If knowledge is power, then the development of Cloud-based online learning technologies could be taking that power away from the learners they purport to serve. Moreover – once again but, this time, thanks to technology – the power of knowledge will reside with an elite, as it did up to the 15th century, before the invention of the moveable type printing process.
Since it will own the Cloud-based knowledge repositories and control the access to these repositories, that elite will have the power to determine which knowledge is ‘genuine’ and which is ‘fake’. It will be able to grant access to – or withhold – whatever knowledge it wishes.
This could be an idealised, dystopian view of the learning future – but here’s how it could come true…
Developing language enabled humans to speed up our acquisition of knowledge. So, language was the foundation of a cognitive revolution. Things that may have taken a lifetime to learn by experience could now be passed, via an oral teaching tradition, to others in a fraction of that time – allowing humanity to develop. That tradition is still encapsulated in nursery rhymes, folklore and similar tales and sayings.
Then, the basics of what we know as conventional learning were laid down in Plato’s Academy around 345 BCE. This Academy existed for some 900 years before being closed on the orders of the Roman Emperor, Justinian. The next major advance in learning was a result of the invention of moveable type printing, in the 15th century, by Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith and businessman from the mining town of Mainz in southern Germany.
Until that point, the skill of scholarship had centred around learning a text sequentially. Indeed, the advent of movable type – making it possible to print more books, cost-effectively, than ever before – encountered strong opposition from some scholars who argued that thereby, in future, a text could just be read and not have to be learnt.
Arguably, the printing press has been among the greatest of human inventions. Without it, none of the inventions that have changed our world in the last 600 years or so, affecting all areas of human activity, would have been possible.
Traditionally, knowledge is power. So, printed books – and access to the riches they contain – have helped to spread knowledge more widely among human societies and, so, democratise humanity’s access to knowledge.
In its time, the printed word has helped end the mediaeval world order, promote sacred and secular ideologies, fuel proletarian movements, and so on. It has challenged the status quo and ushered in new ages – including today’s information age.
That age has also been brought about by the invention of the ‘penny post’ in 1840; the 19th century boom in the printing industry on the back of higher literacy levels, and then, from the latter part of the 19th century, the growth in telecommunications (the telegraph, telephone, radio, film and television) which, by 1995, had given us the internet.
In these last 25 years or so, there has been a shift in education fashion – away from ‘knowledge is power, so learn for yourself’ towards collaborative learning. Moreover, with the advent of the internet, mobile devices, just-in-time learning and the Cloud as a knowledge-repository that can be accessed as and when necessary from almost anywhere at any time, humans now seem to want performance support rather than having to rely on (pre-learned) ‘knowledge’.
This may be convenient for those who need to access this knowledge. It can have cost-efficient benefits for organisations – not least because they don’t need to invest in keeping their own growing repositories of up-to-date business-related knowledge. In theory, this could usher in a golden age of open access, online, to all knowledge, as and when required by anyone and everyone.
However, there are some potential drawbacks.
For one thing, who are the curators of this knowledge? Who’s going to make the decision about what piece of knowledge is ‘fake’ or ‘spurious’ and which bit is ‘bona fide’ and worthwhile?
If humans merely need to know how to access knowledge – rather than needing to have a grounding in at least the basics of that knowledge so that they can judge which of the knowledge bank they access is trustworthy and which isn’t – then there’s ample room for their knowledge to be manipulated by those who curate the knowledge repositories and/or own the dissemination platforms.
A further concern is that – in what’s being dubbed an ‘Anti-Gutenberg Moment’ – humanity is allowing its collective knowledge to become centralised and privatised again, in a similar but technologically different way from the way that knowledge was held and used before the time of Johannes Gutenberg.
That would take human knowledge through a complete circle. Starting from a situation where a small elite held and defined ‘knowledge’ and moving, via the invention of moveable type, telecommunications and similar developments, to a situation where knowledge was generally available and accessible, before returning, via the magic of technology, to a situation where human knowledge is, once again, in the hands of elite guardians. They may well be a different elite from the kings, nobles and clergy who defined and guarded knowledge in the pre-Enlightenment times but, nonetheless, they will be an elite who could be tempted to use their elite position to benefit themselves.
Obviously, time will tell – but those connected with generating, collating and/or curating knowledge, especially the knowledge connected to the learning technologies sector, might want to be on their guard against the movement of the ‘Knowledge Circle’ and the development of a new knowledge elite.