Learning with technology: From Gutenberg to the World Wide Web

In 1450 a certain invention sparked a shift in how knowledge was shared. Johannes Gutenberg bankrupted himself to bring us the printing press and begin mass production of knowledge. He printed 180 copies of the Bible and his invention began a series of events that led to a change in how people thought about God and the role of religion. Why? Because people gained access.

Early wooden printing press, depicted in 1568. Such presses could produce up to 240 impressions per hour

Early wooden printing press, depicted in 1568. Such presses could produce up to 240 impressions per hour

Before the printing press, a Bible would have cost the price of a farm, not something the average person could afford, let alone read. But with the invention of the printing press reading became much wider spread and the mysteries of existence more accessible. The printing press fed the Renaissance and the Protestant Revolution, both changing the face of Western thought forever.

Sitting here in the 21st century, it is difficult to remember that the Renaissance lasted into the 17th century. 200 years after the printing press, not to mention the Scientific Revolution which continued into the 19th century and beyond. Martin Luther didn’t nail his Ninety-five Theses to the church wall until 1517 and the reformation and rejection of of the Christian church still continues today 500 years later.

What people don’t realise is that the primary purpose of the printing press after its invention was to print and distribute pictorial pamphlets to the illiterate population. The content of these pamphlets was usually how to identify a witch. The invention of the printing press led to the mass murder of thousands of women all through deliberate misinformation.

My point is that we are again sitting in a time of Gutenberg. It has been less than 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee introduced the world to the World Wide Web in 1989.  The shift in how people learn is already here but the shift in thinking about learning has not . It could be decades away. These things take time.Tim Berners Lee

Early adopters saw the infinite potential of the Web. Adopted Berners-Lee’s vision. The ability to make fast connections. To collaborate. To synthesise diverse ideas. But all too soon the evil side of the Net emerged. The misinformation. The grooming. The liers and the cheats. The cyberbullies. The Web became Salem. There were witches in every bit.

Through this process, the Web lost its validity as a tool. Students were told not to use the Internet to find out information. Books and hard-copy journals are more reliable. There are still traces of this sentiment. Don’t use Wikipedia because it can be changed by anyone! But books can be changed by no one….and still be wrong. Instead buy a Britannica subscription! Expert knowledge is far superior to crowd sourced knowledge. Is it? Authors change their minds. Bourdieu is often held accountable for how he thought in the 1970s, but unless his thinking is traced through to his death, it would be difficult to know that he often changed his mind, because it is all in irreversible print.

Now social media and the Apps have taken over. Social media sites are safer places to share knowledge. You can control the privacy settings. Apps can’t be searched from the Web. Now that users are feeling more protected, knowledge is again flowing freely. People are accessing the Web because it is useful. We are buying computers, not to simply bang out an essay, but to connect with the Web. But the potential of the Web has not yet been universally utilised.

Social media and email have largely replaced letter writing. We love it because it keeps us connected to our friends and family. We love it because we can interact with strangers all over the world. We can hold committee meetings on Facebook. Keep people in the loop via Google Docs. All these things are great, but do they engage with the full potential of our new mode of communication?

Blogging is bigger than ever. Blogs have become the ninety-five [million] theses of the mass connected population. But that is largely all they tend to be. Theses. Born out of fire. Some say that September 11 was the day blogging came of age. It was the day people who were blogging about and linking ideas took to cyberspace to express their mass outrage: elegantly, creatively, brutally. The masses saw the potential. Blogs can give a voice.

But in our desire to be heard. To express our fears for the world and challenge the status quo, we have become a cacophony. Before, the guy on the soap box was the person that challenged us with his new ideas and ways of seeing. The woman chained to the gates screamed for equality. Their dreams were for a better future and were listened to. Now everyone is talking, explaining, teaching. The buzz is exactly that. White noise.

The majority of users are using the Web to do what the printed book did perfectly well. Distribute information. The Web is being used to tell stories, explain hows, and express opinion. The majority of users are still using the Web as “experts” and “authors”, the owners of knowledge. There is no problem with that until we experts are no longer the people teaching. We realise that the Web and Apps are the new expert knowledge holders.

So where to from here? How do we utilise online spaces to change the way we learn? My suggestion: we stop being experts and start being co-learners. We have part of the knowledge. Not all of it and not necessarily true. We break the teacher-student archetype and become networked learners. Use the Web, the network, the connections, to create new knowledge. Crowd sourced, collaborative knowledge. Wikipedia on steroids. It could start small. We don’t need to be in full blown Renaissance mode just yet, but it could be around the corner.

A small example, I have been involved in a scholarly conversation with @debsnet and Helen Kara. Helen challenged me to write a blog from a #blimage, blogging about an image (the brainchild of Steve Wheeler). The the image was a photograph from Helen’s garden of a spiderweb pictured herebest-spiderwebs. I wrote my post. I challenged (as per the rules) Jenna Condie with another image, but @debsnet jumped in (not out of the blue, out of the network) and wrote a post about the spiderweb, breaking the linear rules and beginning a circle of networked learning that inspired the post you are currently reading. This would not have been as easily done before the Web. I wonder what would happen if more bloggers wrote about the same image? What type of knowledge could we begin to generate as a networked collective?

There are lots of people out there “breaking the rules” established by the legacy of Gutenberg. You can feel it in the air. There are stirrings and rumblings as the current way of thinking and doing is challenged politically, socially, scientifically, educationally. These rule breakers will probably be the ones taking us to the next Renaissance and Reformation. The ones who access this new technology for its potential, not for its usefulness. They are the ones that will stand on the shoulders of giants, not simply beside them or on their toes, and look far into the future.

Anyone want to blog about a spider’s web?


3 thoughts on “Learning with technology: From Gutenberg to the World Wide Web

  1. Naomi I’m loving the idea of co-knowledge-creation and what crowd sourced scholarship could look like. It has left me thinking, and I’m not sure where those thoughts will end up.

    In the meantime, I have written a reply, of sorts – https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/1st-birthday/ . I definitely find this blogversation more stimulating than writing posts in a vortex (although, of course, they never are without context).

    Thank you!



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