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RENAISSANCE TWO: Second Coming of the Printing Press?

(c) 1995 by Jack Crawford

The Internet is the convergence of all forms of electronic media into a "neural
net" of shared human consciousness that puts the individual at the center of
information and communications at an international level. It's implications as a
catalyst for profound change to the foundations of our civilization make it the
single most significant development of our lifetime. It is nothing less than the
Second Coming of the Printing Press.

Most of the world is going through major reform on all fronts besides those of
education. We are in the midst of a period of profound and even gut-wrenching
transition between the Industrial and Information Ages. The very foundations of our
society are being torn down, transformed and rebuilt as we evolve from a culture
based on centralized capital and labor to one of decentralized, shared knowledge.
Our societal values-what we deem as right or wrong, the management of our
institutions and economy and the way we do things generally are all in a state of
significant flux and transformation.

These will be turbulent times, no doubt. The last time we had a major paradigm
shift like this, i.e. from an agricultural society to one based on manufacturing,
one of the results was the American Civil War. Merely "buckling our seatbelts" is
not enough. Impact is imminent and we all need to brace for it. For educators this
goes far beyond the carefully planned yet marginally effective, "reform of the
month club" programs that well-meaning school administrators are eternally foisting
on teachers from within. This is real change from without. Whether this is the
"light at the end of the tunnel" is debatable. Whatever it is, however, it is
coming straight at us with the speed and momentum of a locomotive at full steam. We
can either prepare to jump on board or be mowed down by it.

Ever since computers started showing up in our classrooms fifteen or so years ago,
educators have sensed incredible potential for educational application and reform
in them. However, in reality, computers have not been a source of any really
significant reform but rather, merely an addition to the existing curriculum. The
sense of potential is still there but not its fulfillment. In an era so heavily
based on technology we have been merely "integrating technology into our curriculum
rather than integrating our curriculum into technology" (Thomas Sobol) For the most
part all we have really done is used the new technology to "speed up" the old way
of doing things rather than to reform it. The computers are not enough. We need
something else. A major piece of the puzzle has been missing all these years.

We have all been waiting for the computer application that would wrench our schools
from the old (industrial era) way of doing things and catapult them pervasively and
effectively into the Information Age. What we need is a neural net that connects
the knowledge of millions of individuals into one vast societal consciousness. What
we need is a pervasive, self-energizing catalyst for change that is not just
another "reform of the month". What we need is a self-perpetuating movement that
evolves at the societal level under its own momentum rather than a deliberated
"plan" or "program" subject to the inefficien- cies, fallabilities, political games
and obsessive micro-management of an individual, a "committee" or, worse yet,
bureaucrats or politicians as its designer. What we need is something that is
invigorated, motivated and controlled by market forces rather than bureaucrats.
What we need is grassroots upheaval. What we need is here, now. What we need has
"arrived". What we need is the missing piece. What we need is called networking
and, in particular, the Internet.

Think of how the Gutenberg printing press affected the world five hundred years ago
by making the "great conversation" of the scholars accessible to the common man.
Networking and the Internet take this a quantum leap further because they not only
constitute a world-wide neural net that puts the individual a the "center" of
information but also builds a global culture in which individuals become
"publishers" of sharable knowledge regardless of their geographic location or
social position. It has been said that "freedom of the press is for those who own
one." Networking gives everyone their own printing press. Anyone can now become
part of the "great conversation". This is what the "Information Age" is all about.
The Second Renaissance is upon us!

In traditional institutions the flow of information is regulated by a formalized


hierarchy. A person at point A, who wishes some piece of information from point B,
must go through a hierarchy to obtain it. The ability to centrally constrain or
manipulate the access to information has always been a substantial source of power
and control throughout human history. Centralization has also been the main
organizing principle for the storage and distribution of information. This also
significantly slows down the flow of that information at a time when, now, more
than ever before, the need for increased speed in the exchange of information is an
economic imperative. (Did this have something to do with the collapse of the USSR?)

When information becomes available on a neural net such as the Internet or local
area network, however, the individual can access information directly and quickly,
bypassing the entire hierarchy. In doing so, the centralized control over that
information is minimized. The end result is that those who would manage our new
world institutions must now do so through excelling in leadership and guidance
rather than relying on the use of power or control.

