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A Seismic Shift in Epistemology


New Horizons

© 2008 Chris Dede

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 43, no. 3 (May/June 2008): 80–81

A Seismic Shift in Epistemology

Chris Dede

Chris Dede is Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Comments on this article can be sent to the author at chris_dede@harvard.edu and/or can be posted to the web via the link at the bottom of this page.

Web 2.0 is redefining what and how and with whom we learn. For example, in Wikipedia, “knowledge” is constructed by negotiating compromises among various points of view. This raises numerous questions: How do we in higher education help students understand the differences between facts, opinions, and values—and how do we help them appreciate the interrelationships that create “meaning”? In an epistemology based on collective agreement, what does it mean to be an “expert” with sufficient subject knowledge to teach a topic? Since almost any piece of information can now be found online in less than a minute (along with inaccurate and biased data), what core knowledge does every student need in order to prepare for twenty-first-century work and citizenship? Given these shifts driven by emerging interactive media, how might we reconceptualize “education”? I will not provide answers to these questions here. But I will suggest ways to think about the issues raised by the new, pervasive Internet tools.

The term Web 2.0 reflects a shift in leading-edge applications on the World Wide Web, a shift from the presentation of material by website providers to the active co-construction of resources by communities of contributors. Whereas the twentieth-century web centered on developer-created material (e.g., informational websites) generated primarily by a small fraction of the Internet’s users, Web 2.0 tools (e.g., Wikipedia) help large numbers of people build online communities for creativity, collaboration, and sharing. Interactive media that facilitate these Web 2.0 purposes include social bookmarking, wikis, podcasts, blogs, and software for personal expression and sharing (e.g., Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr). RSS feeds, sophisticated search engines, and similar harvesting tools help individuals find the needles they care about in a huge haystack of resources. And with web application programming interfaces, community-builders do not need specialized technical expertise to create new media.

At first glance, this evolution might seem to be simply a shift in agency, from publication by a few to collective contribution by many. But in fact, the implications of Web 2.0 go much deeper: the tacit epistemologies that underlie its activities differ dramatically from what I will call here the “Classical” perspective—the historic views of knowledge, expertise, and learning on which formal education is based. In the Classical perspective, “knowledge” consists of accurate interrelationships among facts, based on unbiased research that produces compelling evidence about systemic causes. For example, students learn that the shift in the color of the sky at various times of day is due to differential scattering of various wavelengths of light by gas molecules in Earth’s atmosphere. In the Classical view of knowledge, there is only one correct, unambiguous interpretation of factual interrelationships. In Classical education, the content and skills that experts feel every person should know are presented as factual “truth” compiled in curriculum standards and assessed with high-stakes tests.

In this Classical perspective, experts with substantial credentials in academic fields and disciplines seek new knowledge through formal, evidence-based argumentation, using elaborate methodologies to generate findings and interpretations. Premier reference sources, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, and curricular materials, such as textbooks, embody “authenticated” knowledge as compiled by experts and transmitted to learners. Epistemologically, a single-right-answer is believed to underlie each phenomenon, even though experts may not yet have developed a full understanding of the systemic causes that provide an accurate interpretation of some situations.

In contrast, the Web 2.0 definition of “knowledge” is collective agreement about a description that may combine facts with other dimensions of human experience, such as opinions, values, and spiritual beliefs. As an illustration, the Wikipedia entry on “social effect of evolutionary theory” wrestles with constructing a point of view that most readers would consider reasonable, accurate, and unbiased without derogating religious precepts some might hold. In contrast to articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia articles are either undisputed (tacitly considered accurate) or disputed (still resolving through collective argumentation), and Wikipedia articles cover topics that are not central to academic disciplines or to a wide audience (e.g., the cartoon dog Scooby-Doo).

The epistemology that leads to validity of knowledge in Web 2.0 media such as Wikipedia is peer-review from people seen, by the community of contributors, as having unbiased perspectives. Expertise involves understanding disputes in detail and proposing syntheses that are widely accepted by the community. Possible warrants for expertise are wide-ranging and may draw on education, experience, rhetorical fluency, reputation, or perceived spiritual authority in articulating beliefs, values, and precepts.

