From Serendip

Introduction to
Learning, Working, and Playing in the Digital Age
John Seely Brown

by Russell Edgerton, Director, Education Programs, The Pew Charitable Trusts

Welcome to the American Association for Higher Education Organizing for Learning Conference held March 20-23, 1999 at Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Today I'd like to introduce Dr. John Seely Brown, who is not only Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and Director of its Palo Alto Research Center, but also a corporate vice president of Xerox and, I'm told, a guiding force behind the recent positioning of Xerox as the Document Company.

After I had signed up to introduce John, Peg Miller sent me a resume that she in turn had received from John's office. A modest two-paragraph statement mentioning that John had just published a book called Seeing Differently: Insights on Innovation, and that he was also the executive producer for a film called "Art, Lunch, Internet, Dinner," which won a bronze award at the Charleston International Film Festival. But all that is said about John's scholarly career was that he was interested in things like digital culture, ubiquitous computing, user centering design and organizational and individual learning. And since I didn't understand what any of those things really meant, I called John's secretary and I said, "Surely you have more to go on. Can't you send me his whole resume?"

Back by overnight mail came a 26-page resume that listed four patents, nine special honors and 95 scholarly publications. And when I got to John's second patent, digital imaging system using two-dimensional input sensor array and output light valve, my spirit sank as I imagined myself trying to bring a scholarly career alive to an AAHE audience. But then I realized that John's 95 scientific publications were arranged chronologically, and if I took them in order they seemed to reveal a research career of amazing range in which one investigative path seemed to lead to another. And so, like a CPA following an audit trail, I started off with his first publication in 1966, tried to understand it, immediately got stuck, and finally decided that I had to call John himself for assistance.

"Why," I asked when he graciously called back, "would a graduate student in computer science at Michigan with an undergraduate degree in math and physics from Brown write his first published article about a computer simulation of the perceptual world of small children?"

"Well," he said, "I worked my way through graduate school by working at the Mental Health Research Institute and I just got hooked on how infants learned to perceive things."

"I get it," I said and hung up, too fast as it turns out, because when I returned to the resume I noted that the publications trail led to a topic referred to as "Buggy", which had something to do, but I didn't know what, with learning mathematics.

I didn't dare call John again, but fortunately later that day I was talking to our colleague, Lee Shulman, a distinguished psychologist and president of the Carnegie Foundation, and I said, "Lee, you know John Seely Brown and his work, have you ever heard anything called Buggy?" And Lee sort of...I could just sort of feel his cherubic smile lighten up across the telephone wires..."Oh, Buggy!" he said. And then went on to patiently explain, "John was working on the design of intelligent computer tutoring systems and he concluded that the errors that kids were making in mathematics weren't random. There was a pattern to the errors, which John analogized to be like a computer bug. So if teachers and tutoring systems were to identify the misconception or find the bug, they could explicate a whole pattern of errors."

Now that I had Lee warmed up, I said, "Well what else do you think of when you think of John's contributions?" And Lee started off and said, "Well, John got interested in why it is that people without formal training can nonetheless perform tasks that would seem to require formal training. His research into the informal learning that goes on in work settings led to a concept called cognitive apprenticeships, which has been a very important concept in my field."

Well, with Lee's help I came to realize that I was looking at the resume of an intellectual explorer of remarkable courage, a man who didn't hesitate to cross into new fields. And if he found a mountain that he couldn't climb alone, he would mount an expedition.

To get on with my story, by the late 1970s John had convinced himself that models of individual cognition were leaving out important social dimensions of learning. Now at Xerox, and not a man inclined to think small, he established at Xerox PARC a multi-disciplinary laboratory of about 75 researchers—anthropologists, social scientists of all stripes—to study issues of natural and artificial intelligence and organizational learning. In 1986 John played a major role in founding the non-profit institute called the Institute for Research on Learning, which is directed by Peter Henschel, whom you heard from at this conference last year. Many of you will recall John's seminal article (with Paul Duguid) for Change magazine a few years ago, titled "Universities in the Digital Age," arguing the uses of technology must be driven by the appreciation that learning is a communal act. Now you know that it wasn't an argument that John just cooked up. It grew out of a lifetime of intense research. Nor is Xerox's new public identity as The Document Company simply a project of the PR Department. It came from John's deep insight. The documents are key vehicles for knowledge sharing and organizational learning. Clearly this is a man whose expirations are truly changing the world we live in, and so it is with great anticipation that I give you John Seely Brown.

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