iPad Summit Keynote: The New Shape of Knowledge

David Weinberger, Ph.D. courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

David Weinberger, Ph.D. courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It’s time to kick off the iPad Summit! This year’s keynote speaker is David Weinberger, Ph.D., Co-Director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab and Senior Researcher for the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

David begins by telling us that he would like to discuss how we raise children to be good citizens and that we must recognize that the new digital environment in which we live provides us not only new obligations, but a new opportunity. He highlights that there is a temptation among educators to look at the internet as a collection of information, much of which is “bad.” If that is how we view it, then we focus on the need of filtering, controlling, and managing the environment. However, this approach  ignores an important  fact – that our minds MUTCD_R1-1.svg (1)are finite. As such, it’s not possible to fully understand and “know” the world around us. So to succeed, at some level, we must narrow our focus. Therefore, knowledge is filtered, it is settled (what is known and nailed down), orderly (even if it actually isn’t), a private endeavor, and in our culture knowledge is a series of stopping points. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica had to “throw out” knowledge because it wouldn’t fit in the book! Now, with the internet, knowledge has a new medium that is unlimited. Looking at Wikipedia (the online Encyclopedia) we are no longer restricted for content based on size and media. Not only do we have a repository of words, but images, video, sound files, and external resources and sources (look at the bibliography at the bottom of a Wikipedia article). We now have the ability for millions of people contributing to a website to build and edit our understanding. In spite of popular perception, these sites (including Wikipedia) actually work quite well. Now learning is no longer a private endeavor, but participating in the public sphere. We now make things public by publishing Open Access or Creative Commons. Now David mentions his concerns about the limited and closed nature of the iPad – that it does not generally allow for open access and public endeavors – quite a statement for an iPad conference!

Until recent times, access to information was highly limited. For example, if you wanted to learn about “that Einstein kid” in the early 20th century, you were limited to what was published in newspapers. Or, you had to wait several years for a peer-reviewed journal article (that was only available to subscribers). Now, researchers can use tools like arXiv, hosted by Cornell University, to publish ideas and research at any level. What gives environments like this value is not that the information is all the same, but rather they are inconsistent and in constant disagreement. While agreement is wonderful, it doesn’t scale. If you want knowledge to get big, then you have to give up on the ideal of agreement! This is where the issue of filtering comes into play – it limits the ability of learners to filter and curate for themselves! You cannot effectively filter what your readers/users are going to find valuable or interesting. Knowledge and learning is an individual endeavor in this way. So here is the cycle of knowledge in the public world:

        • Bounded & Divided –> Linked
        • Settled –> Unsettled
        • Work in Private –> Public
        • Curated –> Filtering Forward (after publication)
        • Orderly –> Rich ‘n’ Messy

David highlights that while mastery is a wonderful and even necessary in many ways, it should not be the end all be all. Mastery leads to boundaries then to canon then

Courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

Courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

to certification and then to testing which we hold as “accountability.” By the way, a room full of educators are always thrilled when standardized testing is cut down! Mastery is how “we cut the world down to our size.” However, it does not let us connect. In an Internet world there is room for all of this content and ways for us to communicate with one another about this content. “Mastery does not scale.” Still, this does not mean that we should give up on mastery. If you want to be a Chemist, for example, you must master the Periodic Table. Mastery has its place, but we should be cautious about its implementation in education. Expertise should not be shunned or condemned and it will likely continue. Experts (most of them anyway) are now on the web – which not only allows them to be engaged with others, but to contribute their understanding and build our shared repository of knowledge. We want to have “your nerds arguing with my nerds.” Commons allow engagement and discussion about resources and conclusions that are in dispute.

Now with the internet, there is a new “civic good.” David asks:

If knowledge lives in the commons, how do we educate our children to live in the commons?

Students should be learning and collaborating in network commons. Our schools must help our children to be positive, creative, curious, contributors to what they perceive as a public commons built by all of us.

5 thoughts on “iPad Summit Keynote: The New Shape of Knowledge

  1. Rowan

    I think he presented a “possible approach” to thinking about education in the digital world, rather than it has to be all public or all private, or that digital technologies create their own solutions. I do think these new tools create a new set of problems but mainly I heard him saying we need to be more flexible in our criteria for expertise.

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