From Gutenberg to the Internet, technology is a driver of education and research

The evolution of technology operates in synergy with higher education and research: the more equal our technology to the challenges of cheap and fast communication, the farther our reach and the more we get to learn from each other.

What do Japanese Shinto polytheism, learning biology with Tibetan monks and new methodologies of online education have in common?

All of these inform recent conversations regarding pedagogy in higher education. They’re able to do that because higher education and research now occupy a high-technology, globalised landscape.

Early higher education and research were quite different. The University of Bologna is the oldest university in Europe, established in 1088. It grew out of the Roman Catholic schools of the era, and at the time its pedagogy and methods largely drew from the established traditions of monastic education. It trained professionals and members of religious orders, and had therefore a fairly narrow remit. Emphasis on sharing information outside the university walls was relatively minimal.

For centuries the primary method of sharing new discoveries was through letter-writing, once a universal occupation among the educated elite. The pressure to publish, which so permeates the industry today, did not evolve until the technology was available to empower extensive publication.

Movable type was introduced to Europe in the 15th century, and the first publications recognisable as scholarly journals both appeared in the year 1665: the Journal des sçavens and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Peer review followed 66 years later, with Medical Essays and Observations published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1731.

Familiar names like The Lancet and Nature commenced publication in the 19th century. From there we arrive rapidly at strong evidence of the mounting pressure to publish in such journals, with the apothegm “publish or perish,” first put in writing by the 1920s.

What all this tells us, other than a much abbreviated history of western scholarly writing, is that from the moment we began to explore evidence-based knowledge, we were looking for ways to share what we’d learnt—and to learn from others in turn. First we used letters, then print. The long march of technological development eventually enabled online-only journals. Postmodern Culture, which was the first of this kind, began in 1990 as an experiment in internet publishing.

The better our technology, the farther our reach. Today, educators can collaborate on distance education projects online, then bring what they learn back to their own university classrooms. We have sufficient familiarity with foreign nations’ academic practices that we’re able to use international models to inform how we integrate different ways of knowing into our own scholarship. We can look to different cultures to show us perspectives we never considered to inform our own traditional pedagogies.

Exposure to alternative perspectives is now one of the cornerstones of modern education. This progression—from a narrowly defined scholarship for professional education to academic system noted (and sometimes criticised) for its reliance on publication—shows us the value we place on technologies that empower education.

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