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Futurist: To fix education, think Web 2.0

In an age of mashups and remixes, educators should create curricula encouraging student participation, says John Seely Brown

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Universities and employers concerned with the state of engineering education should steal a page from popular Internet culture, visionary John Seely Brown said at a conference Friday.

A consultant and former chief scientist at Palo Alto Research Center, Seely Brown spoke at a conference on technology and education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The conference was organized to mark the end next year of an eight-year partnership between Microsoft and MIT to explore the use of technology in learning.

John Seely Brown
Credit: Martin
John Seely Brown
speaking Friday at
MIT on the impact
of Internet culture
on education.

Seely Brown argued that education is going through a large-scale transformation toward a more participatory form of learning.

Rather than treat pedagogy as the transfer of knowledge from teachers who are experts to students who are receptacles, educators should consider more hands-on and informal types of learning. These methods are closer to an apprenticeship, a farther-reaching, more multilayered approach than traditional formal education, he said.

In particular, he praised situations where students who are passionate about specific topics study in groups and participate in online communities.

"We are learning in and through our interactions with others while doing real things," Seely Brown said. "I'm not saying that knowledge is socially constructed, but our understanding of that knowledge is socially constructed."

In one example, architecture students work on group design projects in a public setting. A professor's critique of a project is instructive to others. Collaboration is valued and encouraged along with individual achievement. Perhaps most meaningful is the students' process in completing the project, he said.

"As you work shoulder to shoulder with other kids, all the work you do and work in progress is done in public. So others understand what you're thinking," Seely Brown said.

The evolution of the Internet can facilitate this approach, he said. Web 2.0 tools, such as wikis and blogs, make information sharing and content creation easier.

Online communities are forming around a wide variety of topics. Amateur astronomers, for example, are sharing information among themselves and even with professionals.

Some universities are using the Web-community approach as well. A Web site set up at Brown University called the Decamaron Web brings together experts on a novel by Boccaccio.

Having this process done in public gives undergraduate students "an apprenticeship platform" for learning the practice of scholarly debate, he said.

Adapting the teaching to the technology
The Internet is also helping drive a transformation from a mass media model--where information is delivered from experts to consumers--to a situation that allows people to create content online, often by using existing content, he said.

Seely Brown showed off a remixed video that took the soundtrack of a Matrix movie trailer and superimposed it on a Japanese comic story.

This sort of activity encourages individuals of all ages to learn a topic--in this case the Japanese comics story Naruto--and "tinker" with the material, which is essential to learning, he argued.

"There is a rise of an amateur class of kids and adults that love (the Internet) as builders, as researchers, as scholars and as inventors," he said.

Using these practices in the classroom, however, poses some challenges.

One MIT class, for example, scrapped the large lecture setup in favor of several smaller groups working together with computers, aided by roaming teachers. The experiment has been favorable, but the instructors had to modify several practices, such as grading students to encourage collaboration.

"With every new piece of technology, to make this technology work, you have to change your teaching practices," Seely Brown said. "Part of it is (thinking about) how to go from sage on the stage to being a real mentor."

He suggested a "hybrid" learning approach. Schools can teach essential knowledge and critical thinking through somewhat traditional means. But they should complement that teaching with what Seely Brown called "passion-based learning" that focuses on getting students more engaged with topic experts.