Friday, March 16, 2012

Print to digital... the Britannica moves on

The final print version of the Encyclopedia Britannica was announced this week and it seemed worth a little ponder. And this little quote in The Guardian stood out to me...

Online or in print, the Encyclopedia Britannica is worth treasuring | From the Guardian | "There was a certain romance to the ritual of making the physical effort of pulling the volume from the shelves, finding a reference, enquiring further and being led from one volume to another.

But that was another era, when there was a more leisurely way of doing things. People had time to wander into the library to do a bit of research, have a chat, and enjoy the serendipitous nature of flicking through the pages."

'via Blog this'

That was another era.  It was, wasn't it?  When I was little, I remember the encyclopaedias shut away in a glass cabinet.  A cabinet all to themselves.  Distinct.  Apart.  Special.  When... if... you were able to look at them, it was like going on a journey.  One entry leading you to the next.  Tracking down the page / chapter references and finding out new stuff.  Only, it wasn't really new stuff at all.  It was old stuff.  And the longer the books gathered dust in their cabinet, the older that 'new stuff' became.

The end always was on the cards for the Britannica once the 'no going back' moment of the internet came at the turn of the century.  I don't think it was just having an electronic version of the information, as Microsoft's Encarta managed - though that in itself was a novelty when it first appeared.  But the ability to search an unknown quantity of information via the web.  Now *that* really was something special.  And then, web 2.0 and wikis... and that 'new stuff' could become dynamically changing and evolving 'new stuff'.  It really was new.  And that ability to keep things fresh and vibrant changed the landscape again.

Though my own children will discover things as they read books, when they want to find something out, it's an electronic world which holds the key.  'Can't you just Google it, Mummy?', they'll say.  And these are from children who really don't have very much direct exposure to computers.  The idea that the sum of all knowledge could ever have been locked up in a finite number of books would be a strange concept to them, I think.

I wonder whether we design online courses for students with a print Britannica mindset though?  We put them together and then they sit there. In a glass case to be admired.  Removed once in a while for a quick leaf through.  And then put back.  The energy and effort goes into collating and collecting.  But it's done in fits and starts and doesn't quite managed to harness the potential of the digital environment in which it now exists.  I wonder what would happen if you took that old knowledge exploring spirit of going reference to reference in the old print Britannica... and transformed that into allowing students to create their own pathways, making their own connections and build their own learning?

What has Higher Education and online / blended education has to learn from the experience of the printed Britannica Encyclopaedia?  We can't peddle chunks of rarified knowledge anymore.  That much I know.

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