How technology has changed our idea of ‘knowledge,’ and what this means for schools

Before the internet existed, humans had a very different concept of what “knowledge” was.

Before the internet existed, humans had a very different concept of what “knowledge” was, says researcher David Weinberger. This concept was defined by the physical properties of the dominant medium for sharing information back then—paper—and the limitations it placed on this process.

For instance, we’ve tended to think of knowledge as something that was orderly: organized neatly into chapters and books, and sorted on shelves in the library according to a rigorous classification system. We understood it as something that was filtered, with writers, editors, publishers, and curators making conscious decisions about what to include and what to leave out.

We saw knowledge as a canon of generally accepted wisdom, Weinberger says, with less room for any difference of opinion: Think of the way a traditional textbook was laid out, with a shaded box set apart from the main text to explore alternate points of view. And we viewed knowledge as a system of artificial “stopping points”: Although footnotes could direct us to further study, eventually books—like all good things—must come to an end.

Now, “we have a new medium” for distributing knowledge, Weinberger told attendees of the 2013 Building Learning Communities (BLC) conference in Boston. This new medium has radically different properties than the one it is replacing. Because it’s not physical, but digital, it’s not unnaturally limiting, Weinberger said—and the networked, nearly boundless system of knowledge that it enables is transforming how humans learn in ways that have profound implications for schools.

Dennis Pierce

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