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School Knowledge, Curriculum Development and

Emerging Digital Epistemologies: Implications for


By Alec Couros
EC&I 925
April 10, 2002
Table of Contents

EPISTEMOLOGY AND CURRICULUM THEORY:..................................................1
THEORETICAL VIEWS OF KNOWLEDGE...............................................................4
CURRICULUM AS PROCESS...................................................................................................11
CURRICULUM AS PRODUCT...................................................................................................12
THE FALL OF SCHOOL KNOWLEDGE......................................................................................16
THE RISE OF DIGITAL EPISTEMOLOGIES..........................................................17
THE CHANGING STATE OF KNOWLEDGE................................................................................19
THE KNOWER IN THE DIGITAL AGE......................................................................................22
RECONCILIATION AND REDIRECTION................................................................28
APPENDIX A...................................................................................................................35


This paper explores the concept of knowledge within two frameworks. First, the

notion of school knowledge from both an epistemological and a curriculum context is

explored. With this, I seek to better understand the assembly of school knowledge within

educational thought and focus on both the advantages and limitations of this traditional

construction. Second, I seek to explore the concept of digital forms of knowledge,

sometimes referred to as “digital epistemologies” (Lankshear, Peters & Knobel, 2000, p.

17). Such forms of knowledge can be identified as an emerging subset of what has been

coined to be non-school or “owned knowledge” (Paechter, 1998). As these ideas are

explored, I will begin to establish the relationship between these two classifications of

knowledge and determine whether or not they are mutually exclusive or in fact


Epistemology and Curriculum Theory:

Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is driven by two main questions:

"What is knowledge?" and "What can we know?" If we think we can know something,

as nearly everyone does, then a third key question arises: "How do we know what we do

know?" Most of what has been written in epistemology over the ages addresses at least

one of these three questions. For example, in the Theaetetus, Plato considers the thesis

that knowledge is true belief that can be backed up with an account or explanation. Thus,

in early epistemological thought, Plato was concerned not only with the question of what

knowledge is, but also in determining what qualities make up truth and how the

possession of truth can be proven. Later, rationalists like Descartes and empiricists like
Hume carried on the traditions of epistemology and defended competing theses about

how we know, and have also disagreed about what we can know.

As the questions of epistemology become more pragmatic (i.e., “how is

knowledge possible” toward “what knowledge should be taught in schools”), many

sociologists and curriculum theorists have taken on the problems within the domain of

epistemology. Of the three initial questions posed, the latter two are the most frequently

recognized and contemplated in modern curriculum theory. For instance, the question

“what can we know?” has been reframed by critical theorists such as Peter McLaren,

Henry Giroux and Michael Apple to “whose knowledge should be taught?” For this

question to emerge, it is clear that such theorists emphasize the social and political

aspects of which knowledge has traditionally been prescribed to schooling. On a more

fundamental level, theorists have begun to look closely at the role of knowledge in

schooling and how this translates to society itself.

Early sociologists such as Emile Durkheim saw education as a “social thing” and

as a reflection of which ideals general society wanted to perpetuate. Schooling was in

essence a process of indoctrination into larger society. He argued,

… it is society as a whole and each particular social milieu that determines

the ideal that education realizes. Society can survive only if there exists
among its members a sufficient degree of homogeneity; education
perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by fixing in the child, from
the beginning, the essential similarities that collective life demands. (1956,
p. 10)

However, in the early 1970's, sociologists in the field of education began to shift their

concentration toward a thorough examination of the content of education rather than the

looking only at the institutional structures themselves. As reflected in Durkheim’s quote,

the earlier efforts of sociologists had been directed toward schools as social structures in
which the curriculum was often taken-for-granted. There was an obvious and almost total

neglect of how knowledge was selected for curricular inclusion (Reynolds & Sullivan,

1980). In Knowledge and Control, Young (1971) argues that education is "a selection

and organization from the available knowledge at a particular time which involves

conscious or unconscious choices" (p. 24). He later adds "school curriculum becomes

just one of the mechanisms through which knowledge is socially distributed" (p. 27).

In simplistic terms, traditional curriculum planning considers two major ideas:

deciding upon what knowledge is to be included in the learning process and how this

knowledge is to be learned (it is understood that replacing the word ‘learned’ with

transmitted, delivered, facilitated, etc. helps to shape the explicit processes involved). If

we accept, as most still do, that curriculum development must begin with statements

about the objectives which we hope to attain or the principles upon which our practice is

to be based, all decisions upon content must be subsidiary to those prior choices. Or as

Tyler (1949) asks the question, “What educational experiences can be provided that are

likely to attain these purposes?” (p. 1).

Knowledge Assumptions and Curriculum Development

In the subsequent sections, it should be apparent that there are several ways of

conceptualizing curriculum planning. To this point, it needs to be emphasized that there

is a fundamental relationship between theories of curriculum conceptualization and how

theorists view the concept of human knowledge. Kelly (1999) argues:

One of the most significant, and also one of the most dangerous, fallacies
with which the curriculum debate has been, and continues, to be beset,
derives from the failure to recognize the problematic nature of human
knowledge and the consequent assumption that it is possible to identify
non-problematic elements which must form the core of curriculum without
further debate. (p. 25)

Clearly, it is important to understand theories of knowledge before curriculum

planning can be better understood.

Theoretical Views of Knowledge

Kelly (1999) alludes to the problematic nature of human knowledge and the

consequent fact that there are different ways of conceiving it. What follows is a brief

exploration into the most commonly held (Western) views of human knowledge. Here,

the fundamentals of rationalism, empiricism, existentialism and postmodernism will be

explored briefly.


