Remembering Encyclopedias

Encyclopaedia_Britannica_15_with_2002

By User:SEWilco – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia

I grew up in a house filled with books, perhaps explaining the condition of my own home. One special collection of books was the bookcase of Collier’s Encyclopedias and annual updates. One of my favorite rainy day occupations was to sit or lay on the floor in front of the bookcase and page through a volume of Collier’s. There was a serendipity as one moved from article to article, learning about an aspect of human physiology, a famous person, or a distant country. Perhaps it was this that birthed the never achievable passion of a knowledge of everything that is part of my love of reading.

The word “encyclopedia” literally means “complete instruction.” I found it tremendously exciting, and a bit daunting, that at least a summary of this knowledge could be collected on the two shelves of that bookcase. It turns out that individuals and groups of people have attempted this gargantuan task since Pliny the Elder compile Naturalis Historiae in the first century, publishing a partial version between 77 and 79 AD before the eruption of Vesuvius resulted in his death. Wikipedia, our digital version of an “open source” encyclopedia includes an extensive article on the “Encyclopedia” which I will not replicate here, except to say that ever since Pliny, and in many cultures, encyclopedia making has been a consistent human endeavor.

The Encyclopedia Britannica for many years occupied pride of place among English language encyclopedias, first published in print between 1768 and 1771 and in updated print versions until 2010, which they ceased selling in 2012. Throughout its history, Britannica featured eminent contributors in their respective fields including individuals like Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, and contemporaries like Milton Friedman, Carl Sagan, and surgeon Michael DeBakey.

When I was growing up, and even into the early years of our marriage when we were contacted by one, there were encyclopedia sales persons, both door to door or even in mall kiosks. One could buy them on the installment plan, which was convenient for many since the lump sum fee was huge. Sometimes there were specialized encyclopedias. I collected a set of science encyclopedias sold at our local grocery store. Later, during a period when I thought I might be a doctor, my parents acquired a medical encyclopedia. Then there was Collier’s, published by Crowell, Collier, and MacMillan. Colliers was not quite as in-depth as Britannica and deeper than the more popular World Book. Groliers was another popular encyclopedia. It was actually the first go-to source for reports for school, until we got far enough along that we were not allowed to cite encyclopedias.

One of the challenges of encyclopedias was that they went out of date as new events occurred and new discoveries were made. Some of the countries for which there were articles no longer existed as either names changed or borders were re-drawn. Annual updates helped if you could find the updated information. Later, digital encyclopedias, which were less expensive and sometimes bundled with computers were introduced, and these were updated often.

The introduction of the internet spelled the end of the encyclopedia, as a printed book, regularly updated, and even to software versions. As of this writing, it is still possible to purchase print versions of the World Book, and older versions are plentiful in second-hand stores and online. Britannica sold versions of encyclopedias on CD’s for a time, then went entirely online. In 2001, the encyclopedia that is the default for most of us, Wikipedia, was launched. The idea was to create an open source, collaborative encyclopedia to which anyone who is registered can contribute. Many articles approach the accuracy and depth of Britannica, but the user must also beware that articles can reflect the ideological bias of contributors or even “edit wars” between contributors with different viewpoints. It is a non-profit effort funded by the Wikimedia Foundation that accepts donations to defray this effort. Currently, there are 301 language editions of Wikipedia. It is now one of the ten most popular websites in the world.

Today, online encyclopedias with their hyperlinked text, and indeed the internet itself, searched by Google, and browsed from one link to another, are our encyclopedias, putting vast amounts of information, far exceeding a print encyclopedia at one’s disposal, even from the phones in our pockets. If anything, all this even more powerfully feeds the illusion that we can know anything and everything.

While the potential is greater, it is also different from a child in front of a row of encyclopedias. Often, I read an article that interested me all the way through, while skipping the ones that did not. The lacks of links did not take me from one article to another without ever finishing anything. On the other hand, one is much more aware of how our knowledge of one thing is linked to other things. I’ll leave it to others to define which is better. What I offer is simply a memoir of a cultural transformation that has occurred within a single life.

Review: Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning

Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning
Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning by Jose A. Bowen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle of this book actually explains the attention-grabbing title of this book. Bowen contends that the onslaught of technological resources that in the minds of many jeopardize traditional higher education can in fact enhance the basic thing professors and teachers do in the classroom–advance student learning. And the way this occurs is for those who teach to employ all these technologies outside the classroom, including those beloved PowerPoints!

These along with online lectures, podcasts, emails, Facebook posts, tweets and course management systems can be used to promote outside-the-classroom learning so that interactive and action-based learning in the classroom or lab can take the lecture (often described as the transfer of information from the notes of the teacher to the notes of the student without engaging the minds of either!).

All of this is based on the premise that the face to face (naked) interaction between teacher and student is the value added that the brick and mortar institution offers over the virtual classroom. What Bowen tries to do is to maximize the effectiveness of the teacher through sound in class pedagogy through interactive and action-based learning rather than the default lecture. He also argues for teachers as “curators” of technology–guiding students to the best resources and using social media and even gaming outside the classroom to help students with course content, homework and preparation for the in-class experience. He even proposes that courses should be like video games, or even developed AS video games where students only progress to higher levels of knowledge as they master lower levels.

Part 1 of the book explores the new digital landscape. Part 2 gets very practical in the design of courses that are a hybrid of technology and “naked” teaching. Part 3 is perhaps the most thought-provoking as he poses the challenge of what kind of adaptation he thinks needs to take place. He points to the digitization of music and print and how the change in the form and delivery of product radically transformed music and book outlets–for example, the demise of Tower Records and Borders. Yet other brick and mortar outlets like Barnes and Noble have (so far) survived because they shifted to a hybrid model that has both digital and human interaction components–likewise the case with the independent booksellers that have survived. He believes the same will need to happen in higher education in redefining the product, re-thinking the curriculum and how it is delivered and even re-tooling matters of infrastructure and pricing.

