understanding of the nature of human learning.
was a co-founder of the Institute for Research on Learning, a non-profit
institute for addressing the problems of lifelong learning. A prolific
writer, Brown has recently co-authored a new book, The Social Life
of Information, published in February of 2000, which addresses how
the virtual world of the Web might be joined with the physical world
— the classroom, the walk across campus, the countless social
ways in which we learn — to create the best learning environment
of numerous awards, and an active member of more than twenty university
and corporate advisory boards, Brown is prized highly for his insight
into how rapidly accelerating technological innovation shapes society,
and how cultural institutions, especially educational institutions,
must adapt to welcome and participate in a revolution, which, just
as electricity once did, will transform the world.
have said that “It is our children who will teach us the
new world order.” What is the new world order?
essence of the new world order turns on the notion of being
willing to constantly learn, to learn through radical experimentation,
and to learn by not being afraid of looking silly. We must be
willing to make errors, step back and reflect on those errors,
and even find humor in our errors. The challenge is also to
find patterns, to seek the patterns in the novel ways that society
and technology interact. The new world order requires us to
be willing to construct fresh conceptual lenses through which
we make sense of the world around us. When a child comes into
this world, that’s exactly what he or she does. It is
the sense of embracing the unknown, of not being afraid of it,
but being curious about it. Of course, this is what every new
age is about, but it is now increasingly important because of
the accelerating pace of change of nearly every aspect of the
world around us. We need to celebrate the curious child in each
it not so much that this hunger for knowledge is new, but that
the participation in the making of knowledge is new, especially
at a younger age?
and also that the boundary between production and consumption
of knowledge has been blurred. In the past we thought that there
were the authorities who produced knowledge: teachers, professors,
researchers, and so on, and then there were the students that
consumed knowledge. There was a clear boundary between them. But
in today’s world increasingly we are both producers and
consumers. For example, on the Web, you buy a book from Amazon,
and then you end up writing a small review of that book. This
review is then ranked, or judged, by other buyers and readers,
according to its helpfulness. There is a constant cycle between
production and consumption, and that’s just one trivial
the Palo Alto Research Center, you’ve hired teenagers
as researchers to study how they learn. How are today’s
young people different from previous generations with respect
to learning? How has the internet affected the way they learn?
are many differences, but here are three principal ones from
my perspective: The first has to do with the increasing use
of imagery. Today’s students expect multimedia where there
is a rich interplay between the visual and the textual worlds
or between the visual and musical worlds. They also expect visual
simulations where they can tinker with the model and see what
happens. In of the really wonderful properties of Web is that
it honors multiple forms of intelligence—abstract, textual,
visual, musical, etc, in ways that no prior technology ever
The second has to do with the willingness to link, lurk to various
virtual communities of interest and then to enter the conversation
or try things out on their own.
you call a “bias toward action.”
And to not be embarrassed if something doesn’t work or
if they ask a stupid question. Indeed, this might even set the
stage for a new kind of cognitive apprenticeship—apprenticing
to a virtual community of practice.
third has to do with an expanding the concept of bricolage,
the ability to find fragments of what has been done in one context,
to lift them out of that context and bring them into your own
context and use them in a new way. On the Web, a bricoleur
is someone who not only has the ability to navigate, to discern,
and to judge, amidst the variety of resources, but then to tinker
with what he or she finds and use it for a new purpose. So instead
of working from abstract principles, a bricoleur uses a more
concrete type of reasoning — concrete even in the abstract
practice of writing code. Now, one ‘borrows’ chunks
of code done by someone else and modifies them accordingly to
make them work in your particular context. What you really find
happening, is that through bricolage young people are finding
effective ways of tapping the creative expression of the community,
and they take more seriously, though they don’t think
of it this way, standing on the shoulders of the giants before
or around them. One beautiful, simple example of this is the
whole open source movement that created Linux—an incredible
achievement done by thousands mostly in their spare time. Although
this example has received world recognition, there are many
smaller efforts where students use fragments of video clips,
text, etc to compose new works or where students, for example,
combine measurements of aspects of the local ecology to create
a global picture of some ecological trend.
you explain more about the open source movement?
open source movement around Linux has been going on for about
ten years and has lead to the building of an operating system
that challenges the preeminent power of Microsoft. In fact,
a high percentage of the servers used to run the Internet today
run this particular operating system. It has been built by volunteers
who accrue a form of social capital rather than financial capital.
