Felix Salmon Has the Number of Bowles-Simpson
Liveblogging World War II: November 11, 1940

The Fourth Online-Learning Revolution

We can only provide quality online and distance-learning experiences today if we understand that what we are living through is not the first but rather the fourth online-learning revolution.

Let me back up fifteen hundred years:

The best way to train intellectuals is, as the Phaedrus http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/phaedrus.html of Aristocles son of Ariston called “Plato” claims that Socrates said, via discussion and apprenticeship to an excellent thinker. Compared to that any alternative—reading a book, say—was wanting. Books, Plato reports Socrates saying, are:

unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence.... You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.... [T]hey are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated... cannot protect or defend themselves.... [But] an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner... can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.... [H]e who knows the just and good and honourable... will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others.... [Rather] the dialectician, who, finding a congenial soul, by the help of science sows and plants therein words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them... making the possessors of it happy to the utmost extent of human happiness...

However, there are not that many excellent thinkers. And they have too few apprentices. It is possible to train intellectuals via apprenticeship to a not-so-excellent thinker, of whom there are many. But Plato at least thought that such an apprenticeship was a third-rate experience, vastly inferior to the second-rate experience that is reading a book of the teaching of a first-rate intellectual. We know that Plato thought this, for he wrote the Phaedrus and his other dialogues—and that is the only way we know of Socrates.

Thus the first online-learning revolution, the first adaptation of technology to higher education, came in 390 BC when to cut the costs of education and allow for more students Plato invented the philosophy book and substituted it for the in-person teacher, thus leveraging the words and thoughts of Socrates (or at least of Plato’s version of Socrates) over many more people and many more millennia than Socrates could himself teach in person.

Books, however, were very expensive back in the days of manuscript production. According to “The Secret History of the Industrial Revolution” by U.C. Davis’s Gregory Clark, the price of books in the early fourteenth century was perhaps 100 times their price today. We in the post-industrial North Atlantic today are perhaps 100 times better-off in material things than were our medieval predecessors. Thus a single book in 1300 cost as large a share of a typical person’s income then as $50,000 is today: acquiring a single book was as great a relative investment and expenditure as a full year of a private college—tuition, fees, room, and board—is today. Plato’s invention of the philosophy book was a technological advance in education, but it was not a large enough advance.

It was not a large enough advance because in medieval Europe bishops and kings found that they needed staffs. Bishops needed theologians and experts in canon law. Kings needed judges and administrators. How best to train all these additional intellectuals? Providing each would-be theologian and judge and canon lawyer and administrator with the books they needed to study was prohibitively expensive. They needed an alternative

The solution that mid-medieval Europe hit upon was the system of the western university, the system that originated in Bologna and Paris. Assemble all those who wished to learn a book in one place. Have somebody—a reader, in Latin a lector, in modern English a lecturer—read the book aloud to them as they sat before him in a group and took their notes. At 4000 words an hour for twenty hours a week a student could absorb about thirty books a year in his time at university. Admittedly the notes he took away and the memory of hearing the book were third-rate compared to the second-rate possession of the book of a first-rate thinker. But it was good enough. And so the western medieval universities grew and flourished. This was the second online-learning revolution.

Then came the third online-learning revolution: the printing press of Johann Gutenberg, and the seventy-year explosion of print culture that followed. By 1500 a book was no longer the same share of income as $50,000 is today but was rather more like the share of $2,000 today. The extraordinary expense of books that had provoked the foundation of the western university and the institution of the group lecture was over. Now everybody could have their own copy of the books they needed. The necessity for gathering all would-be intellectuals together in a few towns and having them sit in groups listening to a speaker had passed.

Yet the university survived. The lecture class survived. They survive to this day. And they have grown and flourished—even though their original reason for being, the tremendous expense of books, is now more than 500 years in the past.

Today we are in the middle of a fourth online-learning revolution. To properly understand and manage it, however, we need to understand something crucial about the third online-learning revolution. What is it about the institution of the university that allowed it to survive the third online-learning revolution? For the fourth will be a catastrophic bust and distance-learning will die—unless we figure out how to replicate online those features of the university which kept it alive in the post-Gutenberg years after the third online-learning revolution.