Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 12, 2013

On Deadline: Is there a 'collaboration' gap in Palo Alto education, society?

by Jay Thorwaldson

Longtime Palo Alto area architect Terry Beaubois is returning full-time to the Bay Area after part-time absence for the past seven years.

While away from the area, he was engaged in teaching architecture at Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont. But he had a high-tech twist: For several years he still had to be in Palo Alto to meet with clients and maintain contacts he had built up over several decades.

So with a weekly class to teach, he signed up for the Second Life virtual world on the Internet (think avatars) and had his students do the same. When he was in Montana, they had regular classes. When he was in Palo Alto, they held real-time but virtual classes via computer using avatars for each student.

"You mean you had giant lizards or Valkeries sitting around the virtual classroom?" I asked him during a conversation shortly after the film Avatar hit the theaters.

No, he said. Each student had to create an online avatar that looked more or less like the student. Beaubois' avatar, for instance, sports a mane of white hair, like the real-world Beaubois.

But the online-classroom experiment was not without some eye-opening challenges, starting with the name of the course he planned to teach: Digital Collaboration in Architecture.

An administrator at Montana State called him immediately upon seeing the course outline and said he could not use that name. Why not?

"Because last semester we caught and suspended two students for collaborating," the administrator replied, Beaubois recalled.

Beaubois patiently explained that "collaboration" has a positive meaning that outweighs the euphemistic mushing of "cheating."

There might also be some deep-level negative holdover from the World War II "Nazi collaborator" term. But that was a long time ago, and more has changed than being able to hold a virtual class in real time with avatars instead of in-classroom students.

Today, for instance, the Palo Alto-based IDEO and its innovative — even revolutionary in some cases — designs derive from its founder's belief in collaborative brainstorming involving persons with different backgrounds, training and perspectives.

The Institute of Design at Stanford (IDEO-led) is also demonstrating how breaking down the often-rigid academic walls between disciplines can result in entirely new ways of looking at problems and devising effective solutions.

Similar experiences abound in other fields, notably Harvard University's multidisciplinary research three decades ago into minimizing or preventing emotional impacts in women who have breast cancer.

Beaubois' own successes with collaborative approaches in architecture underscored his astonishment at the negative response his course name received from the Montana State administrator.

As he thought about it he began to realize that "teaching collaboration" and its rewards are virtually non-existent in schools, where feeding facts and testing for fact-assimilation has been the dominant classroom model for decades, if not forever.

And he wants to do something about that vacuum, to broaden and balance the educational process from early grades through high school and into community colleges and universities.

"The core of any good product is collaboration," Beaubois said, whether the product is a house, a business complex, environmental sustainability or NASA's high-tech space and earth-science work.

"I have the feeling a lot of solutions are all around us," regardless of the seeming complexity of longstanding problems or challenges, societal or technical, about which "there is a lot of jawboning" but slow progress.

"I don't think you can make people collaborate," Beaubois said, based on personal experience. But he believes the misunderstanding and misuse of the term "has taught a fear of collaborating" that infects communities, governments, businesses ... and schools.

"We're in 37th place in the world in education," largely because of a weakness in collaborative skills — a kind of illiteracy in itself.

In working with business leaders on projects, Beaubois noted a sharp irony in what business leaders are seeking in employees versus what schools are teaching students. It's simple to describe: "100 percent of all businesses are looking for graduates who can work with others," he said. Collaborate, in short.

Beaubois was in full-time architectural practice for 40 years, 30 of them in Palo Alto, starting "before Silicon Valley was Silicon Valley." He worked with the Edward Durell Stone firm and consulted with the Town of Woodside, among a wide range of clients.

He's currently seeking ways to build an awareness of the strength and value of collaboration in improving how things are designed and, well, done.

"I'm back in the Bay Area because I think this is the place to do that," he said. He cites its traditions of innovation and invention and investment in new ideas and approaches — even though collaboration is as old as societies themselves. Ask any mammoth hunter.

Beaubois doesn't pretend to have all the answers about how best to develop a collaboration-based culture to overlay the competition-based, test-based educational systems, or the often-divisive community and local-government systems of planning and approving developments and transportation systems.

A take-home lesson from his teaching experience in Montana was that few young persons read much these days, at least not the thought-provoking books such as Robert Heinlein's description of a fully automated house or Malcolm Gladwell's futuristic "David and Goliath." Another take-home was that in academia many teachers and professors exist in their own silos and find it difficult to open up and venture out. And there are a lot more silos out in the professional and community worlds — not the kind where livestock feed is stored, either.

So a huge challenge will be how to penetrate the academic world, gently raising awareness that there may be an important gap in the education being offered to the next generation to help them thrive, or survive, in a world economy and society.

Anyone want to sit down in a multidisciplinary brainstorm session to explore collaboratively just how to do that? I'll happily forward any emails to Beaubois, and even host a session or two.

Finally, something he forgot to say in our last conversation: Collaboration is just a lot of fun.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes regular blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

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