The one thing I struggled with in the end is the commoditization of education that I think will inevitably militate against the human values of the naked classroom. While Bowen tries to fuse these, the bottom line at the end of the book seems to be the bottom line. I hope the “hybrid” that Bowen proposes in some form is in fact the direction things take. There is no way to put the genie back in the bottle–it is in fact on every student’s smartphone. Yet I wonder if today’s university has an adequate philosophy of education to resist the siren call of the technology and the pragmatism of the bottom line. Without strong, principled, and savvy leadership, I wouldn’t be surprised if technological and market forces decide these questions in the next decade or two. That’s just how fast things are moving.

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The Digital University

I am reading several books at present on higher education. One of these is Jose’ Antonio Bowen’s Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of your College Classroom Will Improve Student LearningIt is a thought-provoking book about how the digital revolution is shaping the world of higher education

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Much has been made of the new possibilities the digital revolution makes possible in terms of online course work, free university-level education through vehicles like Coursera, and the sheer fact that everything taught in class can probably be found on one’s smartphone, perhaps with higher quality presentation value. Many are looking at the potential cost savings these technologies offer and wondering about the future of brick and mortar colleges and universities.

One of the points that Bowen focuses on, however, focuses around the “analog” nature of teaching. True teaching is not simply about the transfer of information, which may be done more effectively through vehicles like those mentioned above. Rather, it is about the relationship between teacher and student–a face to face interaction, not only in class but at a local coffee shop or in an office or lab. Granted, some of this may be done online and this could actually enhance teacher effectiveness.

Bowen’s point is that in this revolution, professors need to re-think their role and what they do in the classroom. He advocates for using all this technology–but outside the classroom by both curating the online content to direct students to the best content sources, through using podcasts, blogs, and tweets to personalize this to the class, and then using class time for critical interaction about this content and applicative exercises that require doing the outside of class work necessary for good preparation.

This makes good sense to me. Most professors cannot deliver lectures nearly as engaging as what may be found online (and Bowen allows that where one can do this, or this is the best way to present certain forms of material, professors should still do this). What they can do is guide the learning process and provide living models of thoughtful scholarship in their area of training. It seems that this work of re-thinking classroom teaching is essential. If resisted, I could easily see a greater move to digital university providers with the University of Phoenix and their ilk becoming the iTunes and Amazon of higher education.

If you are around the world of higher education, what do you think the landscape of higher education will look like in ten years? How do you think (or do you think) teaching needs to adapt to this “brave new world”?

Review: Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading

Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading
Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading by Jason Merkoski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jason Merkoski was involved on the development team for the Kindle e-book reader and, for a time became a “technology evangelist” for Amazon. This book is a combination memoir and thoughtful exploration of the future of reading in as we make the shift from “analog” to digital in books.

He begins with some history of Ebooks and the development and launch of the first Kindle and then moves into the various implications of the shift to digital, ranging from how we read to what it means to have cloud-based digital content to the use of digital content in education to the fate of libraries. At the end of each chapter is a “Bookmark”, a more focused reflection on a topic related (or sometimes not) to the chapter.

I found the “bookmarks” the most endearing parts of the book, because Merkoski explores in many of these what we will lose or will change in the shift to digital–thinks like book covers (I think of the “analog” to this in some of the wonderful album covers of the LP era). At most we may have a digital icon on our digital shelves. Another talks about the inscriptions we find in many books–how will we do that in a digital age?

There was a kind of guilty wistfulness in much of this–the reflections of someone who obviously REALLY loves paper books who was part of the revolution that will supplant them. He, like many of us in this time, realizes that we are witnessing a profound change in the way we read that will mean the loss of some of the things we love. He also observes that our children (or grandchildren) will probably be oblivious to such things–digital will be all they know.

At the same time, Merkoski sees tremendous potential in this “revolution”–particularly in connecting all that is written into the One Book of human culture. Reading can be immeasurably enriched as we discover the conversation going on between authors, and add to this conversation with our annotations and insights. At the same time, there are pitfalls that reflect the double-edged character of technology–will the lack of physical artifacts (paper books) put us at greater risk of losing great works, will commercialization and digital rights management unnecessarily restrict the availability of digital content, and will the connecting of all this content, and the accessing it on devices with an array of apps lead to digital ADHD?

I’ve explored in greater depth some of the issues Merkoski raises in several blog posts:

https://rtrube54.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/seven-minutes-a-day/
https://rtrube54.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/the-seven-percent-shift/
https://rtrube54.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/where-will-all-the-print-books-go/
https://rtrube54.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/reading-2-0/

The author’s last chapter pinpoints what I think is the source of the ambivalence in this book. Human beings are “analog” beings and probably much of the love many of us have for physical books is their appeal to our physical senses. The digital revolution represents an attempt to transcend our physicality–to digitally put at our finger tips, or even into our brains, the world of knowledge, sound, sight and experience. It even tempts us to try to escape our humanness in digitizing ourselves as people like Ray Kurzweil and other have proposed. I sense Merkoski is both allured and troubled by this project–sensing both the potential wonders and perhaps the loss of what makes us most human–our connection to the physical world. Might we in this “gain the whole world and lose our soul”?

Burning the Page can’t answer all these questions but Merkoski has done a valuable service in helping us understand the revolution we are in the midst of and the questions it will raise.

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