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How will the digitalisation of resources alter education as we know it?

Photo credit: Jack Harvey
Photo credit: Jack Harvey
Photo credit: Jack Harvey

More and more resources are being converted from their original printed state into digital realisations. This change affects many areas, from stories and drama to non-fiction and the press.

In academia, many older texts are being scanned, either by professionals and their top equipment or by scholars and their photocopiers. The benefits of scanning texts affect everyone in the academic community. Important documents that students require to write their best essays will no longer be exclusively in the hands of the lucky few who arrived early at the library to take them off the shelves; instead, all students have the opportunity to read or download a selection, or even the full edition, of a text. Many essays, written centuries ago are free from the natural decay and wear-and-tear that might ruin them by being rejuvenated and preserved on the Internet. The great works of key thinkers and minds in the fields of science, philosophy and politics, such as Thomas Paine, Immanuel Kant, Isaac Newton, Karl Marx and Benjamin Franklin, can be read on more than one webpage of the Internet. Speaking of Marx, the Communist Manifesto in its entirety can be found and downloaded if one searches hard enough, as can many other full editions of famous works.

Not everyone would see this as a good thing. Book enthusiasts have already predicted that the demise of the traditional printed book is imminent, as ever more reading is done on iPads and Kindles. Similarly, the printed newspaper is also in danger. Once upon a time, newspaper articles could be read online if the reader didn’t manage to purchase the daily paper in time; nowadays almost every article is published both in print and on the World Wide Web, causing us to wonder whether printing things is really worth doing anymore. Some prominent journalists fear that their industry is in jeopardy.

Nonetheless, this is arguably a matter of taste. The same words are still printed on the same pages – the text is not lost. Some people prefer the book in their hands and some people prefer the book on a screen: it is the freedom of the reader to choose the medium.

However, the digitalisation of resources proves to be a puzzling measure in both the field and practice of education. For example, many university lectures are now recorded by lecturers and distributed to students online. Some may see this as convenient. This would enable students unlucky enough to be ill on the day to continue with their education on par with students who attended the lecture. Once a lecture is recorded it is accessible for weeks to come, meaning that students looking for a refreshment of the topic in preparation for their exams can listen again to the very hour in which they were introduced to the matters at hand.

Others would ask why students should continue to turn up to lectures when they are accessible from home. Indeed, why couldn’t a lecturer simply record his talk at home too and save himself the trouble of turning up to an empty lecture hall? This applies to the digitalisation of other resources. Perhaps public and academic libraries could be reformed and turned into scanning centres, where all books are uploaded to the internet, with no need for a student to clamber out of bed to visit the library and spend hours searching for the novel they need. But would this take away from the genuine experiences of reading and learning?

Similarly, talks and lectures given by prominent scholars and authors on their recent publications are regularly recorded in audio and/or video form. Many are available for anyone to see on websites such as YouTube. Both for information and publicity purposes, authors enjoying discussing their books in tours in front of audiences, though this does not have to occur following the publication of a work – before writing his book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, the economics professor Mark Blyth was invited to produce a five-minute summary of his critique of austerity by his colleagues at Brown University in video form, with the result uploaded to YouTube.

Blyth’s short video summary is hardly unique; the great works of other scholars, living and dead, as well as the complex schemata of systems of government, philosophy, literature and great historical events, are also diluted into short videos. The School of Life, for instance, provides numerous summaries of the ideas of numerous thinkers in the fields of sociology, philosophy and psychology such as Plato, Schopenhauer, Durkheim and de Tocqueville. Ordinary people are supported with excellent explanations of famous ideas as well as gentle but informative critiques and advice for modern life.

Anyone with an Internet connection is able to listen to the talks and presentations of these famous academics and public minds, meaning that the spread of information desired by many academic figures has been successful. However, how many viewers, including students, will opt to watch the two-hour summary instead of reading the book? It is far more convenient to get a flavour of the scholar whose work one is studying to read their Wikipedia profile than read an essay or two. How many will choose a YouTube education over a formal, academic education?

Some may consider the digitalisation of resources to be education evolving, but others see it as a gradual dumbing-down of how we learn. Only time will tell us which conclusion is genuine.