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

Dennis Pierce

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