The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Like the home office, the paperless world seems not only feasible but, for environmental reasons, highly desirable... ...Yet, despite both the means and the desire, paper remains.  As digital communication grew over the past decade, so did paper consumption -- from 87 million to 99 million tons per year.... ...John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information, 2000.
Commentary of the Day - July 6, 2000: The Social Life of Information - a review.
John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid's new book The Social Life of Information is a "must read" for anyone who has had second thoughts about the "digital revolution".  The authors combine their backgrounds in technological research and social and cultural studies (Brown is Chief Scientist at Xerox Corporation and Director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, while Duguid is a research specialist in social and cultural studies in education at U.C., Berkeley) to attain a unique vantage point from which to critique the excesses of the Information Technology Age.

The Social Life of Information addresses many issues related to information technology; however, the central theme and key notion of the book is that information per se does not equate to knowledge.  As Brown and Duguid so aptly note, the creation of knowledge from raw information is a social activity of human beings.  This has important implications for those of us engaged in the business of education.  Colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to increase efficiency, to reduce unit costs, and to grow revenue.  In the Information Technology Age college administrators often confuse the delivery of information with the development of insight and understanding.

We in academia have been implored to take advantage of "mediated" instruction in order to provide our students with courses "anytime and anywhere".  However, as Brown and Duguid note, much of what we recognize as learning comes from informal social interactions between learners and mentors.  These social interactions are difficult to achieve in mediated instruction.  Brown and Duguid are not modern Luddites.  They recognize that technology can enhance instruction in remarkable ways; however, it cannot replace the insights that students receive by struggling to make sense of information with both peers and mentors.  Too often in the models of distance education now being promoted to minimize costs and maximize revenue there is no effort to develop the community aspects of learning.

Brown and Duguid emphasize the point that knowledge develops in "communities of practice".  As a case in point, they relate the experience of the familiar Xerox copier "field reps" -- the men and women who come to your office to fix the copier when it malfunctions.  Copiers can fail in a myriad of ways; and, the problems that plague an individual copier can be quite difficult to diagnose, because they depend on subtle interactions between the environment that the machine is used in and the patterns of usage it receives.  Frequently, the databases of repair information that are available to the "rep" provide little help to the "rep" in solving the more difficult problems.

Although one might assume that the field "rep" works mostly in isolation, the "rep" still belongs to a community of practice.  Xerox has found that without company intervention or assistance the "reps" have developed these communities to share their insights.  Though they may be working miles apart, they take the trouble to get together for coffee or for lunch so that they can share their experiences dealing with the tough to solve problems.  Less experienced "reps" are able to benefit from the knowledge of more experienced ones.  Solutions to rare problems become part of the shared knowledge of the group, and contacts are made that allow "reps" to call each other for advice and support.  This socialization takes place even though the "reps" have access to extensive databases of technical information about each model of copier that the company manufactures, and relatively sophisticated computer support facilities that track service issues.

The important point is that even these sophisticated "expert systems" that have been developed to help repair personnel solve problems in the field are limited by their general lack of robustness.  (How many of us have puzzled over why we must click on the "start button" on our computer terminal in order to stop our computer!)  The social interaction between practitioners provides an important "glue" to turn the information provided by the "expert system" or the repair manual into knowledge.

Brown and Duguid's focus on the organizational embodiment of these social interactions that help people transform information into knowledge provides important insights about why attempts to replace many of society's traditional institutions have failed.  Though colleges and universities often are the prime targets of futurists who argue that they are becoming increasingly anachronistic in the Information Technology Age, Brown and Duguid understand that the unique role of the university is to validate the knowledge level of its graduates.  It is through the interactions that take place among members of the communities of practice within colleges and universities that the validation takes place.  With this in mind, it is easy to understand why online universities like the California Virtual University and Western Governor's University have failed to gain the following that was predicted for them, and why commercial storefront educational ventures such as the University of Phoenix have not been able to challenge the core functions of traditional universities.
The Social Life of Information (ISBN 0-87584-762-5) is published by the Harvard Business School Press, and is available from your favorite bookseller.

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