I don’t know why I’m defending David Weinberger. I’ve never met him. I’ve never read any of his publications. I have, however, seen him speak publicly, twice: once this past November at the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit, and again this past week at the Learning in Commons Conference. He was a keynote speaker at both events. As such, I’ve only seen Dr. Weinberger speak to relatively large audiences, which is ironic in that, in both situations, his central message seemed antithetical to many of my colleagues’ reasons for attending either conference in the first place. At least I think it seemed antithetical to them.
Dr. David Weinberger is a Senior Researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and is Co-Director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. His latest book (which again, I have not read), is entitled “Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.” Here’s the blurb:
We used to know how to know. We got our answers from books or experts. We’d nail down the facts and move on. But in the Internet age, knowledge has moved onto networks. There’s more knowledge than ever, of course, but it’s different. Topics have no boundaries, and nobody agrees on anything. (Amazon.com)
Personally, this is my meat and potatoes. But I’m not a classroom teacher. Nor am I a librarian. Although I do dabble in both environments quite a lot. The EdTechTeacher iPad Summit and the Learning in Commons Conference were overwhelmingly attended, respectively, by members of each group (or so it seemed to me). So when Dr. Weinberger started to describe how books (remember, this was directed towards an audience of school teachers and librarians) were representative forms of the exclusory, inaccessible, elitist, old world model of education, folks began to shift around in their seats.
Now, I don’t think Dr. Weinberger is wrong here. Books are sort of the hallmarks of a paradigm of education that has systematically privileged certain classes of individuals, while marginalizing others. And really, we’re not just talking people here. Books are notoriously (at least in the past) totems of “knowledge” written by old white men, who have not only used the power of their privilege to promote classist, racist, and ethnocentric ideals, but to marginalize the cultures and ways of knowing of peoples deemed somehow less worthy of access to the Ivory Tower (think: eugenics, or anything Howard Zinn has written against). So books, at least in terms of being vast archives of “knowledge”, may have a somewhat controversial place in history.
Again, we’re in a room of teachers and librarians.
Books are also “static,” as Dr. Weinberger calls them. Their physical construction makes books difficult to edit and update, and it is difficult to merge them with other funds of knowledge than might by complementary. Books are also perhaps one of the most beautiful, glorious inventions humans have ever created, and the benefits research has suggested books have on psychological, cognitive, and childhood development are difficult to ignore.
But let’s ignore that for now, because all of that is somewhat beside the point.
In fact, the way I see it, Dr. Weinberger was not in any way foretelling the obsolescence of books, rather, he was criticizing the approach to learning that books have come to represent. His argument went something like this: we are in an unprecedented era in human history for the access to information and the construction of new knowledge, largely thanks to the Internet. But in addition to simply delivering information, new tools have made it possible to share information openly, and to bring information together that would otherwise live disparate, isolated lives, perhaps tucked away on the shelves of libraries thousands of miles apart from each other. And I believe it is here that Dr. Weinberger has it right. At least somewhat.
The open education and creative commons movements have no doubt created a place for people (especially scholars) to share and collaborate in the creation of knowledge in ways that were previously impossible. Many now have access to rich artifacts and resources that can help further our understanding of historic events, of scientific phenomena, and of human sociology. And sites like StackOverflow the Digital Public Library of America have opened their databases for developers to come and create new ways of accessing that information. The point of all of this goes back to the idea of knowledge construction – building new forms of knowledge that help us understand the world around us.
Depending on whom you ask, this contrasts starkly with the traditional concept of knowledge acquisition – the very concept upon which much of our public education system (and even higher education) was founded, and indeed, much of what "counts" as learning is still predicated. Lost in this greater debate are two cultural artifacts that have been co-opted to represent a picture of these conflicting ideas: books and the Internet.
Dr. Weinberger would have been hard pressed to find a more stinging metaphor to relate to an auditorium of school teachers and librarians. And for sure, there is still an ongoing crisis of digital education inequity happening across many communities in our country. But ultimately, I believe the point that Dr. Weinberger was attempting to drive home was that, because of the Internet, our society is now better endowed with resources that would help serve to democratize learning and education. What is holding that process back is not books themselves, but our collective idea of what counts as knowledge.
As a learning tool, the Internet is poised to help us deconstruct that collective idea, and reconstruct a new concept of what is important to learn (e.g., content versus process), and how that learning can be achieved. Books are an essential part of school-based learning, but if we choose to accept Dr. Weinberger's argument, we may open ourselves to potentially more innovative and disruptive ways of teaching and learning.
Academic Technology and Digital Media Specialist (Upper School)