The rationalist view touts the supremacy of the intellect over other human

faculties. In this view, it is stressed that true knowledge can be achieved by the mind and

knowledge remains independent and exists separately from the often contradictory

information provided by the senses. In other words, knowledge is absolute, universal,

and exists apriori in the human intellect. Theorists such as Plato, Descartes, Kant and

Hegel have expanded upon rationalist epistemologies and have shared the basic

conviction that the evidence achieved by our senses is misleading but that the rational

mind can attain true knowledge independently (Kelly, 1999).

Within the framework of this paradigm, knowledge exists independently and is

unaffected by those humans who possess it. Knowledge is timeless, objective “and in no

sense related to the particular circumstances of individual eras, societies, cultures or

human beings” (Kelly, 1999, p. 27). Such a view of knowledge is compelling to

curriculum theorists who subscribe to the objectives approach. The idea that knowledge

is universal, unchanging and exists “out there” to attain, is an attractive feature in the

development, administration and teaching of a curriculum as content and as universal

truths to be pursued. The latter point rationalizes education as the pursuit of knowledge

and truth. In this context, for R.S. Peters (1966), the ideal teacher:

… understands vividly, perhaps, that some created objects are beautiful

and others not; he can recognize the elegance of a proof, or a paragraph,
the cogency of an argument, the clarity of an exposition, the wit of a
remark, the neatness of a plot and the justice and wisdom of a decision.
He has perhaps a love of truth, a passion for justice, and a hatred of what
is tasteless. (p. 107)


In contrast, empiricism is best understood as “a reaction against the metaphysical

nature of rationalism” (Kelly, 1999, p. 28). John Locke is often thought to be the founder

of the empiricist movement. He believed that the human mind starts as a clean sheet, or

tabula rasa. Thus, all of the knowledge that is acquired in a lifetime is acquired through

sensory experience. This definition in essence eradicates the concept of a priori

knowledge as described in the rationalist view.

To an empiricist, knowledge itself becomes tentative and subject to change.

While in this view, all information is seen to be gathered through sensory experience,

empiricists would agree with the rationalists on the premise that the senses can not

always be fully trusted. Knowledge construction in this view becomes a much more

personal experience; yet whether or not knowledge itself becomes personal and
subjective in this view is debatable. For instance, Dewey believed that the proper model

for all knowledge is that of scientific knowledge. Here,

hypotheses are framed and modified according to publicly agreed criteria,

so that while such knowledge has no permanent status it is objective in so
far as it at least enjoys current acceptance by everyone. (Kelly on Dewey,
1999, p. 29)

In Dewey’s view, human knowledge is seen as evolving and learned through experience,

however knowledge is also subject to conformity with publicly accepted criteria.


Born in nineteenth-century Europe, existentialism is associated with such diverse

thinkers as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. While the famous existentialists would

passionately disagree with one another on many basic philosophical issues, what they

shared was a respect for individualism. In particular, they argued that traditional

approaches to philosophy did not adequately respect the unique concerns of the

individual (Solomon, 1985).

Sartre's (1964) classic formulation of existentialism, the phrase "existence

precedes essence" (p. 215), means that there exists no universal, innate human nature. We

are born and exist, and then we ourselves freely determine our essence (i.e., our

innermost nature). Not all existentialist philosophers have accepted the "existence

precedes essence" principle. Nevertheless, that principle is fundamental to the

educational existentialist movement (Barash, 2001).

Educational existentialism is a slightly different entity that is derived from a

strong rejection of the traditional, essentialist approach to education. Educational

existentialism rejects the existence of any source of objective, authoritative truth about
metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Instead, individuals are responsible for

determining for themselves “what is ‘true’ or ‘false’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ ‘beautiful’ or

‘ugly’” (Boyles, 1997, p. 262). In this paradigm, there exists no universal form of human

nature; each individual has the free will to develop as she feels fit.

In the existentialist classroom, subject matter takes second place to helping the

students understand and appreciate themselves as unique individuals who accept

complete responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and actions. The teacher's role is to

help students define their own essence by exposing them to various paths they may take

in life and creating an environment in which they may freely choose their own preferred

way of learning. Since feeling is not divorced from reason in decision-making, the

existentialist demands the education of the whole person, not just the mind. Morris

(1966) writes, “The existentialist attitude toward knowledge radically affects the teaching

of those subjects which are dependent upon systems of thoughts or frames of references:

it states that school subjects are only tools for the realization of subjectivity” (p. 123).


Postmodernism is an intellectual movement, which is quite difficult to define.

“The word 'postmodernism' has very little content of its own. It is a sign; a pointer in

reference to other concepts, like the word 'north'” (Riddell, 1998, p. 101). If we are to

understand what postmodernism means, we must first define modernity to which it

claims to be the successor. Modernity is equated with the scientific worldview of the

Enlightenment. The power and success of Enlightenment philosophy as an approach to

seeing the world is clear, as it has come to dominate modern academia and our present
social, economic and moral structures. In the modern world, human reason, as

exemplified in the deductive thought of mathematics and physics, has come to replace the

superstitious worldviews of religion and other once more revered forms of irrationality.

