John Seely Brown – A New Culture of Learning

John Seely Brown (hereinafter referred to by his initials, JSB) gave the closing keynote at this year’s NMC Summer Conference. He gave a powerhouse of a talk that left us with a big picture view of what those of us in academia (or indeed in any industry) are facing in these uncertain and constantly changing times. How can we face the associated challenges, and survive and thrive in the face of them? JSB goes by the title Chief of Confusion (, and it seems a strange moniker until you consider that we are all probably a little confused in trying to think about these things. JSB’s skill is in asking the right questions and thus getting people to think in a particular way. He’s very much a big picture, 40,000-foot guy. (Apologies for the metaphor abuse!) JSB’s currently serving as a resident scholar at USC and has obviously impressed the NMC folks enough that they asked him to close out the conference.

(If you attended the conference and were present at the John Seely Brown talk, I invite you to skim through the summary below or just skip straight to my reflections if you wish. I also invite anyone reading this to lend your thoughts in the comments. Thank you!)

The Talk

JSB starts out with context – we’re in the midst of a big shift from a state of predictable equilibrium to one of constant flux, more so than ever before. We must not be clinging to 20th Century infrastructure. We’re seeing exponential advances with no stability in sight; Moore’s law (where computer chips double in capacity every 2 years) is becoming obsolete. Traditionally, when we’ve faced change and new adoption cycles we’ve seen the long S curve with an adoption period, then long periods of stability. It looks something like this with my own crude attempt at artwork:
Not so much any more. Now we’re looking at roughly a 2 year cycle of change, with a rapid set of punctuated moves and no real stability:
scurves.pngCivilization has never seen a game like we’re in now.”

In the workplace and in much of life, the half life of any particular skill is shrinking (maybe 5 years now). We’re moving from “stocks” of knowledge to “flows” of knowledge being the valuable commodity to possess. Another way to look at stocks vs. flows is as protecting knowledge assets and resisting change vs. participating in knowledge flows and creating new knowledge. JSB also refers to the latter as scalable tacit learning (in a position of embracing change). JSB uses the analogy of today’s mobile devices, calling them curiousity amplifiers rather than communication devices. I get this analogy. Calling them communication devices pegs them into the old “stocks” way of learning while thinking of them as curiosity amplifiers fits them much more neatly into the “flows” way.

Our 21st century challenge is to prepare our students and ourselves for this constant change. There is another way to rethink how we learn. The old view is the “Cartesian” view of learning – I think therefore I am. Knowledge is thought of as substance, pedagogy as transfer. In the social view of learning, we participate therefore we are. Understanding is socially constructed. Nothing beats study groups for this deep socially constructed understanding. There is no better way to predict learner success than to gauge ability to form study groups. And these study groups can work virtually as well as physically.

There are still plenty of examples of entrenched learning institutions not “getting” this concept and unfortunately penalizing students. JSB provides an example that took place at Ryerson University. A student was an administrator of a very popular Facebook group called “dungeons/mastering chemistry solutions,” which was, as the name suggests, intended to be an online study group. The university took issue with this group and charged the student with 146 counts of academic misconduct. The academy’s argument centered around three things:

  • learning should be hard
  • there is no structure of academic rigor in the online environment
  • it is the institution’s job to guard against any threat to academic integrity

In other words, unless learning is hard & controlled by others, it fails to meet academic standards.

The good news in this story is that the student was eventually cleared of all charges. A lesson here is that learning and education are not the same thing – learning is fundamentally fun and fulfilling, while education is what is determined by the academy and utilizes a top-down approach. I’ll add that though they are not precisely the same, they can reinforce and compliment one another, and the Ryerson case helps to illustrate this.

The Grommets
An interesting example of social learning gone right is that of “the grommets” in Maui. Never before had a world champion surfer come out of the island of Maui, and a young man by the name of Dusty Payne wished to change that. He started with a small cohort “study group” of his peers, the grommets. The way the story ends is that they are all world champions now.

How is this possible? The kids had extreme passion & a willingness to fail. They analyzed, frame by frame, world champion surfers on DVD. Then using their own video equipment they analyzed themselves by comparing themselves to the champions and working on corrections. They pulled the best ideas from adjacencies – similar sports such as skateboarding, mountain biking, and motor cross. They accessed “spikes” of capabilities around the world, leveraging networks, and attracting others worldwide to help them.

