You gotta slow down (slow down) sweet talking woman (slow down)
You got me running (run, run)
You got me searching
(Sweet talking woman by ELO)

Head buzzing, body tired. So many implications to a simple assignment. I am really getting value for money on this course. The assignment this time is to blog about (why not just write?) researching on the web for academic purposes.

Our starting point was an article by Brown and Adler (2008) which was called Minds on fire and did put my mind on fire. Looking at innovation and technology or learning 2.0, it reviews technological innovations and their relevance to learning as of 2008. I immediately get lost in John Seely Brown’s website, viewing a video called Teaching 2.0. and  it turned out that the video summarised the article very well so by the time I got back to the article I was ‘reading’ it again.

Whilst my task is to look at a specific innovation and bring it up to 2013, what has actually put my mind on fire are the implications of the concepts Seely Brown explores to my role as a teacher. I will return to my actual task for this assignment in my next post.

I have been involved in private adult education for many years and have known in my gut that the process of participation in learning is core to effective learning. In some ways, as a business psychologist, what I teach are participatory skills in organisational life. So, in this post I explore how all this searching on the web for innovative initiatives has challenged values I hold as a ‘traditional’ academic.

Seely Brown states unambiguously (quoting a study by Light 2001) that what determines success in college students is whether or not they learn to participate in study groups. His position is one of social construction; he is at pains to point out that for him this does not mean the social construction of knowledge (I am after all a scientist, he tells us smiling) but does mean the ‘social construction of understanding’; i.e. through conversation we help each other understand. I have always known this experientially in face to face adult learning. It was great to hear a respected academic, who is now also  Chief of Confusion to encourage creativity and innovation around him, confirm that research supports the importance creating learning groups to in any ‘blueprint for success’.

The article then takes us to the fact that Web 2.0 technologies are an ideal medium to create an  ‘I participate, therefore I am’ paradigm of learning. He argues that using the conduit metaphor (Reddy in Ortony 1979) for knowledge transfer through language in the classroom, or what he terms the cartesian model of knowledge, leads learners to judge the classroom experience as inferior to their social networking experience outside of class. If we believe that we are using language as a conduit to ‘pour’ knowledge into our students, we are missing the fact that it is through participation in conversation that knowledge is understood and, some might even say, co-created. Seely Brown gives the example of using the MUVE Second Life to create a virtual classroom where the students avatars are  ‘sitting side by side in a classroom’ may be a way to ‘amplify or replace the real’, this experience is just more engaging for students that listening to a lecturer like the sound of their own voice. I picked up my bruised ego off the floor and read his ideas again. By the time students come to college they already belong to a social network which ‘comes’ to university with them and informally does act as a study group for them, so educators can and should use these networks in a purposeful way. This is happening now, perhaps more so than since the article is written. In my searching, I learn about Twiducate where students can now work with a teacher to create a private class network to connect and collaborate. The important point here for me is that as educators we can allow our egos to take over and believe that the knowledge we ‘pour’ into our students is what makes the difference, or we can wake up and smell the coffee – our students have taken their learning elsewhere and if we do not join them we may just become obsolete. This is already happening in the world of journalism.  I learn about the News at Seven project from Northwestern University:

‘News At Seven is a system that automatically generates a virtual news show. Totally autonomous, it collects, parses, edits and organizes news stories and then passes the formatted content to artificial anchors for presentation. Using the resources present on the web, the system goes beyond the straight text of the news stories to also retrieve relevant images and blogs with commentary on the topics to be presented.’

The project has created what they call ‘virtual newscasters’ or ‘robo-journalists’ who (sic?) can be given a search string and can generate a newscast on that search string. They do not just ‘pour’ facts to viewers but can assess different viewpoints and hold a reasonable humorous conversation in natural language. Let me be clear about this – the only role the human plays is to input the search string and afterwards acts as what Dan Pink calls ‘meta-journalists’ to evaluate and tidy up the output. This is not as far fetched as it may seem at first read – we already use curator sites such as Scoop it to do a version of this very same activity. We input a topic, the site’s engine generates data, and we become meta-journalists to this data to produce our page. Journalists are already reassessing what they bring to the party that the computer cannot do (insight from data?), technology is forcing educators to do the same.

I learnt about many new projects academic and otherwise that are pushing the envelope in education. Seely Brown has a view that Web 2.0 technologies already provide and extended peer network, and that this network can easily teach tacit knowledge at the same time as teaching about a  subject. I learnt all about Polanyi’s tacit knowledge proposition when I was an artificial intelligence researcher and at the time it offered me hope that the human could not be replaced. Seely Brown’s thesis is that the medium of the internet can create exponential learning – that we can keep learning without the law of diminishing returns kicking in. If the internet can indeed ‘reverse the flow’ of learning so that we no longer have to absorb facts about a domain for years before we can develop expertise with tacit rules (Dreyfuss and Dreyfus, 1986) but can do this either simultaneously or in reverse order, then we may indeed be looking at ‘the brewing storm of opportunity’ he refers to at the end of the paper. Of course this raises huge issues about sustainability, ethics, copyright, the feasibility of collective distributed intelligence, the very essence of research  is challenged by this as we move towards a world that ‘provides a license that grants permission to users not only to read the material but also to download, modify, and post it for reuse’. Seely Brown refers to this as the ‘create-use’remix’ theory of knowledge. A create/use/remix approach to knowledge is a new paradigm for learning that talks about knowledge being distributed in a community of practice and through belonging rather than owned by an individual.

The article highlights the fact that this is not a new paradigm but that indeed the open source movement has been hugely successful for software development (and beyond if we see that Wikipedia applies the same learning model) and does indeed teach the student about a topic by becoming a member of a community of practice and being allowed to experiment at the edges before moving to the inner sanctum of experts.  A form of learning that has to be contrasted with a ‘twentieth century approach to education focused on helping students to build stocks of knowledge and cognitive skills that could be deployed later in appropriate situations.’ He muses that perhaps our new role as educators is to provide our students with a ‘deep questing disposition’ rather than skills or static knowledge. I have seen my role as just that for many years, but have always hidden that vision behind my content expertise. Perhaps this assignment has given me grounds to start hiding in the open.


Dreyfus, Hubert L., Stuart E. Dreyfus, and Tom Athanasiou. Mind over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer. New York: Free, 1986. Print.
Hammond, Kristian, Lisa Gandy, and Nathan Nichols. “News at Seven: The Future of the Future.” Lisa Gandy, Nathan Nichols,IJCAI 2009 AI Video Competition. Nominated Best Short Video, Best Student Video. (2009): Web.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live by. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003. Print.
Ortony, Andrew. Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979. Print.
Seely Brown, John. “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.”