In the ideas underlying postmodernism, there exists no such thing as transcendent

truth. What we call truth is simply a commonly held societal belief. Such beliefs are

negotiated, products of “social construction and fabrication”, and “not objective or

external features of the world” (Goldman, 1999, p. 10). Postmodernism represents a

rejection of all “totalizing theories” (Boyne & Rattansi, 1990, p. 12), and “incredulity

toward metanarratives” (Lyotard, 1984, p. xxiv). The modern worldview moves from

stability and certainty, to a complex, often chaotic, postmodern vision of the future.

The acceptance of postmodern notions has important implications for the

development of curriculum. No longer can there be a universally accepted understanding

of what content by merit becomes “core curriculum”. In fact, postmodernism alerts us to

ideological underpinnings related to subscribing to a particular body of knowledge or a

standard way of thinking. Curriculum construction, in essence, becomes “the

bureaucratic imposition of official values” (Turner, 1990, p. 11). In effect,

postmodernism brings additional weight to what has been proposed by sociologists and

philosophers for the latter half of the 20th century; that power and knowledge are

inextricably interlinked. Curricular theorists and teachers must be aware of this

Curriculum Theory: Boundaries of Traditional School Knowledge

The field of curriculum study … is quite remarkable among research

oriented academic fields in that it shares a common object of study rather
than a common methodological orientation (unlike the sciences for
example). (Frein, 1998, p. 34)

The long-standing tradition of curriculum theory has been greatly influenced by

Aristotle’s categorization of knowledge into three separate disciplines: the theoretical, the

productive and the practical. In reflection of this framework, curriculum theory has been

traditionally constructed along the following related frames.

• Curriculum as a body of knowledge to be transmitted - syllabus.

• Curriculum as an attempt to achieve certain ends in students - product.
• Curriculum as process. (Kelly, 1999)

As is evident (furthermore in Table 1), there is little deviation from Aristotle’s original


Theoretical Practical Productive

(Understanding) (Acting) (Making)

Syllabus Process Product

Table 1: Aristotle’s division of knowledge versus modern curriculum theory.

Each of these frames of curriculum development will be explored in the following

Curriculum as Syllabus (body of knowledge to be transmitted)

There is a decreasing number of people who still equate curriculum as a syllabus,

however this idea is still most common in higher education. By definition, a syllabus is a

concise statement or table of the heads of a discourse, the contents of a treatise or the

subjects of a series of lectures of study. Therefore it becomes the teacher’s job to

transmit the knowledge associated with these points to the students in the classroom.

A syllabus will not generally indicate the relative importance of its topics or the

order in which they are to be studied. In some cases as Curzon (1985) points out, those

who compile a syllabus tend to follow the traditional textbook approach of an “order of

contents”, or a pattern prescribed by a “logical” approach to the subject, or - consciously

or unconsciously - the shape of a university course in which they may have participated

(p. 37). Thus an approach to curriculum theory and practice that focuses on syllabus is

mainly concerned with content. Curriculum becomes a body of content knowledge

and/or subjects. Education in this sense is the process by which this knowledge is

transmitted or delivered to students by the most effective methods that can be devised

(Blenkin, 1992).

Those who subscribe to the syllabus approach are likely to limit their planning to

a consideration of the content or the body of knowledge that they wish to transmit. Also,

it is because of this particular view of curriculum that Kelly (1999) claims, “primary

teachers have regarded issues of curriculum as of no concern to them, since they have not

regarded their task as being to transmit bodies of knowledge in this manner” (p. 7).
Curriculum as Process

The process or developmental approach to curriculum roots itself not in the

content or knowledge to be learner, but emphasizes the role of the learner and concerns

itself with the development of the learner as a human thinker. This approach claims its

ancestry from contributing thinkers such as Rousseau, Froebel, Montessori and Dewey

and also more recent figures such as Piaget, Vgotsky, Eisner and Bruner. These figures

especially contributed to the elaboration of a student-centred curriculum and the

procedural approach to curriculum.

In describing this approach, Kelly (1999) distinguishes between the detailing of

the principles inherent within the “aims of education” and the implementation of each of

these principles in each moment of practice. These overall aims do not yield short-term

objectives (as does the objectives approach) rather they epitomize principles that are

enacted through teaching and learning. Kelly expands,

An aim can be seen as extrinsic to the activities which constitute the

attempt to attain it, while a principle is integral to those activities. An aim
can be viewed as something which will be attained at a later stage in the
process, while a principle must be seen to be present at every stage. (p. 81)

The process approach to curriculum allows proponents to continue to have goals,

purposes, intentions or aims, however it is freeing in the sense that it removes the

necessity as having these aims as explicit ends to an educational process. Moreover, it

moves away from the notion that there is only one step-by-step, predetermined route to

their achievement.

There are three common criticisms of the process approach to curriculum

construction. The criticisms follow.

1) The approach is resource and cost intensive.
2) The effectiveness of the approach is bound up with the performances of
individual teachers.
3) The approach is not amenable to central control or education authorities
as are other models (such as the objectives approach). (Kelly, 1999)

The more sophisticated theoretical criticisms of the model are reduced to the normative

assumptions and the value systems embedded in this approach. While in the objectives

approach, the choice of what knowledge to be studied is clearly laden with predetermined

societal values, this can also be said of the processes decided upon within the process

method. This approach is caught in a philosophical bind that can only be circumvented

by avoidance: the avoidance of the fundamental dilemma of positing what a good human

being should be.

An additional criticism of this approach comes from a more practical standpoint.

Horowitz (1986) writes, “the approach creates a classroom situation that bears little

resemblance to which student work will eventually be exercised” (p. 144) meaning both

the academic and “real” world. In essence, Horowitz feels that the process

overemphasizes the student’s psychological functioning and neglects the sociocultural

context, that is, the realities of the academic world. In effect, the process operates within

a sociocultural vacuum.

