‘Knowledge’ is easy; ‘learning’ is hard

Will file sharing, easy downloads, and a universe of experts all posting on Wikipedia make universities irrelevant within 15 years? 

Yes, says David Wiley.  Information will be free, and that means universities will have to radically restructure to accommodate that … or else face irrelevance. 

Wiley, a leader in the “open content” movement and professor of psychology and instructional technology at Brigham Young University, made that prediction recently in the wake of student bodies more inclined to download than watch TV … and universities putting more and more class lectures online.

Between Facebook, Google, file sharing, YouTube, and universities putting lectures online, Wiley says, all universities have to offer paying students is a credential – and at some point that will be provided by other means, too.

Or will it?  Eric Fox, Saybrook’s Dean of Instruction, says that he had a great time reading the article about Wiley’s prediction – but doesn’t think the future will pan out just that way.

That, Fox says, is because having “access” to information isn’t the same as “learning.”


“I’m a big fan of the open content movement, but even before the Internet most of us had relatively easy access to enormous amounts of information in our local and school libraries, but that did not make us all well educated,” Fox says. 

Why is that?  It’s because while people can learn from machines, people aren’t machines – and “learning” information is different, and more complicated, than “having” it.  That’s a basic humanistic principle.

The perspective of educational futurists like Wiley, Fox suggests, is shaped by a common model in cognitive psychology in which “information” and “knowledge” are reified and viewed as “things” to be accessed, transmitted, stored, and retrieved.

“It is a model that very much treats people as information-processing machines or computers. That may be an okay metaphor in some respects, but I believe it does not fully capture the rich, interactive, contextually situated nature of most learning,” says Fox.

To take a simple example:  if you wanted, you could read a chapter or watch a video on how to do the Foxtrot – but that wouldn’t prepare you for prom.

“The same goes for more complex cognitive tasks such as problem solving or ‘closing a sale,’” Fox says.  “While people learn all the time through normal, everyday interactions with others and their environment, educational institutions provide a context in which learning is focused, intensive, and highly valued. The good ones also provide instructors who excel at connecting with their students and helping them make their education as personally meaningful and relevant as possible.”

So what is it that universities offer that a really great collection of lectures on YouTube wouldn’t?

“The opportunity to not only access the content, but also meaningfully interact with it, their peers, and instructors,” Fox says.  “Yes, technology can certainly be used to improve access to that content and facilitate those interactions with peers and instructors, but the technology must be implemented carefully and in a pedagogically sound way for it to make a difference.”

Expertise is more than a command of facts – and the classic elements of universities, like relationships with faculty and the opportunity to engage in dialectical discourses – can’t be digitized.  You can use technology to facilitate them, the way Saybrook does, but not to be them.

“With virtually every advance in communications technology, a ‘revolutionary’ like Wiley emerges to proclaim that it will dramatically change/improve education as we know it,” says Fox.  “It occurred with radio, television, video tapes, laser discs, personal computers, DVDs, etc. While all of these technologies have obviously influenced education, it is more difficult to prove that they have fundamentally improved its quality. In fact, there is a considerable body of evidence showing that the media in which instruction is delivered or accessed is not nearly as important as the design of the message and the types of interactions it engenders. The remarkably ‘mobile and connected’ world in which we now live certainly offers exciting opportunities for educators and students, but we must remember that the use of technology in most educational settings is a means, not the end.”