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DURHAM, N.C. – If someone from a century ago were suddenly transported into today’s home, they would be confounded by the way that technology has transformed it. The teen-ager IMing friends, a college student visiting the online world Second Life or dad checking his work e-mail would all seem bizarre and alien.

But they’d probably feel pretty much at home in a school classroom: The teacher’s still up front, talking to students in desks who are writing notes with pencil and paper.

Bridging the gap between those two worlds — the dynamic, changing technology children use at home and the relatively unchanged classroom — is the subject of a conference at Duke this weekend called “The Future of Learning.”

The conference will explore some of the possibilities that the digital world has to offer educators and students, says Cathy Davidson, interim director of Duke’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and an event organizer. Currently, she says, there’s a divide between the way that students raised with the Internet use technology in informal learning — video games and online communities — and the relatively unchanged format of formal learning at school, she said.

“There’s an incredibly energetic, rich way of learning at home, and then kids go to school and it’s standardized,” Davidson said. “But the education in formal learning environments can be as exciting as what they’re learning at home.”

The keynote speaker was John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox Corp., who talked about “The Social Life of Learning in the Net Age” on Thursday.

The former head of the Palo Alto Research Center Inc. (PARC), a leading center of technology innovation, Seely Brown recently has turned his attention to education. He advocates a more collaborative, apprenticeship approach to learning using tools such as online communities. Most schools, in contrast, often treat students as passive receivers of information from teacher/experts.

“With every new piece of technology, to make this technology work, you have to change your teaching practices,” Seely Brown said in a recent interview with CNET News.com. “Part of it is (thinking about) how to go from sage on the stage to being a real mentor.”

The conference, which concludes on Saturday, is organized by the Humanities, Arts, Science Technology Advanced Collaboratory, or HASTAC.

On Saturday, there will be two public panel discussions. Both events will be held at the Duke School of Nursing.

Saturday’s events will begin with a panel discussion featuring Carl Harris, superintendent of the Durham Public Schools; Julia Stasch of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; David Theo Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute; and Davidson. They will offer different perspectives on innovative learning from kindergarten through the university level.

Later on the 21st, a conversation of “digital visionaries” will address issues and ideas from universal access to intellectual property issues to art theory.

In addition to Seely Brown, the conversation will include James Boyle, a Duke law professor who is co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain and co-author of a comic book on fair use in documentary film.

Also on this panel is Dan Connolly, a research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a member of the technical staff of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
Connolly collaborated with Tim Berners-Lee on the creation of the World Wide Web and was instrumental in the mid-1990s in preserving hypertext markup language (HTML) as an open standard.

The conference is part of the MacArthur Foundation’s recently launched five-year $50 million initiative to look at the ways in which digital
technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life.

HASTAC received $150,000 to explore how, if at all, social and civic institutions change as they adopt new kinds of learning through the use of digital media.

One of the purposes of the event is to bring together these intellectuals, public education officials and university-level educators, Davidson said.

Not only can technology be used to enliven education, but educating students about electronic media can deepen their understanding of it and give them critical skills in using technology, Davidson said.

“That conversation, ironically, doesn’t happen very often,” she said.

“People who are learning in an Internet age are learning in a different way. If you were born after 1991, you don’t know there was another way of doing things.”