Curriculum as Product

Kelly (1999) writes of the common inadequacies in a view of curriculum that

equates it with a syllabus, a list of subjects to be taught or a body of knowledge to be

transmitted. Ted Aoki (1988) would agree with Kelly and views the traditional

development of curriculum as an administrative category within education; the

curriculum was seen as a management tool and took on an instrumentalist ends-means

ethos. It can be argued that the origins of these efforts were to make schooling more

efficient, focused and scientific.

Franklin Bobitt’s (1924) book How to Make a Curriculum was an attempt to do

just that. Here, Bobitt argues that one must be able to rationally justify the curriculum and

the planning of one’s teaching. In order to do this the aims and objectives of the

curriculum should be clear and concise. Outcomes that cannot be described in a clear and

coherent manner should not be pursued. As an example, Bobitt proceeds to describe “life

functions” as one example of a curriculum area, which he subdivides into 10 areas of

activity (e.g., social intercommunication, efficient citizenship, general mental efficiency).

Bobbit then proceeds to divide each of the goals into more specific objectives. For

instance, the category “interhuman relations” is divided into 821 goals that yet again can

be subdivided. Bobbit explicitly breaks down the desired and teachable goals for

schooling and emphasizes that “nothing should be done by the schools that can be

sufficiently well accomplished through the normal processes of living” (p. 35). In this

statement, Bobbit expresses a distinction between knowledge found in schools versus

knowledge that can be attained through life experience.

Bobitt’s view of curriculum is strongly influenced by the behaviourist view of

education and its key thinkers which include Pavlov and Watson. Such behaviourists

believed that human behaviour is determined by rules that govern our interaction with the

environment and through this thought, advocated a deterministic and reductionist world

view (Doll, 1989; Stenhouse, 1975).

In the behaviourist view of knowledge, learning and instruction, the central focus

for education is that of acquiring specific skills. A student acquires skills at fundamental

levels and then builds on those skills to reach more complex levels of achievement. A

behaviourist curriculum would generally be sequenced, orderly, rather mechanical, and

move from base level skills to more sophisticated skills. Drill and practice and frequent

evaluations are fundamental to the behaviourist model as the achievement of skill is

closely and verifiably related to the objectives described by the curriculum.

Ralph Tyler (1949) furthered Bobbit’s objectives model of curriculum in Basic

Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. Here, Tyler expands the notion of curriculum

simply as objectives and identifies four key elements in curriculum planning: purposes,

content, procedures and methodology. In the spirit of this expansion, Tyler formulates

four key questions, which are now commonly referred to as the “Tyler Rationale”. These

questions include:

1) What educational purposes should the school attain?

2) How can learning experiences be selected which are likely to be useful in
attaining these objectives?
3) How can learning experiences be organized for effective instruction?
4) How can the effectiveness of learning experiences be evaluated?
(Tyler, 1949, p. 20)

Although Tyler began looking beyond objectives themselves, the theorist met with harsh

resistance on the narrowness of his approach. Aoki (1988) describes this approach as a

“Linear ends-means, instrumentalist rationality” (p. 407). Stenhouse (1975) describes

such a curricular approach as “Linear programming and teaching by objectives” (p. 43).

From his point of view this approach provides a route from entry point to completion

point, where the route is broken down into a series of small steps. This, according to
Stenhouse, involves little critical thinking on the part of the learner and restricted

opportunities for transfer of learning in that everything has to be predetermined.

The emphasis on objectives and aims within this model of curriculum gave rise to

further study into analysis of educational objectives. One influential theorist in this regard

is Benjamin Bloom who is seen as the father of “objectives taxonomy”. “Bloom’s

Taxonomy” is designed to be a classification of the student behaviours, which represents

the intended outcomes of the educational processes. “What we are classifying is the

intended behaviour of students, the ways in which individuals are to act, think or feel as

the result of the participating in some unit of instruction (Bloom in Stenhouse, 1975, p.

100). The above claims leave little doubt of the behaviourist origin and influence on

Blooms’ taxonomy. Bloom continued to take the taxonomy approach further and had

great influence in developing the concept of Mastery Learning. “Mastery learning is a

systematic attempt to follow through the implications of the objectives model”

(Stenhouse, 1975, p. 64).

The deterministic nature of the objectives model of curriculum has raised the

question of the purpose of education: “what are we teaching for?” An objectives

approach serves to integrate children into the current social order. It does not provide

learners with the knowledge, attitudes and skills to deal critically and creatively with the

reality in order to improve it. (Grant & Zeichner in Fien, 1993, p. 15). In other words we

are educating for the mastery of already available cultural tools and skills and not making

possible creative responses, which go beyond what is currently available in society. In

Stenhouse’s (1975) words,

Education enhances the freedom of man (sic) by inducting him into the
knowledge of his culture as a thinking system. The most important
characteristic of the knowledge mode is that one can think with it. This is
the nature of knowledge- as distinct from information- that it is a structure
to sustain creative thought and provide frameworks for judgement. (p. 82)

The “objectives model” of curriculum is located within what Kemmis, Cole and

Suggett (1983) term the vocational/neo-classical orientation to education (p. 71). This

orientation has been described as “an education which accepts technocratic and

managerial values and insofar as it uncritically accepts existing social structures and

hierarchies, may perpetuate elitism, injustice, class and gender inequalities” (Fien, 1993,

p. 19).

