Web tech reimagining, reforming higher education

Former Xerox Chief Scientist John Seely Brown tells of an encounter with an MIT student at the institution's famed Media Lab to illustrate the potential opportunities and dangers of technology in education.

"We asked the first student we ran into, 'how do you like your classes?'" recalled Brown, who is often referred to by his initials, JSB. "He looked stunned. 'I don't go to classes,' he said."

Instead, Brown explained, for the core content of courses, this students relies on MIT's OpenCourseWare (OCW) project, which makes available online the entire text output, and increasingly multimedia output, from MIT instructors, researchers, students, and visiting lecturers.

Yet this same student is highly involved in a wide range of projects, collaborations, and informal interactions at Media Lab. "He uses OCW, but he is deeply immersed in what Media Lab is [actually] doing," Brown said.

Brown's trip to Media Lab was part of his visit to the MIT campus last week to give the keynote address for a two-day conference reviewing the MIT-Microsoft iCampus project, a seven-year effort to explore how emerging technologies can be used in higher education.

A big man, with a silver gray beard and mustache, Brown used simple slides to illustrate his ideas visually, rather than itemize them in points and subpoints.

In his keynote, Brown said the traditional model of education is changing. "The traditional, Cartesian model is 'I think, therefore I am,'" he said. "It views knowledge as a kind of substance, so pedagogy [the principles and methods of instruction] is viewed as knowledge transfer, as pouring information into a student's head...or cultivating neat rows of disciplinary [specific] knowledge."

That model is being challenged by what Brown called a "social view of knowledge: we participate, therefore we are." In this model, "we come into being by building relationships with other objects," he said.

What that means, he said, is that "We learn in, and through, our interactions with others and the world, by doing 'real' things."

As evidence he cited the results of studies that conclude that the "best indicator of success in college is whether you have learned how to form and join study groups," to participate in a collaborative effort to engage in a participatory learning effort.

What's needed, Brown said, are "participatory architectures to support this understanding of social learning."

Among the examples he cited were the MIT iCampus Technology Enabled Active Learning ( TEAL ) project, which is recasting the way in which freshman physics is being taught at MIT.

Instead of an instructor lecturing a large hall full of students in seats, there now are groups of students, around circular tables, with an array of computers and other equipment. The instructor gives brief presentations, then sets the students free to experiment or solve problems in small groups, assisting them as needed.

"You have to be willing to change your teaching practices," Brown told the educators. "From being a sage on the stage to being a mentor."

Brown likens this practice to a kind of apprenticeship for students, which can be facilitated and supported by technology. Brown calls these kinds of participatory, group practices "learning to be" -- becoming enculturated in a distinctive way of seeing, of knowing and exploring a problem. The various open source software projects is one example, giving birth to a new generation of coders.

"Any one of these [open source projects] is a distributed, cognitive apprenticeship, enculturing participants [in]to a virtual community of practice," he said. Hundreds of thousands of students around the world are actively participating in these communities, shaping them and being shaped by them.

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