Wednesday, June 14, 2006

John Seely Brown (formerly of Xerox) on libraries and the digital age

Informal Learning and Community Libraries :: AO

Informal Learning and Community Libraries
John Seely Brown on reinventing the community library to deeply engage digital kids (and everyone else) and increase their passion to learn.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger [IBM] | POSTED: 06.13.06 @07:33
Last week I attended a fascinating lecture by John Seely Brown on "Rethinking Learning and the Community Library in the Networked Age" at the Westport (CT) Public Library. His talk explored whether there might be a way to reinvent the community library as a new kind of complementary asset to both the school and the Internet -- reinvent it in a way that deeply engages digital kids (and everyone else) and increases their passion to learn.

I have known John for many years and have served with him on a few committees and boards. He was Chief Scientist at Xerox and Director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) for almost twenty years. Since retiring from Xerox, John has continued to be very busy as a speaker, writer, member of the boards of several public and private companies and lots of other activities. One of his main areas of interest is education, in particular how our Internet culture is introducing whole new ways of learning.

Earlier this year I met John at the Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences (HICSS). There, over dinner, he told me about the work he is doing to understand how kids - and more generally people of all ages - are learning all kinds of important skills through participation in online communities. John has been wondering if we shouldn't pay more attention to this kind of self-organizing, informal learning as a way to complement the more formal learning kids get in school. In conjunction with that he has been pondering the role that community libraries should play in fostering this kind of informal learning and self-education. His inspiration is Andrew Carnegie’s efforts over one hundred years ago when he promoted community libraries for self-education at a time when the emerging industrial age was making education much more important and the US was absorbing large numbers of immigrants. Carnegie helped build almost 1700 library buildings in the US through the Carnegie Library Grants.

John's ideas really struck a chord with me. Sometime in the late '90s I serendipitously wandered into the Westport Library's video collection room, browsed through the many films in the collection and took out "My Beautiful Concubine" using my wife's library card. And that - along with the Internet, especially great film sites like which added tremendous depth and education to the experience, - got me into a love affair with films that continues to this day. But, as I thought more and more about the experience, I realized that rather than just watching films as entertainment – which I definitely was as well – I was truly taking a kind of self-taught, self- organized film course, which has led me to learn about China’s Fifth Generation of film directors, to appreciate the classic Westerns of John Ford and John Wayne and to discover the works of wonderful directors like Krzysztof Kieslowski.

I was so grateful to the Westport Library for this new-found passion in my mid-50s that I became involved in Library activities and subsequently joined its Advisory Council. So, when I returned home from the conference in Hawaii, I discussed John's ideas about community libraries with our Library Director and other colleagues from our Advisory Council and we quickly agreed to invite him to share his views with us by giving a talk at the Westport Library.

John's main thesis is that formal learning happens mostly in schools, as opposed to informal learning which happens outside of school. As we know, school reform has struggled on with limited success, so perhaps we should also look for innovative ways to influence and reform learning from the outside in, by focusing on informal learning and leverage what we learn there to help us transform the core of formal learning.

He gave a few concrete example of how powerful informal learning is in our society at this time. The open source movement, perhaps best exemplified by initiatives like Linux, represents a very powerful form of apprenticeship to a virtual community of practice, as people seek to raise their "social capital" by successfully contributing code and ideas to their open source community. The world of remix and mashups is another kind of social network where people are learning to "tinker" by combining existing sources in new creative ways, going way beyond what the original authors of the sources intended. This opens the door for many more people to learn to innovate on top of original innovative sources.

Another very important way kids are learning all kinds of new skills is by participating in the virtual worlds emerging around game playing, especially massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life. What kinds of skills does it take to be good at such virtual world games? John listed among others: pattern recognition; continuous decision making; conquering immense complexity; and constant learning. World of Warcraft has the notion of "Guilds", and John also listed the skills needed by a good Guild Master: create a vision and set of values to attract others to your Guild; find, evaluate and then recruit players that have a set of diverse skills and which fit with your norms; create a platform for apprenticeship and the teaching of new Guild members; orchestrate group strategy and governance; and create, sell and adhere to the governance principles of the guild and adjudicate disputes. Are we talking about a game, or are we talking about the fundamentals for organizational leadership?

The world of multi-player online games seems to be providing us with more and more clues as to the kinds of skills and training tools that we need for the dynamic virtual work environments that seem to be increasingly important in the future. This came up, for example, in IBM’s recent Global Innovation Outlook in which one of the top recommendations is to look at massively multiplayer online games as one way of teaching the leadership qualities needed in the emerging world of massively distributed virtual work environments.

Formal education and schools have a major role to play in building the store of knowledge, teaching the core materials needed for critical thinking and providing institutional certification of expertise. But, if we insist that formal education is the only way to learn, we will invariably fail, both because there are limits to what you can teach formally and because considerable numbers of people learn differently and are thus left out of formal education, which can focus only on the majority. That is why it is so important to look for innovations in education amidst all the different ways we learn, and to focus particularly on the new ways people are learning informally, especially as part of communities that tinker, design, play games, create, remix and generally learn by doing things they really like to do.

Some of these communities will be virtual, with members distributed all over the world; some will be physical, with members living in the same towns and neighborhoods; and some will be a hybrid of the two. Libraries, which are pervasive throughout the US, can play a unique role by becoming social spaces for informal learning in their local communities.

Given that our knowledge-based age is basically an age when learning is more important than ever, there may be no more critical innovation challenge for us.

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