The Fall of School Knowledge

Although Young (1970) alludes to the other “mechanisms” for the distribution of

knowledge, it is unlikely that he, or any other theorists in the 1970’s, could have fully

predicted the role and breadth of non-school knowledge that has begun to emerge in the

late 1990’s (e.g., the Internet). However, Bernstein (1971) was one theorist who began to

realize the importance of recognizing other non-school forms of knowledge and looking

at how such forms of knowledge relate to schooling.

In a sense, educational knowledge is uncommonsense knowledge. It is

knowledge freed from the particular, the local, through the various
languages of the sciences or forms of reflexiveness of the arts which make
possible either the creation or the discovery of new realities. Now this
immediately raises the question of the relationship between the
uncommonsense knowledge of the school and the commonsense
knowledge, everyday community knowledge, of the pupil, his family and
his peer group. (p.58)

The respective role of formal education within greater society has changed in

many ways in the three decades since Bernstein wrote these words. Perhaps, one of the
most significant changes to occur is the perception that contemporary educational

institutions no longer hold the monopoly over knowledge and learning. It is no longer

accurate to regard learning being limited to occur within the constraints of the traditional

classroom and under the supervision of a teacher. Learning has necessarily become an

element in the everyday life of individuals and the formal protocols traditionally

associated with skill and knowledge attainment have begun to blur.

Yet the push for what we have come to know as “life-long learning” does not

always reflect what educational theorists would regard as supporting the ideals of liberal

education (Hirst, 1965). Life long learning is touted in a dualistic breath as it promotes

the development of active citizenship while placing emphasis on the capacity of being

employed in a dynamic market economy. Although we live in the “digital age”, schools

today continue to operate within an educational model that takes its origin from industrial

society and Tayloristic work organization.

The Rise of Digital Epistemologies

“Tell me,” one might say, “what it is I am educating and what sort of a
world we live in, and I will tell you what I am aiming at.” (Garforth, 1962,
p. 15)

One of the most common assumptions about technology in regards to schooling is

that it will act as a change agent, steering curriculum and learning into bold new

directions. In School’s Out, Perlman (1992) claims that technology will close the door on

our ideas of traditional schooling and render obsolete our contemporary notions of

teacher, student and the learning process. One needs to look as far as to the familiar

sounding opening sentences of educational technology literature to realize that

technology, at least in theory, has deeply infiltrated our traditional notions of schooling.

Here are a few examples:

Futurists agree that the world is in the midst of an information revolution

that will rival the industrial revolution in terms of impact and importance.
(Bailey & Lumley, 1997, p. 1)

Recent events at two large North American universities signal

dramatically that we have entered a new era in higher education, one
which is rapidly drawing the halls of academe into the age of automation.
(Noble, 1998, p. 1)

There appears to be a general consensus that we have entered the

information age and that we are on the verge of the information economy.
(Taylor, 1998, p. 1)

The national rush to increase computer technology and networking in

schools is having a growing impact on education and the teaching
profession. (Johnson et. al. 1999, p. 24)

The literature surrounding information technology today is clearly steeped in the

language of technological determinism. In this, I suggest that such theorists concur that

inventions or innovations in technology form causal relationships with individuals and

initiate and promote wide-ranging cultural and societal change. Marshall McLuhan,

known as a technological determinist, claimed, “we shape our tools and they in turn

shape us” (quoted in Griffin, 1997, p. 294).

Rose (2000) writes of the “IT Dream” that suggests that information technology is

a “primary source of the images and aspirations which inform discourse and practice in

all walks of life today” (p. 16). Rose suggest that the “IT Dream” helps to shape our

images of society as stories are told in terms of vast networks connected by digital

devices and fibre optic cables. “When we tell stories about our society’s future, they are

often told in terms of what human beings will become by means of technology” (p. 34).

Information technology helps to determine the “products” of humanity.

In discussing the idea of digital epistemology, it is very important to frame the

dialogue in terms of what we know to be true (in regards to the information age and

knowledge), and remain cautious of “mythinformation” (Winner, 1991) and technology’s

deterministic advances. Key questions that we need to discuss include:

1) Does knowledge (or our conception of knowledge) change in the

information age?

2) What is the shape of the knower in the digital age?

These questions are discussed in the following sections.

The Changing State of Knowledge

In Being Digital, Negroponte (1995) discusses the profound changes in society as

“knowledge” becomes available in bits (i.e., digitized forms) rather than in atoms (e.g.,

physical things, books). He points out that information communicated in the form of

atoms can be bulky, unwieldy, one-dimensional, costly to ship, subject to inspection by

customs officials, liable to fines by librarians, destructive to trees and other living things,

and too often inaccessible as a result of being lost, misplaced, stolen, borrowed* or out-

of-print. On the other hand, information provided in bits quickly travel the Internet; go

smoothly across international borders; may facilitate interaction between producers and

receivers of information; is easily revised, corrected, updated, linked, expanded and

manipulated; and translates into many different shapes and media (e.g., text, audio,

graphics, video). Negroponte’s primary focus is on the form of digital media. As the

form breaks from the physical and finite, the potential for flexibility, portability and

transference of knowledge becomes incredible.

Note: I claim strong agreement with Negroponte’s point regarding “inaccessibility” as I waited more than
a week to borrow Being Digital as it was recalled from the library.
Ulmer (1999) moves beyond Negroponte’s notions to suggest that society is

moving into the age of “electracy”: a neologism that indicates a practice in electronic

media that is equivalent to print literacy. "In the history of human culture," Ulmer

suggests, "there are but three apparatuses: orality, literacy, and now electracy. We live in

the moment of the emergence of electracy, comparable to the two principal moments of

literacy (The Greece of Plato, and the Europe of Galileo)” (p. xii). For Ulmer (1999), this

shift means a heightened emphasis on digital and especially visual forms of knowing, and

a deemphasis on literary forms.

