Image by Gary Hayes via Flickr
What would you include in an undergraduate course on digital civilization -- a course beginning in the Renaissance and arriving at our current digitally-mediated state of communication, knowledge, and culture? Are there analogs to our digital world in the past? What authors or texts from history illuminate our present? What themes would you address? What fields of knowledge or cultural movements across the centuries have bearing on the digital now? If education itself is transforming, what's the recipe for teaching and learning both in and about the digital age? How would you structure such a course?
As the title of my blog proclaims, academia is evolving, including what counts as a general or liberal education. We still have our lists of Great Works, but literacy itself seems to have shifted. How does one read a book now that we understand books as limited vehicles for knowledge or as sets of data to be searched and sampled? How does one respond to art, literature or life, when writing and publishing are now casually intertwined and socially mediated? What is the role of a course, a school, a curriculum when Internet access provides most people unlimited knowledge without any classroom, campus, or syllabus? How are ideas to be synthesized or thoughts composed when it is becoming as natural to use images or other media alongside or in place of texts?
These questions puzzled me and my BYU colleague, Daniel Zappala, and at first we cooked up a new course on digital literacy. Plenty to cover there! But as we explored the option of a civilization course, it offered some appealing breadth and depth. Suddenly, everywhere we looked across western history we found that the issues confronting us in the digital age have been encountered before. That doesn't mean that the current age isn't truly new nor that we don't have substantial changes from the past. But what it means is that there are shoulders to stand on.
This led to our course proposal, "Western Civilization and the Digital World." Hopefully we will be approved to teach this course in our school's Honors program in Fall 2010 or the following semester in 2011. But it occurred to me that we should post our syllabus right away. It has some weak spots, to be sure, and I'm confident that great suggestions can be made to rectify those lapses if we are willing to share our intellectual work in progress. Such a launch-and-iterate pattern is one of the primary principles of the digital age. We do not wait to participate; we look forward to critique and collaboration, since now we are starting to understand that knowledge is optimized when made social.
Besides, if teaching and learning (like so many things now) can be time-shifted or place-shifted, why wait to begin that class a year from now? I'll post the syllabus in its present form on my blog here, but I'm hoping to reformat the syllabus and course material, placing this on Rice University's Open Educational Resource platform, Connexions. I have already identified a module on Connexions about Galileo's telescope (by Albert Van Helden) that we might work into our course (which will end up as a "collection" of these "modules" -- or learning objects). In turn, our course's modules will serve as building blocks for others' educational purposes.
As Daniel and I reviewed history, it was simple to align core components of digital culture with their antecedents. The most obvious was the rise of printing as an agent of cultural change. As many have noted, we are undergoing cultural upheavals today comparable to those of the Renaissance and the Reformation. The authority of knowledge and its institutions was influenced by the democratization of media -- and it's happening again now. Just as Christians found they could go directly to the Bible without priestly mediation, so students of today are finding they can go directly to educational resources -- bypassing institutions of learning, their costs, and their limits (See, for example, Lisa Chamberlain's bold experiment in this regard, "Open PhD").
The issue of controlling or vetting knowledge for religious, political, or commercial reasons is a continuous theme in western civilization -- from the Vatican's index of prohibited books, to the licensing and copyright acts of 17th and 18th century England, up through those conglomerate scholarly publishers of our day who restrict access to scholarly knowledge for billions in profit. The propertization of the commons through enclosure laws compares to the propertization of knowledge through copyright. But intellectual property turns out to undermine its original purpose (to promote innovation), and so we are returning to the "commons" notion for an improved knowledge economy (see Creative Commons).
There are plenty of other historical analogs to our digital culture. The Encyclopedists of the Enlightenment (Diderot, etc.) compare to Jimmy Wales' Wikipedia. Studying the rise of periodicals and the popular press invites easy comparison to blogging. The rise of scholarly and scientific journals from the 17th to the 20th centuries leads directly to today's crisis in scholarly communication and the Open Access movement. The standardization that came with the Industrial Revolution relates to the web standards that are so critical to Information Age. The Oxford English dictionary proves to be a pre-electronic age example of crowdsourcing. Agitation for social change in the 19th or 20th century (Marx, for example) compares to online activism and digital manifestos. The popularization of mass media in the 20th century compares to and prepares for the online memes of today. And along the way, religion, politics, science, and education get redefined as information and media mix and remix culture.
So here's our first stab at the course syllabus. Daniel and I would love your feedback!
"Western Civilization and the Digital World."
Dr. Gideon Burton (English) / Dr. Daniel Zapalla (Computer Science)
Western civilization has been greatly influenced by how we produce and share knowledge. Since the development of the printing press in the 15th century, the printed word has dominated religion, philosophy, science, economics, politics, and education. We are now in the midst of the digital revolution, with online media such as blogs, wikis, social networking, and the web shaping our civilization. In this course we will view western civilization through the lens of the digital revolution, learning both what the past has to say about how we produce and share knowledge, and what our experiences with modern technology lead us to discover about the past. Our readings will pair great works of western civilization with current texts and tools, exploring common themes that include the structure of knowledge, principles of openness and participation, authenticity, identity, privacy, and copyright. Students will become fluent with the concepts and tools needed to be lifelong learners and active participants in a world where technological innovations change rapidly.
- Students will understand how knowledge production and communication has evolved since the Renaissance due to technological and cultural forces.
- Students will be able to relate philosophies and trends in education, economics, religion, science, and politics to the current digital age.
- Students will learn the principles underlying the digital age (openness, participation, authenticity, identity, privacy, intellectual property) and be able to relate these to their historical analogs.
- Students will acquire digital literacy – familiarity with the tools and principles of the digital age, as applied to philosophical and literary concepts and texts from the history of civilization.
- Students will relate pre-digital and digital-age principles and tools to life-long learning and to the mission of our university.
ReadingsThe proposed semester calendar, linking texts with concepts within periods, can be viewed in the two images, below:
- Lorenzo Valla, On the Donation of Constantine
- Martin Luther, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church
- Thomas More, Utopia
- Galileo, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems
- Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe
- Shakespeare, The Tempest
- Milton, Areopagitica
- Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, The New Scientific Method
- Descartes, Discourse on Method
- Denis Diderot, Encyclopedie
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On Education
- Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman
- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
- de Toqueville, Democracy in America
- Charles Babbage, Decline of Science in England
- Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto
- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Utilitarianism
- Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, Walden
- Joseph Smith, Doctrine & Covenants, Book of Mormon
- Charles Darwin, Origin of Species
- Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence
- Freud, Civilization and its Discontents
- T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
- Thomas Khun, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- Marshal McLuhan, "Gutenberg Galaxy"
- John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money
- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game
- Vernor Vinge, Rainbow's End
- Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
- Jonathan Rosen, The Talmud and the Internet
- Chris Anderson, The Long Tail
- Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar
- Yochai Benkler, Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm
- Paul Graham, Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age
- Kevin Kelly, Better than Free
- Paul Levinson, New New Media
Method of Instruction:
Discussions, presentations, tutorials, student-led instruction, self-directed learning
Methods of Evaluation:
Class and online participation, essays, digital media, lab exercises
Evaluated as both a learner and a teacher, engagement beyond the classroom
Skills (to be both used and studied)
- Google Wave
- blogging platform
- Google documents
- multimedia composition
- design software
- collaborative online tools
- simulations and immersive environments