Internet is a catalyst for the democratization of management and source of a


pervasive societal attitude which promotes shared decision making based on
information sharing. It dethrones those who would sit in positions of absolute
power. As Gutenberg's printing press ignited the Renaissance, the Internet and
networking in general will have a profound affect on the evolution of the way our
institutions are managed from now on. It is no wonder that bureaucracies,
governments, the mass media and others are looking for ways to control or discredit
the Internet because it threatens the traditional basis of their power and control.
The notion of the "individual at the center of information" frightens them.
Perhaps, as Toffler suggests, they are "scrambling for the deck chairs on the
sinking Titanic." Maybe some of them will find the lifeboats instead and survive by
learning how to lead rather than control in an environment of decentralization...

Profound curricular and pedagogical reform is also another inevitability of


networking. It will happen whether the schools, as institutions, embrace it or not
because kids, teachers and parents will be accessing the Internet from home, at
night, outside of the purview of the school. They will, ultimately, influence the
direction of the school and its curriculum. If the schools do not embrace the new
paradigms (and do it very soon and very pervasively), society will begin to regard
them as ineffective and seek other alternatives to education, possibly finding them
in the Internet itself.

What we will see is a major shift in the way we teach as a direct result of the
Internet. Rather than "opening up a kid's head and pouring in a lot of informa-
tion" as we have since the dawn of public education, the new emphasis will be on
"kids as creators of information". Do not mistake this for a "reform of the month".
This is because the networking culture that will find its way into all schools (if
they are to survive) requires participants to be more than just consumers of
information and knowledge. They must also become contributors, as well. We will
see, for example, a new tradition develop in which school classes will synthesize
what they have learned to be passed on to the same class next year. Networking is,
by it's very nature, a publishing medium. The business sector is already using this
to their advantage and will soon demand that the kids they hire have these
"publishing" skills.

Our schools will have to (really and truly) learn how to teach our kids to read,
write and present information a lot more effectively than they have in the past.
The ability to effectively research through vast arrays of multimedia information
sources and apply credibility tests to what is found will be very critical skills
to be learned. Schools will also need to start teaching the tools and skills of
network publishing (e.g. conference moderating techniques, hypertext authoring
tools such as HTML encoding, graphic operations and layout, etc.) on a grand scale.

Teaching the "art" of web publishing will probably become a real priority soon. Our
kids will become actively involved in research, synthesis and presentation of
knowledge rather than passive observers of it. Those schools and students who
cannot learn to this will become "Information Age drop outs". Voucher-based
education systems and alternative learning methodologies will be the outcome if the
traditional schools cannot effectively make the necessary changes and do it very
soon. The whole concept of "education" will be massively reinvented to accommodate
the 21st Century.

Networking and the Internet are not a panacea, however. Undoubtedly they will
create as many new problems as they solve. However, networking is a very
significant catalyst for changing an old system which clearly does not work any
more. Perhaps the phoenix that will rise from the ashes of the old one will be an
improvement. Maybe it won't. One thing is clear: we cannot have "business as usual"
any more. Change is both inevitable and necessary. Those who cannot embrace it will
go down with the "Titanic".

We must move forward. We cannot stay in a "businees as usual mode" any longer. Our
schools, in poarticular must gear themselves for dramatic, sweeping change or fail
miserably in their mission. Those who truly want to "reform the schools" (and in
the offing, change government and society as well) may find that the single, most
effective and "do-able" way to bring about significant change is to promote the use
of Internet and/or networking in your schools and community. Do what you can to
make networking readily available to as many people as possible. Become an
"Internet Evangelist". If your school board or administrators don't seem receptive
to the idea (or balk at the costs, etc.), "bypass the hierarchy" and find someone
else who is. (Keep in mind that the vast majority of student and teacher online
access is during the evenings from home computers, not from schools.) For example,
approach your chamber of commerce, Rotary club or anyone else that can help you
make Internet cheaply and readily available in your community. Team up with
commercial vendors to "make it happen". Even local BBS operators are making a
surprising amount of Internet capabilities available, usually for free.

The important thing is to get people online! If you can't get educators and kids
online then target the parents. Once they become "believers", they will also become
promoters. Eventually your school will take the hint, become part of the Itnernet
and start on the road to real reform.

Let Renaissance Two begin!