In the past, information (knowledge) and access to that information (knowledge), was very difficult and expensive. Libraries routinely chained the books to the shelves. Books were expensive to produce, because they had to be created one at a time. Access to books were restricted to a few locations and few could read the words scribed in them. To further compound this problem, knowledgeable people were equally restricted in number and location. Then something changed. The availability of books rapidly increased both in number of books and locations. That change was brought about by a new technology, the printing press. Imagine what those scribes thought seeing the printing press in action. A sense of wonder, bemusement, surprise, relief, fear, and loathing. ‘Oh my, I’m out of a job!’, I’m sure would have be heard. I can hear that scribe say, ‘but the printed words are so inferior to my carefully drawn words why would anyone want such a poor copy. It is just a cheap imitation of a real book. I add so much more value in the drawn letters and pictures.’
The printing press could make thousands of exact copies of a page of text or illustration very quickly. Where once a few books represented the lifetime work of a scribe, the printing press could turn out many more in the few days. This change reduced the cost and increased the access to books, and changed the education system both in its delivery and accessibility. Sometime technology can change everything.
That scribe witnessed profound change because the printing press set off not just change in the method of reproducing books but set in motion economy, political and societal change, that affected all human endeavor. It set the stage for the enlightenment of the human mind.
Today we have been a witness to another landslide of technological change only this time the rate of change is not only fast, it is indeed accelerating. As Ray Kurzweil states,
Exponential growth is seductive, starting out slowly and virtually unnoticeably, but beyond the knee of the curve it turns explosive and profoundly transformative. The future is widely misunderstood. Our forebears expected it to be pretty much like their present, which had been pretty like their past. Exponential trends did exist one thousand years ago, but they were at that very early stage in which they were so flat and so slow that they looked like no trend at all As a result, observers’ expectation of an unchanged future was fulfilled. Today, we anticipate continuous technological progress and the social repercussions that follow. But the future will be far more surprising than most people realize, because few observers have truly internalized the implications of the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating.
Kurzweil, Ray, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Viking Press, 2005, pg. 10-11.
We have constantly seen change in our lives and now the computer and its digital universe have become the next transformative technology that will accelerate change of the human condition. Let me briefly examine one area that will experience this accelerating change, education.
The education enterprise is one that appears on the surface to be one of the most resistant to change. The standing joke is: a learned person standing in front of his class lecturing to his students. The students carefully recording his every word to constructs their study notes. The students reading the book that the professor has told the students that they must know to pass his course. What century did this take place? Answer 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st. And of course the answer is all of them.
I can hear you say, ‘but education has embraced many new modes of instruction, the blackboard and chalk, the overhead projector, computers and data projectors with some form of presentation software’. True, but these have not really changed the enterprise of instruction, it remains firmly rooted in the model where a limited number of people have the knowledge and are passing it to another limited number of people. I think the true revolution of the use of computers will change this paradigm. The computer and the internet cloud, has and will mean, that information and knowledge will be freed of the constraint of place and location, and thereby most of its cost.
Think for a moment what that means. Information is everywhere, at everyplace, at every moment, it is ubiquitous. How would this change affect the institution of a university? The university and its associated store of knowledge in people and books will be less valued. We find this in such places as freely available course content on ItunesU and in MIT OpenCourseWare. There are 10’s of thousands of lectures that one can listen to and trillion of pages of text, audio and video on the web. Hundreds of millions of people are read and writing material on the web every hour. As you know, there are search engines to find the information you want, encyclopedia, peer reviewed publications, quotable quotes, news and weather reports, online purchases, and online education. Just about everything one can imagine is on the web. It is this cloud of information on the web, almost for free, that will mean the end of the institution of the university and higher education, as we have known it. Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.” In this case our limits are our pasts views of what an education is, and how one achieves it, and as Kurzweil said earlier the acceleration of change.
What do you think?