Bolter (1996) expands this argument to describe an apparent struggle between

verbal and visual modes of representation in popular media forms. For instance, he notes

newspaper headlines that draw out latent metaphors in its subject. Such examples

include, “Turbulent times ahead for United Airlines” or “Mercedes slips earnings gears”

(p. 259). Further demonstrations of this “struggle” are common in magazines such as PC

Magazine, particularly in the form of advertisements. Such advertisements will, with

text, ask a question of the reader. In many cases, the answer comes in a form of a visual

image. Bolter (1996) suggests that the relationship between textual knowledge and visual

knowledge are moving from a “co-operative” relationship to one of “competitiveness” (p.

260). Such advertisements move beyond the explicit wit and use of metaphors, and

compel the reader to see that the future is visual, if not digital. In today’s world, “a pixel

is worth a thousand words.” (See Appendix A).

In regards to multimedia in the classroom, this competitive relationship becomes

more apparent. Compare, for example, a traditional print edition of MacBeth as opposed

to the Voyager Company’s (1994) CD-ROM version of the play. While there are several
examples of print editions of Shakespearean plays that feature elaborate illustrations,

books clearly focus on the text, or the written word, of the play. Traditional teaching

approaches also reflect this notion that the text itself is of greatest importance. On the

other hand, the CD-ROM version is designed to help students’ understandings of the

contextual time of the play through photographs, illustrations, videos of performances,

interviews with directors, literary commentaries and so on. While the CD-ROM begins

with the text itself as a starting point, the relationship between the written form and the

image becomes somewhat ambivalent as the multimedia devices soon take precedence

and produce greater appeal.

Perhaps the most compelling argument regarding knowledge in the digital age has

less to do with the composition (atoms versus bits) or preferred mode (textual versus

visual) of consumption, but more to do with the status of knowledge itself. Lyotard

(1984) believes that only one type of knowledge will be important in the postindustrial

world; that which can be translated into computational quantities and available in digital

forms. Anything that does not fit this particular format will be abandoned as legitimate

or “useful” knowledge. Thus, for Lyotard, knowledge ceases to be an end in itself; it

loses its use value and becomes an exchange value alone (p. 2).

In Lyotard’s regime, consumers of knowledge (e.g., students) become more

pragmatic in their view of knowledge. The students’ classical question, “is it true?” is

soon replaced by “is it of use?” “Notions and practices of competence according to

criteria like true/false, just/unjust get displaced by competences according to the criterion

of high performativity” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2000, p. 9).

Few would argue that the Information Age has opened up new opportunities for

education in late modern society. However, the adoption of such technologies (e.g.,

Internet, World Wide Web) that connect citizens to seemingly limitless information

sources also creates uncertainties and challenges regarding the role of schools in society.

It is clear that the rapid proliferation of information technologies has created an open

learning environment within the everyday life-world and as a result, schools and

universities no longer have a monopoly over knowledge and learning. At the very least,

the role of knowledge dissemination seems up for grabs. A recent advertisement for a

The Humber Business School reads, “You’ve been to University, now it’s time to get

practical”. While the argument for a more practical university experience is quite old, as

we continue to move through the digital age, the separation between the relevance of

sanctioned knowledge (ideals of liberal education) and employable skills continues to


The Knower in the Digital Age

Quite simply, when describing the attributes of the knower in the digital age, two

questions need to be discussed. As these questions are closely related, they will be

discussed in an integrative approach. The questions include:

1) What needs to be known (to get along) in the digital age?

2) How does one come to know in the digital age?

These questions do not divert from the basic questions of curriculum. Certainly the

second question is not radically different from, as quoted earlier, Tyler’s (1949) question,

“What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to attain these purposes”.

However, the big difference here is not in what we (as teachers or curriculum planners)
would like students to know and what experiences we need to provide them with to attain

such knowledge. Rather, this section is an exploration of what many “wired” students

already know and how they, through communicative practice, come to know in new


The following is a short excerpt from a chat room taken from a “Computers in

Education” course. The participants could be described as typical pre-service teachers.

At the time of this dialogue, these students were in their final semester of a four-year

Bachelor of Education program.

Todd: Did you download The Learning Equation software for our Math

Lynn: Ya … except I had some trouble getting it to load directly from

PowerPoint. We might have to embed some code to get it to autoload. Does
anyone know what the code for that is? If we don’t get it to link, we can always
just multitask with the Windows button function.

Joey: I think you can do it manually without the code. There is an embedded
function. Also, I have the webpage up and ready. We can get our WebQuest up
and linked today. Regan and Shelly had some trouble with the frames … one of
the links wouldn’t open up in a new window and the navigation was all messed up
… but I think they just dropped to the HTML source code and fixed it somehow
… one of the technicians knew how to do it.

Todd: Did anyone book the data projector and cart?

Lynn: I did last week. Hey, make sure to save the data to the public directory or
we won’t have access to it from the cart machine … we learned that last time ...
the hard way. :-( Good thing Regan had the backup on a CD. :-)

Without a better understanding of the context and at least a general technical background,

this conversation might be quite confusing to most readers. However, familiarity with

the processes and concepts related to terms such as “HTML”, “backups”, “WebQuest”

and “coding” are becoming basic fair for teachers (and moreso for students). It is also

important to note that while the principal purpose of this discussion was to ensure
preparedness for a math lesson, there are distinct underlying dependencies on technology

that both help to facilitate this discussion and provide tools for the lesson itself.

