Technology Works Enterprises Proposal

Technology Works Enterprises Proposal

By Seymour Papert

Initial sections of a proposal for a new initiative. This program ran in Bucksport, Maine during the summer of 1995. An article describing and assessing the project will appear shortly.

last modified 23 October, 1995


We are living in a time of deep structural change which brings with it tremendous promise and hope for possibilities never before realized. Technological advances in computing, telecommunications, and travel have spawned new ways of organizing and coordinating activities on a mass distributed basis. This has enabled previously unthinkable concepts such as virtual corporations of one person, situated perhaps anywhere in the world, working and producing better quality products at lower cost than industrial giants.

But these tumultuous changes also are unsettling and disruptive during the time of transition. Society has moved from agrarian to mass industrial and now is moving again. As we leave the time of mass production factories and large bureaucratic institutions for a to be determined future, organizations and societal institutions are grasping for new ways to work. Institutions such as schools, governments, social agencies, and the like that supported and coordinated with work enterprises have to re-engineer themselves to fit with the new paradigm.

The past ten to twenty years have seen formerly mighty corporations of the United States and Europe struggle to adapt to a changing world. Smaller, newer companies have succeeded in displacing larger, richer, more powerful, more established, more companies. New technologies have enabled new methods of coordinating work thereby eliminating many of the barriers of the past. Previous wisdom such as assumed trade-offs between quality and cost, quantity and customization, as well as assumed needs for hierarchies and bureaucracies for organizing work have been shown to be untrue, unnecessary, and a barrier to success.

A new means of work, termed lean production, is becoming the new organizational paradigm, replacing the mass production paradigm. In this new paradigm companies and other social groupings have learned to operate in a more productive, efficient and potentially more humane manner.

The world is moving to a knowledge-based society. As all other components of work (capital, equipment, raw materials, etc.) are now virtually instantaneously available anywhere in the world, the only other ingredient that is not immediately transportable is peopleUs knowledge and experience. This is now the only competitive advantage. Given the importance of knowledge and experience, combined with the rapid pace of change, the key element becomes learning how to learn. 

But learning is a highly individual phenomenon. Just as work environments have evolved to provide more customized services of high quality at a reasonable cost, so too must our environments for learning evolve.

A Concept of School-Work Mismatch

Central to our position is a rejection of the attitude that school which once worked well is now in some sense RbrokenS and needs to be repaired. In fact we think this analysis is diametrically wrong. School is not in trouble because it changed in a deleterious way. It is in trouble because it did not change. What worked in 1900 or even 1950 would not work nearly as well today even if it could be perfectly restored and will not work at all in the next decade. The same, of course, is true about work enterprises.

More specifically, our analysis begins by recognizing a growing mismatch between the static forms of our educational system and the highly dynamic, swiftly changing features of the society it is intended, and funded, to serve.

Roots of the School-Work/School-Society Mismatch

  • The nature of work is different. Our educational institutions were designed at a time when the prototypical job was working on an assembly line. Neither the structure of school nor the content of that it teaches matches the needs or the mood of a society where the prototypical job requires flexibility of thought, ability to learn, and skill in dealing with both problems and people.
  • The lifecycle of individuals is different. The relationship among school, teacher and student was developed at a time when careers were rigidly determined at a young age and the line was sharply drawn between experts who had access to knowledge and lay people who didnUt. A very different set of relationships is needed when rapidity of change requires that individuals take responsibility for life-long learning and information technology gives everyone access to more knowledge than the experts of the past could command. The change shows up everywhere in the texture of social interactions. Transactions which in the past depended on information possessed only by a provider are increasingly conducted by two knowledgeable parties. An insurance agent talks to a client and a doctor talks to a patient as informed participants in any decision to be made. The growth and proliferation of information networks will greatly accelerate this trend. And within schools, although the teacher officially holds the status of the one-who-knows, a computer literate generation of students directly challenges this relationship, which in any case is out of step with the model in society of how a server (school) deals with a customer (the student, as well as the society).
  • Socially necessary knowledge has changed. The structure of school (e.g. the division into grades) and the form as well as the content of the curriculum took form at a time when the needs for knowledge were different and the means of access to knowledge were vastly more limited than they are today.