Certainly, the contrasts between Classical knowledge and Web 2.0 knowledge are continua rather than dichotomies, and one can find web communities with epistemologies located between the sharp distinctions noted above. Still, an emerging shift to new types and ways of “knowing” is apparent and has important implications for learning and education. For example, formal schooling today remains based on the Classical view of knowledge, expertise, and learning:

  • Curriculum standards that guide the development of instructional resources (e.g., textbooks) and assessments (e.g., high-stakes tests) stem from disciplinary experts’ determinations of what students should learn.
  • Presentational/assimilative pedagogies convey “truth” from content experts to students, who learn by listening.
  • Students who have mastered large amounts of factual material and are fluent in academic skills are believed to be well prepared for a successful, prosperous, fulfilling life.

Advocates for a Web 2.0 view of knowledge, expertise, and learning would challenge each of these three precepts of formal education. Many have documented politically motivated inaccuracies in textbooks, including biases against minorities and women, interpretations that privilege the perspective of the dominant subculture, and omissions of material about the contributions and interpretations of diverse groups, such as people of color. Experts may sometimes “speak truth to power,” but too often “experts” are anointed, funded, and rewarded to provide rationales for politically expedient actions. Curriculum standards frequently reflect a hodgepodge of what students might need in order to become experts in the various disciplines rather than what they might need in order to assume roles as effective workers, citizens, and self-fulfilled people in the twenty-first-century global civilization. Presentational/assimilative pedagogies typically result in learning that is ephemeral, unmotivating, and unlikely to transfer into life situations.

In part because of the weaknesses noted above, many students who excel academically do not fare well later in life; the challenges of work, citizenship, and daily life do not resemble the multiple-choice items on high-stakes tests. But can a Web 2.0 view of knowledge, expertise, and learning overcome these problems? Based on the communal creation and sharing processes described above, an educational system oriented around Web 2.0 perspectives might posit the following:

  • Curriculum includes considerable variation from one community to another in what constitutes “socialization,” “expertise,” and “essential” knowledge, based on the types of content and skills valued within a particular geographic or online subculture.
  • Active learning pedagogies emphasize constructivist and situated teaching approaches that scaffold students’ co-creation of knowledge.
  • Assessment is based on sophisticated performances showing students’ participation in peer review.

Many of those now involved in formal education might see Web 2.0 perspectives both as a desirable evolution in pedagogy and assessment and as a troubling “Dark Ages” reversion in terms of content. Many communities have made poor decisions about what constitutes factual knowledge, such as when the House of the 1897 Indiana State Legislature unanimously recommended to the Senate a bill that would have established “a new mathematical truth” and changed the value of pi. Most decisions involve a complex mix of facts, beliefs, and values in which accuracy about the factual component is important. This is exemplified in policies about personal choices, such as whether people in an automobile should be forced to wear seatbelts or whether all pornography should be banned from the Internet. A detailed discussion of the potential impact of Web 2.0 epistemology on society is beyond the scope of this column; overall, like many other technology-driven shifts, Web 2.0 aids with some problems but exacerbates others and creates novel challenges.

At present, the response of most educators is to ignore or dismiss this epistemological clash. Many faculty force students to turn off electronic devices in classrooms; instead, students could be using search tools to bring in current information and events related to the class discussion. Some faculty ban the use of online sources and deride the validity of any perspective that does not come from a disciplinary scholar. Many see social networking sites as useless or dangerous and do not recognize the diagnostic value of folksonomies for understanding the language and conceptual frameworks that students bring to the classroom. This refusal to acknowledge the weaknesses of the Classical perspective and the strengths of Web 2.0 epistemologies is as ill-advised as completely abandoning Classical epistemology for Web 2.0 meaning-making.

In considering this seismic shift in how students learn and what they know, I find the following analogy, of the contrast between three systems of governance, to be helpful:

  1. In a hierarchical meritocracy, experts selected on the basis of intelligence run the country.
  2. In a pure democracy, the entire population makes collective decisions about every aspect of governance.
  3. In a representative democracy, a small group of people selected by the entire population makes decisions.

Any one of these three systems could work well if all participants were well informed, rational, and of good will—so the fundamental issue is which system works best given the human condition, which includes ignorance, irrationality, and the lust for power. The United States is a representative democracy, a synthesis that attempts to offset the weaknesses of the other two. Perhaps some similar synthesis about the nature of education can likewise bridge the Classical and the Web 2.0 views of knowledge, expertise, and learning—providing a smooth transition over this seismic shift in epistemology.

