Home Book Reviews A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change

A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change


Douglas Thomas’ and John Seely Brown’s book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, provides a fresh insight into the rapidly changing learning environment and ways in which technology can enhance the quality of learning outcomes.  Thomas is an Associate Professor in the Annenberg School of Communications at University of Southern California (USC) and Brown is a visiting scholar at USC.  They state in their book that learning in the 21st century is not taking place in the classroom but is taking place everywhere thanks to changes in the culture of learning.  The authors write that the foundation of the new culture of learning consists of two elements:  the first is a massive information network that provides access to learning about almost anything; the second is a bounded and structured environment that allows individuals to build and experiment within those boundaries.  According to Thomas and Brown, the combination of those two elements is what elevates the culture of learning to the promise that it holds for the future.

Online games and the collectives that develop around them are a prominent example of how individuals are able to learn through the collective participation of many players working together to share tips and through collaborative team-playing.  Thomas provides an example of a class that he taught on gaming at the University of Southern California and the extra efforts and enthusiasm expressed by the students as they explored the multi-player game Star Wars GalaxiesWorld of Warcraft is another multi-player game described by the authors that is used for a comparison of the learning that takes place in a collective environment.

Collective learning is not limited to gaming, however.  Brown and Thomas discuss the experience of a person diagnosed with diabetes who consulted the website Diabetes Daily and participated in a number of the forums where patients discuss their problems and experiences living with diabetes.  The patient learned how to live with diabetes from the social interaction with others diagnosed with the disease.  In a new culture collective, people belong in order to learn.  In a classroom in the new culture of learning, students take an active role to create and provide the latest information to the collective, supplementing the role of the teacher.  According to the authors, collectives scale almost unlimitedly and their learning outcomes improve with increases in size and diversity when assisted by technology.

Traditional learning environments in the classroom or workplace are predicated on a mechanistic approach.  Thomas and Brown state that the new learning environment is a model where digital media provides access to a rich source of information and play where learning is based on engagement with the world, not a single teacher.  According to the authors, the traditional model of education was adequate when change occurred slowly.  However, the rapid rate of change escalated by technology leads to successful learners embracing collective learning.  An excellent example provided in the book is the difference between the traditional encyclopedias popular in the 1950’s through the 1980’s and Wikipedia.  Wikipedia has many more entries (approximately three and a half million in English) than encyclopedias and it is updated much more frequently.

The culture of learning is based on three principles:  (1) the old ways of learning are unable to keep up with change, (2) new media is making peer-to-peer learning easier, and (3) peer-to-peer learning is enhanced by technology improvements that assist the collective nature of learning.  As the authors point out, learning from others is neither new nor revolutionary but educators have primarily ignored it.  The authors recommend that educators adapt to the style of learning as inquiry with answers leading to more questions.

As befits a scholarly work promoting the style of learning as inquiry, Thomas and Brown’s book stimulates the reader to pose more questions using the examples of learning accomplished by technology and social media.  Given our nation’s determination to increase the percentage of college graduates, this book would serve policymakers, college administrators, and faculty as an excellent guidebook for ways to improve learning.  I would also recommend it to educational entrepreneurs looking for opportunities to merge technology with learning.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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