The mindset for becoming a world champion is thus: passion for extreme performance, a deep questing disposition, and a commitment to “indwelling” within the practice.

Other examples

JSB also gave examples from the World of Warcraft and speed chess communities and urges us to play close attention to the social life on the edge of the games rather than what’s going on in the games themselves. Deconstructing these practices gives us a lot of ideas for learning and education. We observe a blend of the tacit and the cognitive – that which is easily observable and measurable (cognitive) vs. the tacit, social learning on the edge which is arguably just as important.
A Blended Epistemology

This brings us to the core of JSB’s talk and the blended epistemology he’s urging us to consider. What we have now is man as knower (homo sapiens) vs. man as maker (homo faber). For home faber, answers become questions and tools are seen as means to productive inquiry. Yet there is a third way to look at humans in society today. Homo ludens possesses a highly nuanced concept of play, the freedom to fail, and imagination. Each of us has experienced a homo ludens moment in the form of an EPIPHANY or through learning as “riddles”. These are things you never forget, they stick with you. Homo ludens‘ play is the progenitor of culture.

A simple reframing

Through new media, we can now create context as much as content. Blogging itself is a form of joint context creation. The blogger is a node among nodes, connected but unfinished. With the links and the comments and the trackbacks that make up the blogosphere, it’s a conversation rather than just a productive activity. Blogging in this sense is like jazz. Both are intimate, improvisational, and communicative.

On that “note” (excuse me for pushing the jazz metaphor), let’s look a little deeper at this. :-)
my reflections

First of all, and this is probably a minor point, but I couldn’t help but take interest in the script-like font JSB chose for his slides. It gave the presentation a handwritten, sketchy feel. To me, this set a backdrop for the theories and concepts that JSB was presenting – nothing set in stone here, it’s all being sketched out. Rather than call into question any legitimacy issues with JSB or his content, I feel it served to reinforce his points rather well. We live in rapidly changing times and the best any of us can do is sketch out what we think is happening. That’s my take, anyway.

Now, I feel the need to note something. JSB contrasts old pedagogy models that utilize “transfer” to deliver “stocks” of knowledge with new models that recognize the social construction of knowledge. This is far from being a new concept. The great educational theorist Paulo Freire is perhaps best known for pioneering the concept of the “banking” model of education, which sounds very like the “stocks” JSB describes. What JSB calls the “Cartesian” model of learning sounds very like what those who study education call the “behaviorist” model or pedagogical approach – simple, rote learning and transfer of knowledge. By no means, though, do I think any of this means we should not still be allowing these social pedagogies to be driving our thinking and our practice. We need constant reminders; to those of us on the edge, none of this is a big deal, but we’re still dealing with forces in the academy invested in the older pedagogical models. A pep talk is always welcome.

I also found JSB’s use of species name construction (homo sapiens, homo faber, homo ludens) to be a bit strange and intriguing and it’s taken me a while to really wrap my head around it. Homo sapiens I get; we are genetically not all that different from our hunter-gatherer days, right? What’s up with implying that we are somehow a different species now? I think that what JSB’s getting at is that we really have evolved – as a culture and as individuals. We no longer live by the same set of rules and cognitive structures as we once did. Not even the same as 100, 50, even 25 years ago. Not even close. Sure, our species and cultures have faced great challenges and opportunities in the near and distant past (wars, famine, disease, technological innovations), and I’m not advocating we dismiss or forget those experiences in our collective memories. They have helped define who we are. But as I believe JSB would say, we are not just being, we are becoming now. There is no steady state. Get used to the flux. And have fun learning along the way.

JSB’s talk affected me deeply and gave me renewed optimism for the future of education. I think the NMC made an excellent choice for a closing plenary speaker. At a conference like this, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the number of choices, the quantity of information, and of course all the great conversations that happen. There were times I wished there were 5 of me to take it all in and not miss a beat. But I feel like I’m in the right place, and I feel like it’s ok to go with the flow, to not become overwhelmed with it all. I’m reminded of why I love my job, and why it’s ok to become deeply involved and at the same time not become too attached to one particular skill or project I might pick up along the way. It is the process of learning that I will always look forward too.

Live blogging the NMC Five Minutes of Fame and Awards Session

Update 6/15/10. All names, institution names, and session names have been corrected for accuracy. For full descriptions of the poster sessions, interactives and five minutes of fame session that might do a better job than my live-blogging attempt here, see the conference schedule for links.

