The 2005 National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) got off to a rousing start in Philadelphia on Monday night with a call to action from International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) president Kurt Steinhaus and a knowledge wake-up call from Harvard Berkman Center fellow David Weinberger.

Thousands of educators packed the Pennsylvania Convention Center’s main ballroom for an opening session that featured a Philadelphia welcome from a Benjamin Franklin impersonator, an introductory speech by Steinhaus, presentation of two major annual ISTE awards, and Weinberger’s keynote.

Steinhaus began his remarks by noting that more than 40 countries are represented by NECC 2005 attendees, and that the future of educational technology is as bright as ever on an international scale. In the U.S., he pointed to numerous achievements over the past year, including those by 2005 ISTE Outstanding Teacher Award winner Donna Roberts of Liverpool Central School District in Liverpool, N.Y., and 2005 ISTE Outstanding Leader Award winner Joe Hairston, Superintendent of Schools for Baltimore County Public Schools in Towson, Md.

But Steinhaus’ tone quickly turned to one of caution, as he spoke of the growing threat to federal ed-tech funding. Focusing on the Bush administration’s elimination of the $500 million Enhancing Education Through Technology program in the 2006 budget plan, Steinhaus urged educators to become true ed-tech advocates, asking them to sign up with the grass roots advocacy initiative known as the Ed Tech Action Network (ETAN).

“We may be strangers to advocacy, but let me assure you that it’s learnable and doable. Even, empowering,” said Steinhaus. “I urge you to commit to this effort today … this week … at this conference.”

Weinberger also took an anti-establishment approach in a lively and humorous keynote speech titled “The New Shape of Knowledge.” Few scholars have as much insight into the internet’s revolutionary impact on society as Weinberger, and he demonstrated this expertise by tracing conventional notions of knowledge from the ancient Greeks, through Descartes, and up to the modern technology-infused era.

Weinberger said he sees society at a crucial turning point with respect to its notion of what constitutes knowledge. In the days of ancient Greece, he noted, knowledge was far more flexible than it has been for the past several hundred years. Everyone in the community was welcome to voice their opinions in an open market of ideas as Greek scholars began to classify the true meaning of knowledge.

Over the years, however, the body of accepted knowledge became narrower and narrower, thanks to a prevailing belief that knowledge could be organized into a kind of tree structure. Then, in the 17th century, Descartes argued that none of the classifications as they existed was necessarily accurate, since the only true knowledge was that of self (“I think therefore I am.”) The post-Descartes world saw a new sort of classification system, beginning with Cartesian theory and eventually leading to a notion that knowledge, once confirmed as true, could be mapped in ways that would hold up for all eternity.

For Weinberger, the Dewey decimal system was the ultimate example of knowledge-mapping gone haywire, because the classification numbers themselves were influenced more by Dewey’s personal experience than by external reality. Weinberger pointed out that Dewey set aside minimal or no number categories for any of the Asian languages, and had just one number for all of Judaism–compared to dozens for various branches of Christianity. In addition, Dewey was perfectly willing to classify pseudo-sciences such as phrenology (a belief that human intelligence was based on skull measurements), while ignoring all of the Eastern religions.

As Dewey’s example shows, Weinberger argued, the world can never be classified, and it is only now, in the digital era, that knowledge is beginning to break free of this misguided organizational belief. On the internet, the owners of information do not control how it is organized or presented and the seemingly infinite number of informational sources returned by most Google searches is the greatest reminder that there is no one truth. Weinberger believes today’s kids understand this notion better than adults. They are growing up with weblogs and social bookmarking sites that encourage visitors to contribute to a pool of research and discuss entire topics rather than simply accept what others tell them.

This new shape of user-infused knowledge is what Weinberger refers to as “externalized thought.” He pointed out that so much can be found online that it is almost silly to expect today’s students to waste their time memorizing information that they can easily locate in what already exists as societal “scaffolding.” In this sense, information literacy and the ability to find accurate sources are more important than the previous generation’s need for each individual student to know all the information by heart. It’s more important for today’s students to be able to readily find the capital of each U.S. state, rather than to memorize this information. Weinberger compared resistance to the internet to the past concerns about calculators in math classrooms, saying that you can’t run from technology or ignore the reality of the world in which students live.

Weinberger held up the Wikipedia.org site–an online encyclopedia authored by its own readers–as a shining example of technology’s ability to reshape our notion of knowledge. A few years into its existence, Wikipedia already has far more entries than any encyclopedia ever published on paper, and it also has entries about countless topics that organizers of traditional research materials might never include. Why should the authors of an encyclopedia determine what is important and necessary to know when other topics might be of more interest and usefulness to specific readers? In a digital world, there is no reason these readers’ needs should have to be ignored.

Blogs are another example of a major online shift. Unlike traditional media outlets, which aim to keep users on their own sites, bloggers encourage their visitors to check out other sites and weigh in with their opinions.

“Blogs are a conversation,” said Weinberger, himself an avid blogger. “You will get the collection of knowledge from blogs, and you will see that the knowledge is in the conversation. The knowledge is the conversation.”

Weinberger urged NECC attendees to think about knowledge in this way–to “educate toward conversation” and encourage students to “seek ambiguity.” After thousands of years, the sort of dialogue once practiced in the Greeks’ open market of ideas is now emerging again on the internet.

Weinberger also had harsh criticism for present-day political forces that seem to insist on “testing against ambiguity” and forcing students to memorize facts rather than engage in a social form of learning. He pointed out that:

“Some forces are afraid of ambiguity and difference. These people believe there is one knowledge. … These people are afraid to admit they’re ever wrong.”

But the notion that there is one true knowledge is, in itself, wrong, Weinberger said, because the “world will never agree.” Instead, each side of a dispute should focus on listening to and learning from the other. The internet, led by the blogging culture, encourages this, and that is why it can be such a positive force in education.

“Sharing knowledge is the only way to share the world,” he concluded.

Links:

eSN Conference Information Center
http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic/

Official NECC site
http://www.iste.org/necc/

Ed Tech Action Network
http://www.edtechactionnetwork.org/

David Weinberger’s home page
http://www.evident.com/