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.

To demonstrate how the internet has changed our idea of what knowledge is, Weinberger—a senior researcher for Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society—pointed to reddit, a website that calls itself “the front page of the internet.” When users submit posts to the site, the reddit community votes these submissions “up” or “down,” which determines where they reside in the site’s hierarchy of information.

Instead of being filtered, this organically growing online community is inclusive, he said: Anyone who registers can add to its extensive body of knowledge. It solves the manageability of information not by omitting knowledge, but by prioritizing it. A wide range of viewpoints are represented, and there are no artificial stopping points: Related information is always just a click away.

So, what does this have to do with education? Weinberger identified four ways this new concept of knowledge is changing how we learn—and each comes with its own key challenges for educators.

The first is the speed at which knowledge transfer can occur, or what Weinberger called the “rhythm” of learning.

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In the old publishing model, an author would submit his or her work to a publisher, which then would distribute the work to libraries, schools, and bookstores, where finally readers would have access to it. This process resulted in information that was vetted by “experts” and published in some fixed, completed format—which gave it instant authority.

Now, anyone can publish information, at any time; there often is no vetting process, and the information doesn’t have to be complete. Others can add to it, or debate over it, and this supplemental knowledge also becomes part of the original record—meaning knowledge is something that is constantly evolving.

This completely changes the dynamic of publishing, while at the same time speeding up the transfer of knowledge, Weinberger said: Our shared understanding of events can be explored in real time, as these events unfold. But it also means that not every piece of published information is authoritative—which is why teaching students how to evaluate the credibility of sources they find online is so critical.

It might be tempting to limit students’ use of sources to only a handful of reputable sites, Weinberger said. But “that would defeat the purpose of networked knowledge,” he argued. A better strategy, he said, is to “help our students develop a sense of when a source needs further investigation.” Borrowing a phrase from Howard Rheingold, Weinberger said students must learn to develop an internal “crap detector.”

The fact that knowledge is no longer fixed, but constantly evolving, and the speed at which new knowledge appears online have contributed to our sense of “information overload,” Weinberger said. And that leads to another way that our evolving sense of knowledge is transforming how we learn: We must learn to accept that true mastery is impossible.

“We are only overwhelmed by what we feel we must master,” Weinberger said, “and that’s too bad, because mastery does not scale. This is a residue of our old thinking about education—that we need to master information.”

Although a mastery of specialized knowledge is necessary for certain professionals, “we must be willing to know something—but not everything—about a topic,” he noted.

Just as we must learn to accept that true mastery of knowledge is impossible, we also must learn to live with a broad difference of opinion, Weinberger argued—and that’s the third way technology is changing how we learn.

“There is nothing about which we all agree,” he said, citing skepticism over the moon landing to make his point. “To think that facts are going to resolve this is to keep dreaming the same old dream.”

But even though facts don’t compel agreement as we think they should, we still need them, Weinberger said. We also must learn to accept that differences of opinion are both “inevitable—and OK.”

For more news from the 2013 Building Learning Communities conference, see:

Zhao: U.S. schools focusing on the wrong skills

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He pointed to reddit as a good model for how we can live with a diversity of opinion. The website includes a section called “IAmA,” where posters introduce themselves by writing: “I am a ______, ask me anything.” (Examples include a 25-year-old girl with stage 4 cancer, or an ex-convict who spent eight years in solitary confinement and now helps others.)

The purpose of this online community is to give readers a way to connect with, and learn from, others who have a unique or interesting perspective. And it works, Weinberger said, but “only because there is no expectation that [contributors] will change each other’s minds.”

Weinberger closed his talk with a final example of how our shifting concept of knowledge is changing how we learn: It has led to a sharp rise in the openness of information.

According to the Directory of Open Access Journals, in 2004 there were 1,404 such publications, which are defined as “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions,” as well as peer-reviewed. By 2012, Weinberger said, that number had skyrocketed to 8,461.

“I’m pretty convinced that technology has already significantly transformed learning,” he concluded, leaving attendees with one final thought to ponder. “The question now is, what has to happen for education to make this shift as well?”

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Dennis Pierce

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