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Internet Librarian 2011:

Opening Keynote (John Seely Brown)

The entrepreneurial learner—people constantly wanting to learn new things in a world full of constant change.  How do we cultivate that kind of spirit in today’s kids and perhaps even ourselves.

Up until the last 5-15 years, the infrastructures we’ve experienced—steam, electrification, etc.—have all had an S curve of development.  Quick innovation and then long periods of stability, which is when we reinvent the new social practices of how to operate.  The digital universe, however, doesn’t follow the S curve pattern…It’s a continuously increasing upswing, with no time of stability to settle down.

We’re experiencing a very strange phenomenon—the half-life of a given skill has shrunk to about 5 years.  Most of us grew up in a time when our skills would be relevant for 20 or more years.  Going back to school is not the solution.  You have to find new ways of constantly picking up new skills.

We know how to deal with stocks (protecting and delivering authoritative knowledge assets).  But we’re moving into flows, from codified knowledge to tacit knowledge, where cultivation is more important than ever.  We have not had time to build institutional warrants.  A new kind of critical reason is important to thought.

And contrary to what people say, librarians are more important than ever.  Are we preparing our students for this new world?

This requires more than just the skill of learning how to learn.  It requires new dispositions.  And dispositions cannot be taught.  But they can be cultivated in the right settings…like libraries.

We have to be able to afford curiosity in a networked age.  Mobile devices are amplifiers – amplifying curiosity.

Dispositions of an Entrepreneurial Learner

  • Curiosity – pulling information on demand
  • Questing – seeking, uncovering, probing
  • Connecting – listening to others, engaging

Perhaps we need new approaches to learning, new practices, and new approaches to thinking and acting.  Maybe we need a new tool set.

Many of us grew up with a Cartesian view of learning – I think and therefore I am.  Pedagogy was viewed as knowledge transfer.  What worked well for the last century is not up to today’s challenges.  We need a social view of learning – we participate and therefore we are.  Understanding is socially constructed.  We see this in study groups.

What is the single best indicator of success at college today?  Is it SAT scores? No.  GPAs? No.  Wealth of your parents? No.  It is your ability to join or form your own study groups—pull people like you together, talk through material.  This idea works digitally too – it doesn’t have to be face to face.  A lot of students do joint problem solving through SMS, Facebook, chat, etc.  So they are building in the virtual world an amazing study room to help them through their learning processes.

Authority vs. timeliness in a rapidly evolving world – good example is Britannica vs. Wikipedia.  Wikipedia has given us the ability to see the back room – the arguments, the disagreements, the kind of knowledge and scholarship that is contested and argued.  For the first time students can see this and be participants and contributors to these discussions.  We as librarians know how to peel back and see what is still being contested – we can help our students cultivate this kind of inquisitiveness and help them make sense of the arguments.

We used to focus on content, assuming context was relatively stable.  But in the world of social media and networked knowledge context is much more fluid.  Blogging and remixing mucks with the content and the context.  Blogging can be joint context creation.

“The blogger is—more than any writer of the past—a node among other nodes, connected but unfinished without the links and the comments and the track-backs that make the blogosphere , at its best, a conversation, rather than a production.” – Andrew Sullivan.  Sullivan compares blogging to jazz—improvisational, intimate, and individual, and collective – and the audience talks over both.

From David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know: “We used to know how to know.  We got our answers from books or experts.  We’d nail down the facts and move on.  We even had Canons. But in the Internet age, knowledge has moved into networks.  There’s more knowledge than ever, but it’s different.  Topics have no boundaries, and nobody agrees on anything.

Collectives—folks who share participation over belonging, they make no demands on users, yet learning happens all the time.  They have almost unlimited scale (unlike social networks) and at their core rest on peer and master mentoring.

How do we bring knowing and making together?  Content and context both.  Given that meaning emerges as much from context as content, new dimensions to the creation of meaning are opened.  This is the essence of remix.

In a world of constant change entrepreneurial learners must be willing to regrind the conceptual lenses with which they make sense of the world.  And for this an essential thing is PLAY.  Play is imagination, poetry.  Play is freedom to fail, and then get it right.  Play leads to epiphanies—everything suddenly falling in place.  Learning leads to a reframing or a re-registering of the world.

We are always faced with riddles that require us to create new lenses to reframe the challenges.  Keep in mind three epistemologies—knowing (homo sapiens), making (homo faber), and playing (homo ludens).  We need to tinker – to embrace change.    We focus too much on knowing in our schools right now – and not enough on playing and making.

We also need to acknowledge the shifts of:

  • Knowing what à Knowing what and where
  • Making things à Making things and context
  • Playing for sense-making à Playing for reframing

This notion of networks of imagination – that turns on emergent collective action.  People don’t just read Harry Potter or play World of Warcraft, then experience it and contribute to it.  Networks of practice and communities of interest come together to create this collective imagination.


“Internet Librarian 2011: John Seely Brown Opening Keynote”

  1. Michelle Says:

    Great post – thanks for sharing. Every time I do instruction (and I’m frequently teaching skills such as video editing, web page design, etc.) I find myself urging the students to remember that the software and tools we’re using today are constantly changing but to think of the larger concepts of design and creation and some of the types of skills and tasks in these platforms that will transfer to the newer interfaces. How will function x work in the next software development, we can’t be too sure – but, why is function x important and how does it impact the information you are creating is important. It’s a challenge but I try to stress that the skills you build now in one interface are skills that can transfer to other settings.

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