While these pre-service teachers are in a later stage in regards to their formal

education, experiences with technology are increasingly common at early ages.

SchoolNet (2001) reports that 52% of eight year olds in Canada already have access to

personal email accounts. This number reaches 81% as children approach ten years old.

Other popular online activities for the majority of Canadian preteens include participating

in chatrooms, using instant messengers, downloading games and music and browsing the

Internet. Students at a very young age become sophisticated users of information and

arguably, become “knowers” in a way that the majority of adults rarely achieve. In

support of this argument, Tapscott (1998) in Growing Up Digital, gives an example of

how a child’s way of knowing may be foreign to the adult mind.

Hey, Mike, how did you do that?" I asked my eighth-grade son.

Easy. I just clicked on the brick, Dad.
But, how did you know to click there to win the bonus points?
Everybody knows that.

Well, I didn't know that, and I couldn't find it in what passed for the
game's manual either. How do you learn this game? You would have to
play it over and over again, test-clicking on just about every object that
shows up on the screen. That's pretty much what Mike and his friends
were doing. Each of the guys played the game constantly, and then
compared notes with everyone else. (p. 207)

In The Children’s Machine, Papert (1992) claims that society is entering “the age

of learning”, during which time “the competitive ability is the ability to learn” (p. 12).

He suggests that technology has brought incredible opportunities to both advance

learning and to create learning environments. However, Papert writes, this prophecy for

the future of learning faces one major obstacle: schools. Education, as Papert sees it
"remains largely committed to the educational philosophy of the late nineteenth and early

twentieth centuries" and attempts to "impose a single way of knowing on everyone".

Tests, “segregation by age”, “teachers as technicians who mould passive minds”, and an

emphasis on reading as the "essential route to knowledge" (p. 237) are the prime

characteristics of today's education system.

Papert sees much promise in what he coins “constructionism”. This concept of

constructionism is based on two types of "construction." First, it asserts that learning is an

active process, in which people actively construct knowledge from their experiences in

the world. This component is obviously congruent with Piaget’s idea of constructivism.

However, Papert adds to this, the idea that people construct new knowledge with

particular effectiveness when they are engaged in constructing personally-meaningful

products. They might be constructing sand castles, poems, or computer programs (Kafai,

1995). What's important is that they are actively engaged in creating something that is

meaningful to themselves or to others around them

Resnick (1996) takes Papert’s idea, further combining it with theories of

distributed cognition (Salomon, 1994) and has theorized on what he calls “distributed

constructionism” (p. 2). “This concept extends constructionist theory, focusing

specifically on situations in which more than one person is involved in the design and

construction of activities” (p. 3). Resnick (and I would concur) sees great promise in the

creation of knowledge-building communities. Such communities could work at a

distance, to construct and extend knowledge of the learning community. Projects framed

through distributed constructionism hold promise as a particularly effective way for

knowledge-building communities to form and grow through collaborative activities that

involve not just the exchange of information but “the design and construction of

meaningful artefacts” (p. 4). It is clear that such ideas are inspired by Dewey (1933),

who saw the human mind as a meaning-making organ, relentlessly driven to make sense

of its world—an idea that predates today's notions of both constructivism and active

learning. When it breaks down, a very simple concept is advocated here; use a student’s

existing knowledge, skills and interest to collaborate with others on personally

meaningful projects that achieve an educational end. In this case, simple is powerful.

Another important idea is what Gilster (1997) labels “knowledge assembly”.

Knowledge assembly is the ability to collect and evaluate both facts and opinion,

determine bias content and to construct personal knowledge. While the concept doesn’t

go much beyond the basic ideas of research and critical thinking, I would argue that the

context of both of these activities changes greatly in the digital age. As there are a variety

of information sources (e.g., Internet, chat rooms, newsgroups, mailing lists, online

journals, books, etc.), it becomes increasingly important to understand the authority and

reliability of each, extract what may be useful from each resource and then reintegrate

and synthesis the information that has been discovered. For instance, information

gathered from a chat room, while perhaps more persuasive, would by default be regarded

as less believable.

For some authors, there is a sense that ideas such as “knowledge assembly” are

becoming more and more difficult as we continue on in the digital age. “Data smog”, the

“information glut” (Shenk, 1997) and “information exasperation” (Willinsky, 1999) are

just a few of the phrases that are being used to describe the burden of the information age.

In the information-abundant world of the Internet and other searchable data sources, it is
becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to manage their own information needs

and continue to maintain an eye on the credibility of information items. Practices of

information gathering and assembly depend upon highly customized tools that require

skilful use to produce practical results. This assemblage of information requires the

coordination of both individuals and computerized algorithms or bots – small,

independent artificial intelligence robots. Such mechanisms “move” around in

cyberspace and interact with other programs, performing a range of tasks, including

finding answers to questions framed in natural languages or using Boolean (or other)

logic operators.

