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Five Questions... for John Seely Brown

By Lisa Neal / June 2006

TYPE: INTERVIEW
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John Seely Brown was the chief scientist of Xerox Corporation and the director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He is currently a senior fellow at the Annenberg Center at USC. The author of many influential books and papers, John is widely known as an innovative and creative thinker and a renaissance man of the digital age.

Lisa Neal: How do your roots in intelligent tutoring systems (ITS) impact your perspective on education today and, in particular, the role of technology in education?

John Seely Brown: I am actually returning to those roots and beginning to explore how we can now use the phenomenal power of today's computers to do what we could only dream about doing 25 years ago when we started the ITS movement. There are some promising signs and several startups that are showing some extremely promising results, though mostly in very technical domains such as training systems for network administrators. Ironically, intelligent tutoring systems are also appearing in massively multiplayer games. Here they are being deployed as providing a relatively easy pathway into the game. Many of these games are incredibly complex and provide a daunting challenge for newbies. Most of us, of course, learn from others in the game world but that doesn't always suffice.

LN: You have written that the "Web will be a transformative medium, as important as electricity." How has the Web affected education to date and what do you anticipate will happen in the future as children use the Web at younger and younger ages?

JSB: The Web and especially the modern variants such as Web 2.0 create an interesting kind of participatory medium, one where we can engage in productive inquiry around subjects that we are passionate about. Today, many of us prefer surfing the Web and exploring new information to passively watching TV. But many kids today do more than just explore: They create, tinker, share and build on each others creations. We are slowly reconstructing a culture of tinkering, which lays the foundation for a grounded understanding of theoretical topics that you learn about in school. Also, the Net helps you to not just learn about something but more importantly to learn to be something—to learn a practice, not just learn about the practice. For example, thousands of kids learn what it means to be a computer programmer by joining an open-source community such as Linux. What a great way to learn—acculturating into a practice. Such provides a new kind of apprenticeship, a distributed one where the community mind becomes the expert to which one apprentices.

LN: In an article you wrote for Change magazine called "Growing up Digital" you wrote about a Stanford professor's use of videotaped lectures and how small groups of students, rather than passively watching, led lively discussions and "socially constructing their own meaning of the material." This happened by accident, however, can planned learning innovations be as successful?

JSB: Absolutely, once one understands the social underpinnings of learning. But also note that we are beginning to find good tools that help construct and support learning ecologies for teachers who wish to innovate. Consider the great KEEP toolkit and Web site being developed by Toru Iiyoshi at the Carnegie foundation. This is something worth paying close attention to.

LN: In "You Play World of Warcraft? You're Hired!" which you wrote for Wired magazine, you discuss how much learning comes from game playing. While someone may learn many leadership skills while playing a role-playing game, does formalizing the knowledge increase effectiveness? For instance, would it help to discuss with the player how game-mastered skills might apply to job duties?

JSB: Learning in game simulations is always enhanced by meaningful "after action reviews" in a reflective practicum. Note, though, that the example cited in the "World of Warcraft" article involved learning not by direct transfer (as happens in game simulators), but rather by imagining a business situation as being like a situation you encountered in the game. The play of imagination can involve powerful forms of conceptual blending and metaphorical leaps of the imagination. This is not the same as creating analogies! The play of imagination also lies at the root of innovation.

LN Current literature focuses on how wikis, podcasting, vodcasting, etc. can be used for education. Which technological innovation do you expect will have the greatest impact on training and education?

JSB: The tools you mention can all amplify the social life of learning. I am also intrigued by powerful visualization tools where, for example, the student can see how the immune system works and feel free to tinker with it and see how it responds. Immersive, interactive worlds will completely transform learning! I wish I could start all over. Learning by tinkering in these immersive worlds will be fantastic. And we now have the graphics cards and computer power to render them as visual as IMAX movies. We are entering a new world of learning possibilities.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Lisa Neal
  1. Degrees by mail
  2. The Value of Voice
  3. Predictions for 2006
  4. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
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  7. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  8. Music lessons
  9. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  10. Advertising or education?
  11. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  12. Predictions for 2008
  13. Serious games for serious topics
  14. Back to the future
  15. Predictions For 2003
  16. "Spot Learning"
  17. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  18. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  19. "Deep" thoughts
  20. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  21. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  22. Learner on the Orient Express
  23. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  24. Q&A
  25. Do it yourself
  26. Predictions for 2004
  27. Storytelling at a distance
  28. Talk to me
  29. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  30. Online learning and fun
  31. Everything in moderation
  32. eLearning and fun
  33. The basics of e-learning
  34. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  35. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  36. How to get students to show up and learn
  37. Blended conferences
  38. Predictions for 2002
  39. Learning from e-learning
  40. Q&A with Don Norman
  41. In search of simplicity
  42. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  43. Want better courses?
  44. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  45. Just "DO IT"
  46. Senior service
  47. Formative evaluation
  48. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  49. Predictions for 2007
  50. Not all the world's a stage
  51. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  52. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  53. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  54. My life as a Wikipedian
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