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

“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.”

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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?”

Dennis Pierce

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