Consequences of the School-Work/School-Society Mismatch

  • School graduates are badly prepared. As a result of the mismatch between school and contemporary life, employers are frequently dissatisfied with the student s who have RsuccessfullyS gone through school or alternative educational channels such as the Job Corps. But there are more subtle and more serious consequences.
  • School has lost its status. An even more destructive effect of the mismatch comes about through the growing tendency for young people to perceive school as irrelevant and to experience it as intolerably alien (that is, out of synch with the ways of doing things and relating to people that they see in the world outside of school).
  • Many drop out. As school becomes progressively delegitimized, the drop-out rate grows and even those who stay in school fail to take school work seriously.

Steps towards Rectifying the Mismatch

  • First, recognize that local fixing is not enough.
  • Recognize the need to go beyond acquisition of particular skills of a trade.
  • The important skills are the skills of learning.
  • Beyond skill, our educational objective has to be the development of a world view and a self view in terms of responsibility for development.
  • Recognize the need for young people to appropriate information technology in a deep sense.
  • Finally, all these points add up to the need to design radically new organizational forms for learning.

Technology Works Enterprise (TWE)

One such new societal support institution we propose is a Technology Works Enterprise. The TWE can be conceptualized as a small alternative high school. Enrollment would be small in what will operate very largely as an autonomous entity within an organizational structure that will facilitate the sharing of resources and fulfill an oversight function with a minimum of micromanagement.

However, even more than size, the most striking way in which the TWE will differ from the usual connotation of RschoolS is that it will be a business as well as a place to learn. In this it shares with concepts of apprenticeship the idea of combining work with study. But an educational vocation and subsidized financing allows them to have features that are seldom if ever found in a pure business, especially a small business.

The TWE is a business as well as a place to learn. One can also say that the TWE is a place to learn as well as a business and should be supported as such from the sources that normally fund schools. Our key concept on the financial side is that the TWE will make enough money to allow a level of public funding typically given to a traditional school to go very much further in providing high quality, high performance education and produce other socially valuable fallout as well.

Because the TWE has less pressure to be profitable it will have the luxury of features that cannot be afforded in a pure business. These features include:

  • A traditional business provides the youngest employees, including apprentices and inters, with experience mostly n entry level, semi-routine work. The TWE will give them full participation in management, entrepreneurship, public relations, presentation of ideas, financial and other forms of planning, etc.
  • The TWE will allow youths to participate in R&D at an appropriate, but serious, level.
  • The TWE will do far better than average businesses in using cutting edge technologies in the performance of all its functions and so allow its participants to develop a generalizable technological fluency.
  • A TWE will be able to afford to pay more attention to social problems in the communities where they operate and this will work in both directions: because it will help the community, the community will be able to help it as well.
  • Although the intention is to integrate learning as far as possible into the operations of the business, this will be understood as an opportunity and not as a restriction. The participants in the TWE will devote part of their time to learning activities that are not directly related to its business activities.

A Closer Look at a TWE

A fictional scenario will make the idea more concrete. Imagine one example of what we propose — a RTechnology Work EnterpriseS — as it might be seen through the eyes of Bill, a sixteen year old who dropped out after many years of being marginal in school. Bill hears about and joins a Technology Works Enterprise. As would have been the case had he enrolled in the Job Corps, Bill gets a small stipend from the TWE. The first difference is that in the TWE Bill is part of a team of thirty young people operating a small business as well as concerning itself with furthering their education.