5:30 – Awards. Judges’ choice for Poster Sessions went to:

  • Coco Kishi, Peter Elam, Lucas Horton at University of Texas, Austin for their poster on the Digital Media Internship Program
  • Juan Antonio Recio of the Universitat Oberta De Catalynya for the poster Natural Software for New Devices
  • Camila Cortez and Brett Christie of Sonoma State University: Professional Development Masters Delivered via Moodle and Videoconference

People’s Choice went to Jared Bendis at Case Western for the poster Less Filling, Same Great Taste – Comic Books instead of Video for Student Projects.

Best of NMC went to Caroline Copestake at Universitat Oberta de Catalina for her poster How to Empower Faculty without Intrusion and Burdening

Interactive session awards. Judges’ choice went to:

  • Philip Long at the University of Queensland for the session entitled Crowdsourcing the Tutor and Scaling Apprenticeships.
  • Jelena Godjevac and Claudio Cerulli of MEA-I and Munir Ahmad of HP for their session If You Want to Change the World, Become and Entrepreneur!
  • Dan Zellner of Northwestern University for the session The Masks of Antonio Fave: Working with 3D Objects

People’s Choice went to Edward Keller for the session $3.50 Adapter Lets Low End Camcorders Use Headphones.

Best of NMC went to Lisa Spiro of Rice University for her session entitled Finding Software: The Digital Research Tools (DiRT) Wiki

Congratulations to all the winners!

5:25 – the 5 minutes of fame are done and gongs have been awarded. Great job everyone! I will correct names and institutions when I get the chance.

5:18 Jared Bendis, Case Western Reserve University. Castles and Geotagging. Lorenzo (gong man), put it down! Who does he think he is? Oh well, he hunts castles, I guess that makes him special. Last year Jared decided to travel with a Gisteq phototracker. Tells you where you were, not where you’re going. It’s a real treasure hunt and GPS enriches the journey.

5:12 Gail Krovitz at Pearson. Using Voice Tools with Students in Online Courses. Using voice can help bridge the learning gap. Many many tools available. Example shown using Jing for a Spanish language assignment. Shows Voicethread & Photostory. Best practices – tell students about tech requirelments, provide low stakes practice assignment.

5:09 Seiji Ikeda and Colling Hover at the University of Texas, Arlington. Touchless Interactive Art in the Personal Computer. The audience loves this one! We can actually interact with the video screen where we see ourselves interacting through gestures with artistic elements. So fun!

5:05 Molly Ruggles at MIT. Timelines Tell All! Peasants and Revolutionaries Don’t Always Agree. Assignments for students to create narratives from the perspectives of soldiers, activists, peasants, etc. at different time periods during the Russion Revolution. You can look at the experience of different stakeholders in the same event. Future development: allow students to comment on each others’ work, and other enhancements.

4:59 Jones Media Center at Dartmouth College – Helmut Baer. Plasma Playground: Innovative Ideas for Training Student Techs. Created the Plasma Playground making DVDs available. Very creative use of “interactive” video. I’m still not sure what the Plasma Playground is about, but everyone in the audience enjoyed this one.

4:53 Full Sail University. Holly Ludgate and Sharyn Gabriel. Partnering for a 21st Century Education. Video: Ocoee Middle School student rendition of Black Eyed Peas’ I gotta Feeling, I gotta Read it. This books gonna be a good, good book. Update: embedding the video here. Well worth the watch.

Sharon: Huge disconnect between education and what students are doing. The video we saw was a result of trying to bridge this disconnect. It made Oprah! Very viral.

4:48 Kindling Students: HCC’s eBook Classroom Project. Laurel Lacroix and Lorah Gough. What would it be like for students to have one small portable device vs. lugging around 40 lb. backpacks full of books? Problems! Amazon infratructure is a bear, books are expensive anyway. Most students like the idea of an e-reader though. There were features about the e-reader that students didn’t like though such as navigation and notation. Overall students like the Kindle but had reservations. Like, why can’t we surf the internet? Laura talks about usability of the Kindle.

4:42: Lou Rera, Buffalo State College. How IT Rescued at $100,000 No Budget Project. How has IT adapted to reduced budgets? Video – Lost in Edit Hell, produced by students. They do a fantastic job of explaining the use of unused computers in labs to process video, rather than expensive additional server. Lots of geek stats on this – makes it all better for students. It’s all true and we better believe it!

