It is hard not to open up any newspaper on any day and not read about the need for reinventing education. Tom Friedman in his seminal book, The World is Flat, makes dramatically clear the competitive threat the USA faces from Asia in today’s globalized knowledge economy and none other than Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, calls for the reinvention of education for the 21st Century. Yes, many of us have a gut feeling that somehow we must take a fresh approach to education in the 21st century. But taking a fresh approach requires new lenses to see the vast resources that could be marshaled to meet the challenges of not only reinventing education but also setting the stage for creating a culture of learning.
Within this context I opened up Judy Breck’s manuscript, 109 Ideas for virtual learning – how open content will help close the digital divide, with great anticipation and I was certainly not disappointed. Indeed, Judy instantly grasps the real potential of the networked (digital) age to open up an ecology of learning, opportunities for both formal and informal learning.
Let me dwell a moment on this powerful metaphor, an ecology of learning, founded not just on the vast information now readily accessible on the net but also the tools that amplify the social aspects of learning – learning in communities, learning with amateurs interacting with professional, learning as a constantly expanding exploration of ideas. From my perspective this helps reposition learning by doing into emphasizing learning from joining niche communities of similarly inclined folks who want to create, share and build on each others work.
Let me provide a couple of examples of the possibilities that have intrigued me. These examples stress the fact that the internet is much more than just a vast repository of information. From my perspective (and Judy’s) it is a social medium for the acquisition of knowledge and for collaborative learning. In fact for all collaboration since real collaboration always involves learning.
To explore this potential a bit further, let us consider the open source movement where folks distributed all over the world come together on the net to build and constantly evolve complex software systems. The most famous example of this is the Linux oper
ating system. Although the system itself and the governance model for building social capital around it are fascinating topics in their own right, I want to focus here on how this open source movement acts as a learning resource for thousand of students wanting to master the practices of software programming. What has emerged is a new form of distributed, cognitive apprenticeship based on learning by doing, learning by joining a community of practice (through legitimate peripheral participation) and enculturation into the sensibilities and practices of the community. Key to this particular community is learning how to write code that can be easily read by others. One enters this community by working on peripheral projects – simple additions to existing code - which become open to peer review. You can get feedback, you can examine, test and modify the code of others, you can see how the system evolves, you can witness or participate in commentary on projects and you can suggest new ideas of your own and so on. Indeed, you are not just ‘learning-about’, you are ‘learning-to-be’.
Another example is Wikipedia – the vast, open source encyclopedia emerging on the net. Currently, Wikipedia has over one million articles in it and is being accessed more frequently than the New York Times online. It is a place where many of us turn first to find out information and as such it has an obvious role in education by providing readily accessible and moderately trustworthy information for students of any age anywhere. But it plays a much more subtle role as an emerging form of cognitive apprenticeship. The way that Wikipedia works is that often a niche community of passionately inclined amateurs will take an initial stab at researching and writing up a topic of great interest to them. Then what tends to happen is that professionals and others with more highly specialized fragments of knowledge start to jump in and expand (or roll back) some of what was written. The process is always on-going although for a particular topic it does tend to converge to a stable, but living, document pretty quickly. Now consider this process as a platform for apprenticeship. The amateurs (and others who are watching and participating) get to see the practices of scholar ship in action. They get to see (and participate in) the debates that emerge around the roll backs and so forth. Thus, the ‘apprentices’ get to experience the practices of being a scholar.
Although this kind of accidental learning of a practice was never an intentional part of the Wikipedia project, it is an explicit part of some of the more focused projects developing on many of our campuses today. For example, the Decameron Web at Brown University has become a definitive site for scholars around the world to discuss Boccaccio’s Decameron, a early novel in Italian literature. Although the primary participants are established scholars, it is also a site where graduate and undergraduate students can be legitimate peripheral participants, learning-to-be scholars, learning the practices of scholarship.
I have focused here mostly on extended forms of cognitive apprenticeship where the internet can easily be seen to be an active medium fostering learning-by-doing, but nearly always with various kinds of social scaffolding to help create a reflective practicum. As such this medium helps to provide a window into various ways of knowing. It also fosters productive inquiry – that is, that aspect of any activity where we are deliberately, though not always consciously, seeing what we need in order to do what we want to do.
Now, these examples do not constitute a radical transformation of learning – certainly not the kind of transformation that will help us prepare our students to be leaders of the 21st century. But they do help lay the foundation for something more radical and that is the shift from a supply/push theory of education to a demand/pull theory. The pedagogies of the 20th century were aimed at dolling out stocks of knowledge and skills for the student to hold in reserve til needed. My guess is that the 21st century will call for replacing stocks of knowledge with the ability to position oneself in flows of activities – where learning is both purposeful but also co-lateral. Shifting our attention from how to build stocks to how to participate in flows shifts us to thinking about learning ecologies where the constant cross pollination of ideas and actions creates a vibrancy to learning.
In summary, the opportunities for new kinds of learning environments which take advantage of the internet are nearly limitless. Judy more than anyone grasps that the net is as much a social medium as an informational medium. One without the other is hardly novel. But what is novel here is that by combining the social with the informational we are creating a medium that affords both learning and knowing and that is our grand opportunity.
John Seely Brown
Former Chief Scientist, Xerox Corporation
Director Emeritus, Xerox PARC
Author (with Paul Duguid), The Social Life of Information
Author (with John Hagel), The Only Sustainable Edge