At first he is confused: he canUt tell whether the TWE is more like a job in a firm or more like a school. The TWE is engaged in doing jobs; as Bill sees these jobs from his initial, limited perspective, they consist of installing, maintaining and servicing computers and showing people how to use them. But the pace of work gives a lot of time for TWE workers to study and discuss what they are doing. They consider alternative approaches. At the end of the day they gather as a whole or in subgroups to talk about their experiences and are sometimes given a lecture that is not necessarily directly related to the needs of the immediate job. <**examples/cases–friday forums**>

Bill joined his TWE in mid-March, that is to say at a time that is not related to a fixed Rschool yearS cycle so he does not belong to a cohort of RbeginnersS — he entered a community of people with greatly varying levels of expertise and experience in which there is no classification of RgradesS of knowing. When he arrived he was assigned a RbuddyS who took responsibility to guide him through the acquisition of basic knowledge and introduce him to the culture (values) of the TWE> As he learned the ropes he understood that the culture placed a great value on sharing knowledge and on taking time off to support fellow workers in whatever kind of difficulty they might have. He also learned to RnetworkS — to find out who could best give what kind of help. With time he found himself gradually giving more than he took, especially as he acquired and became known for his own specialties.

It took time for Bill to understand that the TWE did much more than take on contracts to install computer systems. The new insight came when he had the opportunity to live through the entire cycle of development of a Rcontract.S

At on of the afternoon meetings a member of the group reported a dinner conversation he had with an uncle who is a plumber. The uncle heard that he was Rworking with computersS and expressed regret at being too old to learn Rall thatS but thought that it would really help his business if he could. The business was too small to hire a computer expert — just the uncle, one assistant, and the aunt who helped with the books and the phone calls. The nephew said that maybe his TWE could help and now raised the question at the discussion session. The subsequent discussions – at the meeting and later with the uncle — gave Bill an understanding of a set of issues clustered around the buzzword Rre-engineeringS that are often only dimly perceived in the business world. At first the plumber thought that he needed advice about what computer to buy and lessons on how to use it. But what ensued was a thorough-going discussion of his business, i.e. what plumbers do, how they do it, how they get supplies, how they keep their accounts. In the end discussion turned into a genuine collaboration between TWE workers and all three of the participants in the plumbing business that in the end left the business transformed in much deeper ways than installing a computer.

By this time Bill had learned a great deal about plumbing. But far more important was that he had participated in discussions about re-engineering a small business and through this had acquired an interest in joining a TWE discussion seminar that studied a book by one of the current Rmanagement gurus.S Most important of all, he had lived through an experience in which someone like himself had initiated and implemented a business deal that brought the TWE both money and an opportunity to learn.

Another project with a large educational spin-off for Bill was helping a local elementary school re-organize its computer work. This school is in a semi-rural area far removed from large centers of computer sophistication. The school in question has been given the funds for a computer lab which was installed but very much under-used. The only teacher in the school who was well-informed about computers had also learned about the TWE and was able to persuade the school committee to contract with it to work in the school. The TWE was able to help in many ways: it brought technological knowledge to the teachers by offering them a chance to bypass it — when teachers went with their classes to the computer lab, two TWE people would come to help as computer-literate teacher aides. Some teachers imagined that this was a way to avoid getting to know about computers. The TWE aids allowed the teachers to think this, but also discreetly seized every opportunity to help a teacher learn.

The story is fictional. We have no illusions that in reality things would work so smoothly. We are sure that much has to be learned before anything like that could work at all. For us the scenario serves to delineate an ideal, to embody a philosophy of design that offers far more hope for many youths we actually know than anything currently offered by schools, job corps centers, vocational schools, and the like.

Basic to the nature of this program will be:

  • a Constructionist Approach to both learning and social involvement that does not view learning as the mere transfer of information and skills
  • the use of technology not merely to promote technical literacy in a familiarity sense, but in a deeper sense involving the articulation, exploration, and realization of complex ideas about complex subjects
  • the role of projects and activities defined over lacuna specific to the groups of people, their cultures, and their communities
  • the necessity of malleable technology that can be adapted, appropriated and utilized by the participants
  • a permanent connection and cycle among learning, practice and reflection so that those involved learn about their world by acting upon the world

Addressing the Mismatch

Work enterprises have learned that mere technological attempts are not in and of themselves sufficient at solving complex problems. While the role of technology is critical, many studies cite the lack of gains simply by applying technological Band-Aids [citation]. What needs to occur before the proper technology can be successfully applied are a complete and thorough analysis of the problems to be addressed, an appreciation for the culture into which the technology must be appropriated; careful attention to the implementation of the solution; integration of the solution into the existing environment; and a constant monitoring and adjustment to handle the areas that do not fit exactly right; modifying both the technology and the flow into which it must fit. This requires a wide skill set among those attempting to deploy the technology, as well as a very different approach to engineering than has been practiced in the past.

