by Gavin Moodie
As mooc mania approached its peak, the president of edX Anant Agarwal claimed in his video launching the platform on 2 May 2012 that ‘Online education for students around the world will be the next big thing in education. This is the single biggest change in education since the printing press’.
The claim was repeated many times and indeed had been anticipated 15 years earlier in 1997 by the management guru Peter Drucker who claimed: ‘Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.’
That seemed improbable since university lectures have been as important in the five and half centuries since the invention of printing as they presumably were for the three and a half centuries before Gutenberg. Yet printing had profound and pervasive effects on society, as has been established by many, notably by Elizabeth Eisenstein in her magisterial study in two volumes on The printing press as an agent of change.
In a paper published recently in The History of Education I considered whether printing changed universities as much as other parts of society and the reasons for those changes. I examined 5 changes to Western European universities that seem to have been influenced by printing: the language of scholarship, libraries, curriculum, pedagogy and in particular lectures, and assessment.
This post considers just two changes: lectures and libraries. Masters at all Medieval universities offered lectures ‘cum questionibus’ – with questions, or expository lectures which posed problems and questions arising from the text. Some contemporaries suggested that expository lectures would be made redundant by printing. In 1483 the Augustinian biblical scholar Jacobo Filippo Foresti da Bergamo (1434-1520) in his oft reprinted Supplementum Chronicarum asked: ‘Why should old men be preferred to their juniors now that it is possible for the young by diligent study to acquire the same knowledge?’ (cited in Eisenstein 1997 : 66). Yet lectures cum questionibus persisted after printed books became ubiquitous despite problems with attendance (then, as ever!).
This is because lectures and other established teaching methods help students manage their learning: maintaining motivation, identifying and using resources to support their learning, planning and scheduling their study, assessing their progress and adjusting strategies. Students also need help and support in mastering material, diagnosing their individual problems and help in overcoming specific difficulties.
The effect of printing on scholarly libraries illustrates a different point. Libraries in Medieval European universities loaned manuscript books to masters to use in their teaching and scholarship. This role became redundant when printing made books affordable for masters and students, although libraries were closed to undergraduates who at Cambridge were subject to a fine even for entering them in the early seventeenth century. As Andrew Pettegree (2010: Kindle location 5873) observes in his magnificent The book in the Renaissance: ‘the library had struggled to find a role in the new age of print’.
University libraries did not develop a new role until the eighteenth century when books became so numerous that scholars could no longer have in their personal collections all the texts which they would routinely use. A pedagogical role emerged for libraries in helping students structure, navigate and manage the texts relevant to their topic. This pedagogic role was of course new and very different from any role that libraries had served before printing. A contemporary analogy might be what is often called digital literacies, which libraries are also supporting.
Print, like digitisation, greatly increases and facilitates access to information, making learning resources much more accessible. But there is as yet no evidence that it thereby changes the nature of teaching-learning nor its method.