10. Is the Nature of Knowledge Changing?
10.3. The Nature of Academic Knowledge
Academic knowledge is a specific form of knowledge that has characteristics that differentiate it from other kinds of knowledge, and particularly from knowledge or beliefs based solely on direct personal experience. In summary, academic knowledge is a second-order form of knowledge that seeks abstractions and generalizations based on reasoning and evidence.
Fundamental components of academic knowledge are:
Transparency means that the source of the knowledge can be traced and verified. Codification means that the knowledge can be consistently represented in some form (words, symbols, video) that enables interpretation by someone other than the originator. Knowledge can be reproduced or have multiple copies. Lastly, knowledge must be in a form such that it can be communicated and challenged by others.
Laurillard (2001) recognizes the importance of relating the student’s direct experience of the world to an understanding of academic concepts and processes, but she argues that teaching at a university level must go beyond direct experience to reflect, analysis and explanations of those direct experiences. Because every academic discipline has a specific set of conventions and assumptions about the nature of knowledge within its discipline, students in higher education needs to change the perspectives of their everyday experience to match those of the subject domain.
As a result, Laurillard argues that university teaching is ‘essentially a rhetorical activity, persuading students to change the way they experience the world’ (p.28). Laurillard then goes on to make the point that because academic knowledge has this second-order character, it relies heavily on the symbolic representation, such as language, mathematical symbols, ‘or any symbol system that can represent a description of the world, and requires interpretation’ (p.27) to enable this mediation to take place.
If academic knowledge requires mediation, then this has major significance for the use of technology. Language (i.e. reading and speaking) is only one channel for mediating knowledge. Media such as video, audio, and computing can also provide teachers with alternative channels of mediation.
Laurillard’s reflections on the nature of academic knowledge is a counter-balance to the view that students can automatically construct knowledge through argument and discussion with their peers, or self-directed study, or the wisdom of the crowd. For academic knowledge, the role of the teacher is to help students understand not just the facts or concepts in a subject discipline, but the rules and conventions for acquiring and validating knowledge within that subject discipline. Academic knowledge shares common values or criteria, making academic knowledge itself a particular epistemological approach.