Chris Dede

Chris Dede is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. His fields of scholarship include emerging technologies, policy, and leadership. His funded research includes a grant from the National Science Foundation to aid middle school students learning science via shared virtual environments and a Star Schools grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help high school students with math and literacy skills using wireless mobile devices to create augmented reality simulations. Chris has served as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Foundations of Educational and Psychological Assessment, a member of the U.S. Department of Education’s Expert Panel on Technology, and International Steering Committee member for the Second International Technology in Education Study. He serves on Advisory Boards and Commissions for PBS TeacherLine, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, and several federal research grants. In addition, Chris is a member of the Board of Directors of the Boston Tech Academy, an experimental small high school in the Boston Public School system, funded by the Gates Foundation. His co-edited book, Scaling Up Success: Lessons Learned from Technology-based Educational Improvement, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2005. A second volume he edited, Online Professional Development for Teachers: Emerging Models and Methods, was published by the Harvard Education Press in 2006.


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How Different in Web 2.0 Knowledge?

I did not mean my article to overstate the differences between a Web 2.0 conception of knowledge and a Classical conception of knowledge. Both are more similar to each other than other some other conceptions of knowledge, since as "spiritually revealed truth." All these definitions are not dichotomies, but exist along a continuum in which evidence and rationality play a total role at one end and a negligible role at the other.

That said, I am a little surprised to see respondents advocating that Web 2 epistemology is just the same as classical epistemology. The two are quite different, as anyone attempting to publish in a scholarly journal an article that uses Web 2.0 methods for determining the legitimacy of its statements will quickly discover.

The claim of the article is not that adults trained in classical knowledge view knowledge differently when they interact with sites like wikipedia, but instead that kids raised in a Web 2.0 culture view knowledge differently. I would love to see someone do a survey to confirm or refute that claim.


Posted by: chrisdede on June 16, 2008

disagree with depiction of web 2.0 definition of knowledge

First, let me say that I really enjoyed seeing this article in Educause Review. I'd like to see more writing that examines the underlying assumptions of the change that we're constantly faced with.

I would like to jump in and say that I found the definition of web 2.0 knowledge to be unusual and, I think, flawed. Set in contrast to the Classical perspective, web 2.0 knowledge is described as "collective agreement about a description that may combine facts with other dimensions of human experience, such as opinions, values, and spiritual beliefs." I think what is being attempted here is a description of the collaborative process that commonly results in Wikipedia articles. This collaborative process is seen as potentially flawed because of the amateur status of so many of the contributors, whereas Britannica relies only on credentialed expert.

The flaw in this contrast between Britannica & web 2.0, as I see it, is that it doesn't acknowledge that a Classical scientist can be open-minded, rational, well-intentioned, and trying very hard to eliminate bias from his or her research and still be influenced by any number of aspects of their particular way of seeing the world. I do not want to suggest that science is merely another postmodern language game that we play. I do not accept that kind of relativism, but I think that Thomas Kuhn showed us that science often conforms to a paradigm, and inside that paradigm scientific activity generally interprets observable results in accord with the dominant paradigm.

I do agree that web 2.0 brings together people who speak from different perspectives. I do not think that they end up disputing the facts so much as they introduce to each other varying interpretations of the facts. This is a very good thing, and it enriches our understanding of the facts, and of each other. The conversations that ensue often point out that what one particular school was advancing as "the facts" was a combination of fact and interpretation. When I read Wikipedia articles I find that those articles include more than just the mainstream point of view.

Personally, I think web 2.0 presents us with a fantastic opportunity to drive conversations with students back to fundamental issues such as: how do we evaluate any source of information? how do we decide when to trust "the experts?" When students carelessly cite silly web pages I think we can point them to the discussions that take place behind Wikipedia articles and ask them to analyze that process. And isn't that really the fundamental point of education? To develop citizens who can think for themselves, evaluate information and make informed choices?

Posted by: bburchet on June 13, 2008

Response to Comments

First, I am glad to see the piece I wrote is inciting responses. Thank you so much for sharing ideas!

Evidently, I was not as clear as I had hoped about two points:

1) I am not advocating a new definition of knowledge that includes facts, opinions, values, and spiritual beliefs. I am saying that many people involved in Web 2.0 communities, whether they consciously realize this or not, are tacitly operating under such a new definition of knowledge. Whether one agrees or disagrees that such a construct constitutes "knowledge", lots of people are acting as if it does.