4:37: Virginia Kuhn – Articulation Assessment: Digital Storytelling for Digital Work. Talks about assessment at USC. Video is increasingly ubiquitious, as much as writing has been. Kairos: A Journal – Profiles in Digital Pedagogy. Why Web text? Persistent repository/digital portfolio. Why?

  • media variety
  • application obsolescence
  • assessment

There is a pedagogical imperative to offer quality rigorous assessment to these media. We still love words, still very powerful. But video is a major component of how students are doing projects.

4:34 PM: Hosts Rachel Smith & Alan Levine are kicking things off. Big thanks to conference hosts at USC. They’re explaining the 5 minute format and the “gonger” has been introduced. I think he will be a big star here. :)

4:30 PM: In a few minutes the exciting Five Minutes of Fame session begins, where selected NMC participants will be sharing their projects or research idea in short five minute rapid-fire segments. This will be a good way to round out a Friday at this conference. I’ve chosen the live blog format as it seems appropriate to the rapid format. I will offer a recap and analysis at the end. The ride starts…. now!

NMC2010 – Reflections on Mimi Ito Keynote

According to her bio on the NMC conference program, Mimi Ito is a “cultural anthropologist who studies new media use.” She studies informal learning among peers and has conducted extensive studies of the online Japanese anime fandom community. danah boyd (@zephoria on Twitter), another new media scholar whose work I’ve admired for years, is excited to be here:

Aviary twitter-com Picture 1.png

Given this ringing endorsement, I expected a powerhouse of a talk. I was not disappointed.

Mimi opens by mentioning The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, a highly rated new release on Amazon by Nicholas Carr. In the book, Carr talks about distracted culture in the internet age and its perceived negative effects on human intelligence. A similar theme can be found in The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein. In contrast, you have the work of technology embracers like Don Tapscott (Wikinomics, Grown Up Digital) It’s all too familiar according to Ito (and I agree) – the same old polarization: those who embrace new technology or other cultural elements vs. those who blast them. But both views are correct. It helps to remember that “opportunities and risks are inextricably entwined” (missed attribution). I’ll highlight at this point one quote from Ms. Ito that had the audience applauding:

Google isn’t making us stupid, we have only ourselves to blame for that.

Indeed. If we are distractable, we will find something to distract us. The technology itself is a neutral entity. There is indeed great opportunity with the social internet: information at our fingertips, on our desks or in our pockets. There’s also an undeniable temptation to distraction. But again, we can’t blame the technology.

Now for the meat of Mimi’s talk. There is an opportunity for peer-to-peer learning here that has not yet been fully realized. Very few institutions are taking advantage of the opportunity. We have a mindset of separating entertainment and learning and so we’re looking at these social networks and online cultures as outside of the realm of education. This is wrong – we need to tap into the spaces where the learners are clearly engaged.

There is a culture clash here. We expect students to meet a standardized set of objectives year after year, and get upset when they copy each others’ work. We need to reward the act of building on the work of others when creativity and depth is added. We watched some hilarious videos of the “lip synch” and, um, “crazy antics” variety set to popular music, and we viewed other types of remixes.

Jonathan McIntosh remixes TV advertisements to create a whole new critical narrative:

Buffy vs Edward  – more than just a funny video, it offers a critical view of gender roles:

So, what would it look like to use that deep peer interaction and engagement as the actual focus of learning? Students are interacting in their networks and not just with static content – we know this. So why are we not working to create social interactive wrappers around our content? Twitter user @skiley13 quips on this point:

Aviary twitter-com Picture 2.png

Indeed. So which version of the “net generation” is correct? Socially engaged or dumbed down? Is that even the question we should be asking as educators? Kids and adults of all ages have always found means of distraction; indeed, a New York Times editorial by Steven Pinker published just today (well worth the click-through and a read) argues this very point – there have always been detractors arguing that new media makes us stupid whether that new media is the printing press or the Internet. Rather, today we have a unique opportunity to utilize these technologies in a way that will keep our students engaged. If we don’t meet this challenge, we will be the ones “dumbing down” our students by forcing them to conform to old models of teaching and learning, and ultimately losing them. There are already examples of faculty and institutions doing this – the rest of us need to get on board.

MacArthur foundation – re-imagining learning in the 21st century 

I would love to hear your take on the keynote or on any point I’ve made on this evolving topic.