These volunteers are distributed around the world and used the
Internet to share their code, to comment on (and improve) each
other’s code and to then to integrate it all together.
It was very much a self-organizing social system facilitated
by the Internet. Many of us hope that this same kind of spirit
can actually be used to create high quality educational material
on the Web.
describe young people today as having the ability to “multiprocess.”
They’re on their cell phones, listening to music, and surfing
the Web simultaneously. Does this diminish their ability to attend
to only one thing closely? Are the Web and other new technologies
influencing the very nature of concentration?
don’t think anyone has definitive answers to those questions,
though some of the new advances in neuroscience may enable us
to answer them more scientifically. Having said that, I see very
little indication that students can’t still focus on one
thing in depth and with intensity. Let me give you one example.
Consider what a youngster does when he or she snowboards. When
you’re snowboarding, you’re totally committed, immersed,
and one hundred percent of your attention is there. You’re
in a state of flow. Nothing else is going on in your mind. You
are completely engaged! Hmmm, so apparently nothing has hindered
today’s kids from being able to do that.
More than ever these kids are capable of attuning to, as opposed
to attending to, all kinds of informational streams. In fact,
we all use our subconscious minds to be attuned to our context—we
just don’t realize it or exploit it, explicitly. One purpose
of attunement is to prepare the mind for a very fast context switch,
and so we may also want to ask: are these kids learning or practicing
how to switch contexts very quickly while keeping their baring?
If so, they are actually acquiring what a key survival skill for
being a CEO. The irony may be that today’s kids may be being
trained to be top executives without ever having to get their
written that it takes time to discover the “inherent capabilities
of a new medium.” In what ways are Web-based classrooms
pushing past the boundaries of traditional classes? What methods
have yet to be adapted, but might be predicted or seem possible?
most important thing to realize is that we have barely scratched
the surface of what distance learning might really mean. We’ve
begun to see some interesting examples on the Web. The Open University
of England has experimented with issues of distance learning,
where distance learning means as much social distance as physical
distance. How do you design classes for people who can’t
afford to take off time to go to school full time? How can a student
have both a productive work life and an academic life? What is
so necessary right now is that we move into this Web-based learning
with a truly open mind. We must realize that we need to be experimenters,
and that we must try out an ecology of ideas, and to realistically
reflect on what is working, what isn’t working, and why.
We need to be sensitive to the fact that a tremendous amount of
learning on campus happens on the campus but outside the classroom
— in study groups, in discussions around lunch, in walking
out of class and so on. This social participation facilitates
the social construction of understanding. It scaffolds and supports
the individual’s interpretation of the information exposed
in the classroom. The constructivist theory of learning, usually
applied uniquely to the individual, à la Piaget, also applies
to the social construction of the individual’s understanding.
Although the Web can be a tool that supports these interactions
between individuals I don’t believe it can completely replace
them. In any case, physical space certainly helps to support richly
textured social space.
the Web changed the atmosphere of campus life, and life in the
academy, in other more intangible ways?
Web is a way to leverage the physical with the virtual, and the
virtual with the physical. What Paul Duguid and I discuss often
in our book The Social Life of Information is: how do you bring
these two worlds together? Not to have one replace the other,
but to have one complement and amplify the other. I was talking
recently with a professor at the London School of Economics, and
he was complaining about the number of student questions he has
to answer online. I was surprised, and I asked him if he had considered
that those questions and answers ought to become a supplementary
database itself, where students can browse both the questions
and answers, and this becomes a new kind of complement to what
is taught in the class. In the past, the instructor would answer
questions in class (or grade a paper), but then these efforts
would float out into the ether and be lost to others. Again, I
often find the questions and sometimes the answers the most interesting
part of a talk. Preserving and leveraging them could be as important
as the lecture, itself.
might online instructors use the internet to avoid the kinds of
misunderstandings that can result in the absence of face-to-face
interaction, in the absence of body language, or other non-verbal
is why a complementary structure is so valuable. If the net
is being used to extend what is already happening in class;
then, instructors and students are back in contact perhaps every
other week, and these physical meetings correct the misunderstandings
that might have emerged in Web-based meetings.
what about classes where instruction takes place solely online,
with no required student-instructor face-to-face meetings?
various ways we combine the two teaching methods that will make
the real difference. As I mentioned above, much of what we learn
happens outside the classroom. If we are limited to just virtual
learning, then serious effort must be given to supporting the
informal. Also, we must be careful in what certification comes
to mean for a completely virtual university degree if much of
what a student learns—such as points of view rather than
just facts, theories and concepts—get developed through
all the informal contacts one experiences on the campus. We, in
our book, are not saying that it can’t happen but we try
to lay out just how subtle yet powerful the social basis of learning
are there applications of internet technology inappropriate for
simplistic view of distance education — of packaging material
and simply spewing it forth over the net — as a way to
make learning more ‘cost effective’ is very dangerous.