2) I don't concur with Trey that what is happening in Web 2.0 is just a different variant of how classic knowledge is constructed. The process of debate in scholarly journals, while involving dialogue, draws on much more rigorous views of evidence and expertise than are accepted in Web 2.0

Thanks again for sharing your perspectives.

Posted by: chrisdede on June 4, 2008

I'm afraid I disagree

I'm afraid I disagree. You wrote that "the Web 2.0 definition of “knowledge” is collective agreement about a description that may combine facts with other dimensions of human experience, such as opinions, values, and spiritual beliefs."

Is it? Isn't that just a discussion involving facts, opinions, values and spiritual beliefs? (Also your definition implies that spiritual beliefs are not facts, which many religious people would disagree with.)

Wikipedia provides a forum for a lot of debate, hopefully resulting in collective agreement, though often not. Debate and disagreement has long been the basis of deciding what is called "knowledge". Wikipedia just lets it happen more quickly and with more people.

Whether people believe knowledge partly consists of options and values is debatable. What about questions such as: does the HIV virus cause AIDS? Was it person A who bashed person B to death? Is global warming really happening? People argue over these things because they believe there really is a fact of the matter. They are arguing, on the basis of evidence - sometimes with bad reasoning or bad evidence - for an accurate description of an independently existing fact of the matter. Even when they do so on Wikipedia.

I also think that the relativistic approach to knowledge is dangerous because it takes away the basis on which the less-empowered can argue their case, e.g. did contaminents leaking from a factory cause disease in local people? This question might well be complex and require a lot of debate and research. One side may have more resources to find evidence for their interested interpretation. But to adopt the stance that there is no independently existing fact of the matter - that knowledge is only an outcome of social power relationships - implies that if society agrees that the people were not poisoned, then they really weren't poisoned. What basis then do those people have to disagree? The platform they need is the classical platform - they argue on the basis of evidence that they really were poisoned, that this is a fact which is independent of society's opinions, interests and values. This doesn't preclude the idea that research can be biased or interested or partial. It often is. But the basis of challenging such research is that it doesn't accurately reflect reality, not that there is no reality.

And in response to your opening questions, if we adopt this stance, then we cannot help students to understand the differences between facts, opinions and values because there's no difference. The opinions the students already have constitute knowledge, just as much as the teacher's evidence-based, classically-constructed ideas.

It may be that you mean that some knowledge consists of values and opinions, rather than all knowledge, and that the questions I mentioned don't involve the sort of knowledge you had in mind. But I take your article to be recommending that your new definition of knowledge replace the old one, rather than just accompany it. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

I think you are right when you say "the contrasts between Classical knowledge and Web 2.0 knowledge are continua rather than dichotomies". In fact, this is so much the case that what happens in Web 2.0 contexts is the same as the classical view of knowledge. It just happens faster and with more disputants. In my opinion, this is a Good Thing. But it isn't a seismic shift in epistemology.

Posted by: Trev on June 3, 2008

Slight adjustment to my comment

In the comment I submitted earlier- second last paragraph - I wrote "it may be that you mean some knowledge consists of values and opinions, rather than all knowledge ...".

I worded that badly. I should've said "it may be that you mean some knowledge conforms to your new definition, rather than all knowledge ... "

Also - in the 4th paragraph, first sentence - I meant to type "opinions and values" not "options and values". Apologies for the inconvenience.

Posted by: Trev on June 3, 2008

Re: A Seismic Shift in Epistemology

Thanks, Chris, for an insightful article about one of the pressure points now facing educational institutions.

It does seem certain that what you call the “classical view of knowledge, expertise, and learning” now has a challenger. And a rather brash young upstart it is.

I wish I could be as sanguine as your final words suggest, that there may yet be some “synthesis about the nature of education … providing a smooth transition over this seismic shift in epistemology.” There could hardly be anything more central to the current nature of education than our concepts that teachers teach, students learn, and that all this occurs in classrooms. Changes that blur those distinctions won’t come easily. It may be that the Schumpeter's gales of creative destruction will provide a more accurate description of the changes ahead.

It’s a fascinating time, isn't it? Very enjoyable article. Thanks.

Gary Lewis

Posted by: glewis4519 on May 16, 2008


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