Recent Headline… NEW YORK (CNNMoney) – After 244 years, Encyclopedia Britannica will cease production of its iconic multi-volume book sets … Instead, the company will focus solely on its digital encyclopedia and education tools.
Growing up, I remember when my family got our encyclopedia set. We unpacked the many boxes and placed the volumes on the shelf of honor. My parents paid it off, little by little, month by month. Our encyclopedia set was more than a bunch of books; it was the embracement of knowledge, a sign that learning was important in our home. Somehow, I don’t think families feel the same way about Wikipedia.
Like it or not, the end of the printed Encyclopedia Britannica epitomizes the slow but clear decline of ink-on-paper technology, an industry begun almost 600 years ago with the Gutenberg press. Going forward, more and more knowledge will be online and in the cloud. You can’t touch it, you can’t hold it, and you can’t really own it. In my office, I have an entire wall of books, some I’ve actually used, but most I haven’t touched in years. Why? The Internet, of course. It’s all there; faster to access, cheaper to maintain, easier to update, deeper in depth, broader in scope, and simpler to share. This is a good thing, right?
Maybe. Schools are dumping textbooks and moving to eBooks. Soon, no more 30-pound packs on the backs of 12-year olds, and no more dated content in an age of online resources and instant updating. Libraries are digitizing their collections, brick-and-mortar bookstores are closing, Kindles and other eReaders are flying off the shelves, and eBooks are outselling their paper brethren. The exponential growth in knowledge and the shortening half-life of its usability demands that we have faster access to better content. No way can traditional print media keep up. People are still reading and writing, but they’re doing it in new ways.
The speed of technological change is accelerating. Printed books have been around for hundreds of years, but CDs and DVDs will take just a single generation to fade away. In spite of the increasing techno-churn, I see great potential for technology to enable true interactive learning and provide access to immense information resources. And social learning, which has actually been around forever, has come to the fore because of advances in digital media. Our rush to find new and better ways to create, store, manage, and, especially, share knowledge may be necessary to meet the challenges of the information age; but we must be careful or we will lose something along the way.
My fear is that our total embrace of all things digital might cause us to make poor decisions in other areas, like sacrificing quality, professionalism, and standards for what Cammy Bean refers to as “clicky-clicky-bling-bling.” We know that not everything works best in electronic form, especially when poorly done. You can’t really accomplish true knowledge creation and transfer in 140 characters, or even 140 words. Despite the “crowd power” of informal learning and social media, there is still a unique, important, and powerful role for great teachers and mentors. In education and training, we have learned that organizations that blindly rushed to put all courseware online have failed miserably.
In the era of books, publishing was hard, with limited opportunities. Today, everyone is both a content consumer and a content creator. It’s much easier, and the costs can be miniscule; anyone can publish almost anything online. What does this mean for us? I think it means our key role moves from production to decision-making and advice on content and learning quality; a realization that great technology, even as a great enabler, does not automatically mean great learning, understanding, or enlightenment. I may be a whiz at Microsoft Word, but that doesn’t guarantee I can write the next Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. We must focus less on bells and whistles, and more on content, learning, and results.
So it’s not as much about building a course as it is about what should be in that course and how it should work, and what we should deliver in other ways. Not as much about creating online knowledge resources as it is about what those resources should include and how we should structure them. Not as much about building social networks as it is about what those social networks can and should accomplish. And so on.
My head tells me to cull my bookshelves big time, but my heart wants to hold on. The end of books is more emotional than anything else. It doesn’t mean the end of writing or the end of reading. It means that creating the right “stuff” and getting it into the hands of those who need it, when they need it, is more important than any medium or technology of the moment. The end of the iconic printed encyclopedia may be sad or nostalgic to some, but it is more importantly a challenge to us to keep our eyes on what really matters – content, not packaging; learning, not technology.