There is also a corporate history of trying to hype distance
education as the solution to all our learning challenges that’s
equally dangerous. There is also a sense on many campuses, by
many university presidents, that the train has already left
the station, and that if they don’t get on real quick,
they’ll be left out in the cold.
they get on.
There is a belief that if they don’t act now, they will
be left behind permanently. That’s dangerous, because it
precludes serious debate and dialogue as to how to effectively
use this technology, and it works against my prior statement that
we are in an era of radical experimentation, and we must enter
it with an understanding that experiments fail, and we must accept
the failures along with the successes and learn from both. We
can’t look for some simplistic version of the holy grail.
The concern can’t be driven solely by the bottom line, or
we’re in a danger of creating a new kind of digital divide
where those who can afford twenty thousand dollars a year in tuition
will receive first class educations on real campuses, and those
that can’t will get second class educations on virtual campuses.
The challenge is to find a way to bring these two together and
give everyone exposure to both on and off campus learning. That
may also provide a much more cost effective use of a university’s
this new way of learning is changing, and will continue to change
students, how do teachers and higher education professionals have
to change to better serve them?
must be more willing to experiment with new ideas about learning
and must be willing to really “look around” and see
how students, today — play, interact and learn. Denial must
than thirty years ago, the fiction writer Flannery O’Connor
said that ours is the first generation in history to ask what
our students will tolerate learning. Has students’ ability
at bricolage increased their autonomy even further?
of the reasons why this period we’re in now is truly unique
in the history of civilization is that, for the first time,
students, even young kids sitting around the dining room table,
are in some respects masters of things that their parents need
whole notion of authority has shifted from being one way to
being situated. It used to be that the parents were the undisputed
authority, and the kids were the recipients of that authority.
Likewise, in the universities professors were the authorities,
and the students the recipients. In today’s world, the
notion of authority is more like a role that often migrates,
depending on the topic.
it’s analogous to the immigrant experience, where children
master their second language by age six, and their parents struggle
greatly with fluency and look to their children to interpret the
new world to them.
the precise analogy I use.
Well, how about that.
In the case of immigrants, the kids know things that the parents
need to know in order to survive. It makes for quite an interesting,
different dynamic in the family. It means that for certain things
the kids are the authority, and for other things the parents still
maintain authority. And today, the second language is apt to be
the language of the Web.
colleges approach prospective students, how must they account
for this authority shift, for this leap in active participation
by the students. Now, college Websites offer virtual tours,
and real-time chats, but in what other ways might colleges use
technology to invite prospective students to “link, lurk,
like to look at the flip-side of that question. I think one of
the best opportunities for Web technology in higher education
is to continually involve students after they graduate. In four
years on campus, students build all kinds of social and intellectual
connections with other students and faculty. The question is:
how do you extend that rich ‘knowledge’ fabric, built
over four years, into the future life of the students and the
college? These graduates can use the Web to engage in constant,
lifelong learning, and contribute to and learn from both former
and present faculty, alumni and new students. Colleges should
not only use the Web in imaginative ways to build alumni networks,
but they should encourage graduates to contribute their insights
and experiences, to better understanding what is needed to cope
in a rapidly changing world. The question is how do you invite
these graduates to link, lurk, learn and to contribute, so that
they, in a sense, never really leave. These alumni then form what
we call a “community of interest,” a community of
individuals grounded in both their shared experiences while they
attending the university and in their current (professional) practices.
This community could also interact with the community of current
students and (possibly) with prospective students. The idea is
to build and support a strong mixture of communities and possibilities,
to invite peripheral participation, to extend the physical, social,
and intellectual atmosphere of the campus, through the virtual,
so that students can have the best of both worlds. Prospective
students can observe this rich environment in action, and at the
same time, have a way to participate in it, a forum to ask questions
and receive answers. This becomes another kind of campus visit
and expands the whole notion of a virtual tour.