Seymour Papert on Online Learning and Universities

Seymour Papert on Online Learning and Universities

July 2000

Seymour Papert:  [0:09] Now, I have been asked to make some remarks about universities and online learning. To make sense of this relationship, we have to place both terms in a much larger context. [0:23] Universities are, after all, just one aspect of a much bigger system. Let’s call it the learning environment. Everything that affects all learning, from birth to death, formal, informal, in work and in play. Online learning is just one aspect of the new kinds of learning opened by the presence of digital technologies.

[0:51] Other examples are the great opportunities that are offered to quite young children now to learn engineering principles by building programmed robots, or to program computers by making their own video games or family albums, or collect information of and systematize it. These changes are going to affect the way that everybody learns. A new globalized, digitized economy is going to change the knowledge everybody needs to have.

[1:30] It really doesn’t make sense to look at universities in isolation from the whole learning environment. Many of the things that we used to teach in them will be learned at a very young age by children, by adolescents. And many of the things that we now teach in them won’t be needed at all.

[1:57] This is the question I’d like to ask, the challenge that I’d like to give to you. How does the presence of digital technology affect the entire learning environment? To get a handle on the question, I’d like to make comparisons with the way in which other technologies have been appropriated by our society. Consider, for example, the development that began with early forms of the movie camera.

[2:28] That took place starting in the late nineteenth century and developed right through the twentieth century into what came to be known as cinema, and then television, and now the fusion of television and net that is leading to accelerated change.

[2:44] Without any doubt, by the end of the century that’s now beginning, what theater has turned into will be as far beyond anything we can imagine today as the 747 is beyond what the Wright brothers and early aviators could imagine at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[3:10] Let’s make some observations about the movie story.

[3:14] First, I note that it started by grafting the new technology onto an existing activity. A camera is placed in front of a stage, and a play is performed, say, for an audience. One might call this technology‑aided theater.

[3:30] It took a long time for the complex thing we call cinema to evolve. More than time, it took many rounds in new technologies, but much more even than time and technologies, it took the emergence of something that can only be called a culture.

[3:47] Think of how unimaginable Hollywood or any Fellini movie would have been in the first decade of the twentieth century. Poorer technology would be effective and would have made it seem impossible to make modern movies, but this would not be nearly as important as the culture of actors and of audiences.

[4:10] Actors just didn’t know how to do the things that movie actors do, and they mightn’t have wanted to. When closeups were first introduced, actors protested, “I don’t want to be a head. I want to be a whole person.”

[4:29] My challenge to you is to think about how to place the evolution of learning technologies in comparison with the progress from technology‑aided theater to cinema and beyond. It’s almost inevitable that a new technology would be first used by grafting it onto existing practices. Thus, the computer gives rise to computer‑assisted teaching and the Internet to online teaching. In principle, these concepts are equivalent to technology aided theater.

[5:01] Certainly, this is where one must place most online courses offered today for university credit. This doesn’t mean to say they aren’t immensely superior to sitting in a lecture room at fixed times listening to somebody read lecture notes. What it does mean is that they are only a first baby step in an evolution that’s going to go as far beyond them as modern media are beyond the movie cameras of the end of the last century.

[5:38] What might later stages of the development of learning be like, and what can we do to help them come into being? The analogy with movies suggests a number of immediate hypotheses.

[5:54] The development will take the form of the growth of a new culture of learning. There will have to be new professionals with different qualifications and different goals. This can only happen if the social phenomena is wider and deeper than the context of the university.

[6:13] The universities will be totaled with young people who learned very different things and a very different concept of what learning is about. In the end, the university will change. The entire learning environment is changing.

[6:27] Secondly, the development will take time. It will take decades, not years, and will encounter resistance at each step analogous to the resistance to the innovation in cinema, of which a typical example, and perhaps the best known, was the transition from silent film to talkies.

[6:47] The transition will not be a process of accepting one innovation after another because they are proved to be better. It’s much more like the process that Kuhn describes as “paradigm shift” because the older people are not converted or not died out and the new ones took over.

[7:16] Will universities take a lead in this? I would hope so. But it is more than likely that in most cases, such factors as governance structures and tenure will make them the last hold out against deep change in learning.

[7:31] On the other hand, change in the learning environment offers those universities with enough courage to seize the opportunity to develop a new field of intellectual effort and leadership. Its learning is going to be radically different. A new science, an applied science, as well as a pure science of learning will develop.

[7:54] Some universities will seize the opportunity to become leaders of digital knowledge, including digital learning. Most will lag behind.

[8:06] This is the challenge that you’ll be facing in this first online conference on universities and online learning. The question is not how and when online learning will be adopted by universities. The question is, where will we go beyond it? The question is, “How can we bring universities to look at the wider picture of how the need for knowledge and the ways of acquiring knowledge in the whole, broad society change?”

[8:42] I wish you luck in these deliberations. I’ll be online to participate in any discussions to which I can contribute.

Transcription by CastingWords