Encyclopedia Britannica is publishing a blog series on “Learning and Literacy in the Digital Age.”

The SVO of that sentence — The Encyclopedia Britannica is publishing a blog series — is a fine synecdoche of what’s going on with our brains and social knowledge.

EncyBrit offers the following questions for its bloggers. Here are my Sunday-morning swings at these profound issues:

Will students continue to learn in classrooms? DSU’s graduate program already has at least as many off-campus students as on-campus. (In one class I took, off-campus outnumbered on-campus 2:1.) My wife is pursuing ordination as a pastor through an online seminary program that meets on the Luther campus for just two two-week sessions each year. Online resources will expand opportunities for students, especially adult students, to get training and certifications without interrupting their work and family life.

People still want to get together. Teachers and students generally feel they can communicate most effectively in person. But as Internet tools advance in capability and ubiquity and as we get better at using them, we will find ways to “make the channel richer” — i.e., to convey more of the social cues, the emotion, the body language, the signals that human interaction more informative and satisfying. As that channel gets richer, learning online will feel less isolating, and more students and teachers will find it a suitable substitute for traditional classroom learning.

Will students still use print-based libraries? Do they now? I’d love to do a survey of DSU students to see how many have actually picked up a book in the Mundt Library.

I hope print materials will stick around. I find a profound difference in how I read online and how I read when I’m holding a book. I can feel it even with my netbook. I can rotate my display and hold my computer sideways to read a full page (especially a PDF) in portrait format. In that format, I hold the computer like a book. My fingers are out of typing position. I can’t suddenly punch in a URL or click as conveniently to check my other e-mail or RSS reader. I’m more likely to sit and read that single document longer. Holding the computer like a book feels more contemplative, more patient, more… right.

But then I cut my teeth on the paper library. Kids growing up with Kindles may not feel the same comfort and tranquility I feel interacting with old paper books.

Just remember: books boot instantly.

Will they learn to read and write on the basis of traditional rules of grammar, the building blocks of writing as a potential artform, or merely at a level sufficient for texting and search-engine utilization? Here I don’t anticipate a major change. We’ve been teaching the traditional rules of grammar and writing as artform for generations, but even pre-Internet, how many could compose a truly artful and effective business letter? The Internet, with so many convenient venues for self-publication, may reveal more writers who can produce essays and other literature worthy of public attention. It will also capture a great deal more of the informal chats and semi-literate rantings about work and sports and TV and sex and everything else that makes up the bulk of everyday communication. I doubt online tools will decrease our language skills; they’ll just record a lot more of our generally sloppy language skills in e-print (much to the joy of linguists everywhere).

Will reading even be necessary when (and if) we reach that brave new world of direct “brain-to-brain communication”? – the “mind meld” some fear and others eagerly await. Numerous cultures, like our Lakota neighbors, transmitted knowledge from generation to generation without ever developing reading on their own. Even in our text-heavy culture, we learn all sorts of tacit knowledge by experience and practice. Reading is certainly necessary, but it is far from sufficient for mastery in most fields.

Reading is an artifact of cultural practice and available technology. Build a better means of transmitting explicit knowledge (“I know kung fu“), and certainly reading will become obsolete for learning. The bigger question will be not what technology might replace ink on paper or electrons on screens, but what effect that technology will have on our minds (See Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess for the effects of alphabetic literacy on our brains.)

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