10. Is the Nature of Knowledge Changing?

10.1. Knowledge and Technology

Before moving on to the more pragmatic elements of teaching in a digital age, it is necessary to address the question of whether the development of digital technologies has actually changed the nature of knowledge, because if that is the case, then this will influence strongly what needs to be taught as well as how it will be taught.

Connectivists such as Siemens and Downes argues that the Internet has changed the nature of knowledge. They argue that ‘important’ or ‘valid’ knowledge now is different from prior forms of knowledge, particularly academic knowledge. Downes (2007) has argued that new technologies allow for the de-institutionalization of learning. Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired Magazine and now Curator of Ted Talks, has argued (2008) that massive meta-data correlations can replace ‘traditional’ scientific approaches to creating new knowledge:

Google’s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough. No semantic or causal analysis is required. …This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.

The big target here isn’t advertising, though. It’s science. The scientific method is built around testable hypotheses. These models, for the most part, are systems visualized in the minds of scientists. The models are then tested, and experiments confirm or falsify theoretical models of how the world works. This is the way science has worked for hundreds of years. Scientists are trained to recognize that correlation is not causation, that no conclusions should be drawn simply on the basis of the correlation between X and Y (it could just be a coincidence). Instead, you must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect the two. Once you have a model, you can connect the data sets with confidence. Data without a model is just noise. But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete.’

(It should be noted this was written before derivative-based investments caused financial markets to collapse, mainly because those using them didn’t understand the underlying logic that created the data.)

Jane Gilbert’s book, ‘Catching the Knowledge Wave’ (2005), directly addresses the assumption that nature of knowledge is changing. Drawing on publications by Manuel Castells (2009) and Jean-François Lyotard (1984), she writes (p. 35):

‘Castells says that…knowledge is not an object but a series of networks and flows…the new knowledge is a process, not a product…it is produced not in the minds of individuals but in the interactions between people…..

According to Lyotard, the traditional idea that acquiring knowledge trains the mind would become obsolete, as would the idea of knowledge as a set of universal truths. Instead, there will be many truths, many knowledges and many forms of reason. As a result… the boundaries between traditional disciplines are dissolving, traditional methods of representing knowledge (books, academic papers, and so on) are becoming less important, and the role of traditional academics or experts are undergoing major change.’

Back in the 1960s Marshall McLuhan (1964) argued that the medium is the message; the way information is represented and transmitted is changed and so is our focus and understanding as information moves between and within different media. If information and knowledge are now represented and more significantly now flow differently, how does that affect educational processes such as teaching and learning?

One way knowledge is certainly changing is in the way it is represented. It should be remembered that Socrates (according to Plato) criticized writing because it could not lead to ‘true’ knowledge which came only from verbal dialogue and oratory. Writing however is important because it provides a permanent record of knowledge. The printing press was important because it enabled the written word to spread to many more people. As a consequence, scholars could challenge and better interpret, through reflection, what others had written, and more accurately and carefully argue their own positions. Many scholars believe that one consequence of the development of mass printing was the Renaissance and the age of enlightenment, and modern academia consequently came to depend very heavily on the print medium.

Now we have other ways to record and transmit knowledge that can be studied and reflected upon, such as video, audio, animations, and graphics, and the Internet does expand enormously the speed and range by which these representations of knowledge can be transmitted.