Csikszentmihalyi (1993) writes, “Humans appear to have the unique ability to

carry out extrasomatic information processing” (p. 39). Extrasomatic implies that some

processing of information occurs outside of our bodies and that we don’t have to rely on

internal processes. In other words, humans store processed information externally, in

books, images, videos and other media. While a book (in form) is simplistic, non-

searchable, non-linkable and limited to textual and visual representation, it is compact,

lightweight, requires no electricity and admittedly, much easier on the eyes the glare of a

computer screen. However, beyond those pros and cons, the book demands limited

“technical” ability. However, if we continue to store the collection of human knowledge

in digital forms, the questions emerges, “who will have access to knowledge in our

society?” We become dependent on not only the skills involved to access knowledge, but

also on the format of media (e.g., DVD, HTML) and infrastructure (e.g., networks,

computers, electricity) requirements of technology systems.*

While I contemplate this idea further, I realize how familiar this question must sound – and how it must
have also been relevant at the time of Gutenberg’s printing press.
Reconciliation and Redirection

From this exploration of school knowledge and the study of emerging digital

epistemologies, I have developed a few ideas that I feel are most important in

understanding the subjects in relation to each other. These ideas follow:

1) Knowledge is moving from the idea of the existence of universal truths to the

reality that knowledge is tentative. In a sense, this point may have less to do with digital

epistemologies and more to do with postmodern notions of knowledge. However, our

access and exposure to great amounts of information and forms of digital knowledge

certainly amplify notions of relative truth. In the digital age, anyone can be an author yet

fewer people legitimate authority. For traditional curriculum theories (especially

objective approaches), this can cause problems and great uncertainty in the classroom as

it becomes increasingly difficult to manage informational media. Improved approaches

to critical thinking in the digital context are necessary components to the curricular

structure. Perhaps even more relevant, this development casts doubt on the necessity or

alignment of core subject areas. What, if any, subjects or content is to be important or of

any value in the digital classroom?

2) Knowledge acquisition and learning are moving from a largely linear process

to a hypertextual reality. The objectives approach and to some extent, the process

approach to curriculum prescribes learning as a linear process. The present digital

architecture which brings non-linear media (e.g., CD, DVD, hypertext) to the forefront,

has greatly influenced learning as students become skilled at multitasking and become

easily bored with step-by-step approaches to learning. The powers of hypertext and non-

linear systems should be embraced and researched to exploit the potential for learning.
3) New methods of knowledge construction are becoming prevalent in education,

in the media and in students’ personal experience. Such ways of knowing, which

emphasis visual imagery and interactivity, are quickly displacing literal modes of

knowledge. This displacement will continue to challenge educators in their choice of

resources as they move to accept digital technologies, while attempting to maintain

traditional forms of knowing. As a corollary, it is necessary to better understand how

students form relationships with both knowledge and people in the digital age, on their

own. We can take what is learned here to accelerate our understandings of how students

learn in the digital age.

4) Learning is moving from an individual journey to social communicative

practice. Although relationships between teacher and students remain paramount,

student-student and student-other relationships become increasingly important in the

digital age. Arguably, the most important role of the Internet is not to provide students

with access to information, but rather, to provide students with access to people; experts

who may know more (or less) about the subject in question than does the teacher.

Cooperative learning and the sharing and valuing of multiple perspectives are strategies

that are increasingly important. Online student relationships (via email, chat, instant

messengers, etc.) continue to thrive inside and outside of school and educators need to

both understand and integrate these relationships into the context of the classroom.

5) Student learning experiences are no longer limited to the formalities of

schooling. Knowledge and skills that were once taught only in schools become available

through other modes of contact. Students who have access to technology are learning

technical skills in a variety of settings (e.g., home, library, friends). This skill acquisition
should be recognized and viewed as relevant prerequisite learning which becomes a part

of a child’s inventory in the classroom setting. (Note: there are concerns of equity of

access attached to this statement that are very important, but unfortunately are not

discussed further in this work.)


The ideas presented here regarding school knowledge and digital epistemologies,

although admittedly incomplete, begin a greater understanding of both traditional ways of

knowing and emerging practice. The understanding of both areas can be instrumental in

moving toward notions of school reform in the digital age. Schools to some, while still

central to societal growth, have been criticized for decades for their inability to adapt to

society and their insistence to mould societies to an outdated model of education.

Whether by choice, or by force, this resistance will inevitably come to an end as schools

will have to adapt to learner needs in the twenty-first century.

While some will view these inevitable changes as tragic, and others as a rich

opportunity, it is clear that there are great struggles that lay ahead. However, one idea is

ultimately clear for this researcher. We must be aware of the powers of technology to

persuade our views when we ask the question, “what elements of education do we wish to

preserve in the digital age.” While theorists from the many camps discussed in this paper

would arrive at several different places (and likely reframe the question as well), a solid

understanding of the multiple theories of knowledge and an understanding of how

curriculum is constructed are valuable assets when it comes to wise and democratic


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Appendix A

Example A1: A cell phone manufacturer’s

advertisement. The question, “upwardly mobile?” is

answered by an image of business persons reaching for

the sky as a metaphorical (perhaps metaphysical)

statement of success or achievement. The tendency

becomes to equate “connectedness” to success in a

career sense or as stated, “upward mobility.”

Example A2: A web broker’s question, “what do

you get from some web browser brokers that offer

$9.95 per trade?” The “answer” comes as an image

of a “screw” with the overlay of a man’s deep

anguish. This is rather telling statement as the

“dotcom” economy fell to the realization that the

only way to turn a profit was to offer “value added”

services to consumers.

Example A3: A printer company’s rather

telling statement “a pixel’s worth a thousand words,”

touting the print quality of their product. The quality

of digital image is being directly equated with success

as the “higher resolution” side of the man is

surrounded by books and is wearing a suit; typical

signals of education and corporate success.