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