While the wisdom of this approach is now widely accepted in the business world, its corollary deductions have not yet been deeply assimilated into paradigms of learning to develop and utilize technology. Our school society mismatch once again evidences itself as typical vocational programs are run as though their was only one skill to learn that would last one the whole life. Yet we know that today’s cutting edge technologies are tomorrow’s obsolete paperweights. What do we do with skilled keypunch operators? PL/I programmers? The list of recently hotly desired skills that rapidly became obsolete is large and lengthening every day.

If one does not learn how to think in the new developmental paradigm, and most importantly to learn how to learn, sooner or later one will be underskilled, underemployed, and, even while employed, an obstacle to a successful enterprise. Our centers for learning the development and deployment of technology must break out of their old molds and prepare people for the new business paradigms. The centers must also practice the process that they intend to impart.

In industry, given the rapid pace of technological change, development cycles of the past can no longer be justified. In recent decades it was not uncommon to have systems development cycles of five or more years. But today this is no longer feasible as no one can predict what technology will be available in five years. What one can safely predict, however, is that whatever is around today will almost certainly be obsolete five years out. Therefore, rapid development and adaptation is required. The ability to embrace advances rather than hide and hinder them is obviously preferred. Our centers must help impart this joyfulness and adventurousness of spirit.

Because technological cycles are diminishing it does not make sense to train people in any particular technology. More importantly, because the technocentric approach of focusing on technology and product does not work well, we do not believe that having a set of fixed products to be disseminated will work best. Rather, we propose delivering a methodology and approach to technology, building a suite of tools and systems, broadening the frames of experience, and building a technological fluency among the participants.

If we re-state the need, it is not merely to develop a particular technology that can be plugged in any socket. Rather, the need is to develop a technological fluency within the target community, particularly at risk youth. In order to do this, learning about the technology must be embedded in practice attempting to address local needs as discovered and expressed by the youth themselves.

By working with a mentoring, technological apprenticeship approach, rather than having a software or other technical product that will soon be obsolete, we hope to have a methodological approach that can grow, develop and evolve according to the individuals and the needs of their specific communities. In this way, if the industry in the city centers around health care, manufacturing, high technology, agriculture, or whatever the industry, the approach will still be relevant and the experience practical.

But we are not proposing a project that will run on the fumes of vaporware. Because the youth will be working on real problems in real work settings, they will have to develop a fluency with the technology, be it software packages (e.g. databases, spreadsheets, etc.), programming languages, modelling tools, hardware installation, network installation and management, systems management, hardware troubleshooting, telecommunications, or any other technical infrastructure necessity of modern business.

From this they will develop libraries of reusable tools of which others can take advantage. Another area of development that we view as critical is the creation of software starter kits. Much commercially available software for use in business is complex, difficult to use, and have steep learning curves. In order to facilitate entry into their use and the development of fluency with them, software starter kits will serve in the way childrenUs literature serves development of textual fluency. These kits will lower the barriers to entry without removing the content of the tasks and domains.

An example would be a starter kit for modelling. Many professions utilize modelling software as ways to visualize hard problems, or imagine, test and debug potential solutions. But most modelling tools are very complex requiring sophisticated programming or mathematics. We envision building modelling starter kits that will provide more support to novices until they are comfortable with the power tools. If a domain is hard it is difficult for experts fluent with their tools to work. If the tool is hard as well, there often is no viable point of entry for the novice as both the domain and the tool for understanding the domain are difficult. Our software starter kits seek to address this dilemma.

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