Speaking volumes

April 30, 2004

John Seely Brown, a star among Silicon Valley’s digerati, tells Stephen Phillips that high-tech zealots and computer gurus have much to learn from another brilliant human innovation - the book

Nothing pleases John Seely Brown more than a good old-fashioned book. Such relish for paper, print and binding is unexpected in a leading member of Silicon Valley’s digerati. But for Brown, a book “is one of the most brilliantly designed artefacts”.

Until 2000, Brown was director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Parc), birthplace of the desktop computer, mouse, laser printer and other icons of the digital age. But he maintains a healthy scepticism about technology. In The Social Life of Information , which Brown wrote with Paul Duguid, he debunked gung-ho visions of technology as a panacea - in particular, heady predictions that virtual campuses would supplant physical ones. He still believes, nonetheless, that technology will transform higher education.

Brown attributes the demise of so many online higher education ventures to the fact that they got hung up on “the supply side” of pedagogy. Much technology fails because it forgets its users and neglects the social context in which information is consumed, Brown says. Not so a book - portable and aesthetically appealing, perhaps the ultimate user-friendly product, Brown says - or the traditional campus, which is a place of unequalled intellectual ferment.

“We socially construct our understanding of information. Much learning happens outside the classroom on campus,” he says. “Where else do you get to rub shoulders with people from multiple disciplines and have this rich social life?”

The social and intellectual dimensions of campuses will endure, Brown says, but technology will transform them. “Students’ needs are changing [around] what it means to be literate and well educated in the 21st century.”

The web puts a “sea of information at everyone’s fingertips”, he notes. For information that used to be found only in libraries, “now you go to Google”. Such ease is exhilarating but dangerous, he warns. The soundness of information in campus libraries has been confirmed by librarians and academic publishers, but the provenance of much online content is dubious. It is vital that students gain critical thinking skills and the power of intellectual discrimination to navigate the morass, Brown advises.

Students also require critical thinking in new fields. “We need to expand notions of literacy. It’s as important that kids make movies as write essays,” he suggests, so they can deconstruct “digital semiotics”, such as how camera angles influence perception of films.

Star Wars director George Lucas, like Brown a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California, “has asked: ‘Can you consider yourself literate if you don’t know as much about Hitchcock as Hemingway?’ The English department didn’t like it, but there’s something to be said for it,” Brown says.

Students today are fluent in technologies that many staff have come to late, Brown adds. “Professors may teach classes where everyone has access to the web on a laptop and can use instant messaging to pass notes back and forth.” Traditional ideas about teachers as unassailable authority figures break down in such an environment, he says.

To engage students, teachers will have to adopt less hierarchical roles, even see themselves as “senior co-participants” in classes. Brown recounts the example of the mathematician Paul Halmos at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, when Brown was studying for a PhD in computer and communication sciences.

“Knocked for a loop by a student’s question, Halmos said: ‘OK, let’s figure this out together’,” Brown recounts. “We got to see him reason through this problem. One of the myths of science is that everything’s stylised and rigid, but almost always the logic is invented after the fact. It’s playful and messy - that’s how work gets done.”

It is not out of self-mockery, then, that he bills his current roving commission - requiring him to be part scientist, part designer and part strategist - as “chief of confusion”.

Technology works best when we integrate it into our confused world rather than try to re-engineer things, Brown says. “The irony is that a simple technology repositioned to honour the social basis of learning can do amazing things - it isn’t rocket science.”

ICT in Higher Education, Issue No. 3
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