Monday, March 19, 2012

R.I.P. Encyclopedia Britanicca; Google to the rescue? Not so fast

Encyclopedia Britanicca (EB) announced last week that there would be no more printed versions of the Encyclopedia. The company also announced that they still were in business, presumably meaning the web site they are putting out.
In this column, I usually rant and rave about some education silliness or other that I have just encountered, so, readers may be wondering why I care about the demise of EB. 
In 1990 or so, I was asked to be on the editorial board of EB, presumably to bring some fresh ideas to a board whose average age at the time was over 80. I had just arrived in Chicago (where EB was headquartered) and had opened a new institute about computers and learning, so I guess they thought I might know something that might help them going forward. I was also hired as a personal consultant to the Chairman of the Board of EB. My job was mostly to have dinner with him and discuss the future.
He would ask me at every dinner: “will there be books in ten years?” And, at every dinner I would reply: “yes, but not EB.” (So I was off by a few years.)
Am I sorry that the printed EB has died? Not really. EB represented an ancient concept of knowledge that is the very one that still haunts our school system. The board meetings at EB were something from another century. Scholars discussing what belonged and did not belong in EB. What was important truth and how much space did that truth need devoted to it?
When I suggested that in the future they would not get to be the arbiters of the official truth, they objected. I was told sneeringly that soon “minds less well educated than our own would be in charge.” While I suspect the speaker of these words meant me, he was right. Wikipedia has overtaken EB and while those who write and edit the content of Wikipedia are certainly well meaning, probably things would be better if the people at EB were still in charge of truth.
The problem is that no one can or should be in charge of truth. Truth can be learned from folks wiser than you but you have to know whom to ask and you have to know what to ask.
EB didn’t really answer the questions that actual people have. And while I knew the web would kill EB (even before there was a web) what has replaced EB is Google, and this is a problem. 
There is a program that enables me to see what questions people type into Google that land them at one of my Outrage columns. Here is a list of words (sometimes as questions) typed in the last few days. I assume this is typical of what is typed into Google. Google matches key words so the columns of mine that these questions uncover are quite often totally unrelated to the question the user typed. (What they typed is unedited.):
tell them what you want to tell them tell them tell them what you told them
why must i go to school
school is bad for children
Eassy on why do students cheat?
what should i go to school for
questions measuring academic achievement
byu idaho college stories
essay on why do student cheat on their exam
remember something story
my textbook sucks
what do you want someone to remember about
is schizophrenia taught in schools
john stuart mill view on education
majoring in history
rick santorum education yesterday\
"makes a good college education"
someone telling a story about softball
pat tillman silenced
why education matters
do you think school and prison are alike
good editorial about math
So here is the real issue: People have stuff they  want to know. EB really never answered their actual questions. (Only the John Stuart Mill question above would have been answered in EB.)
So, while the web may have killed EB it is has not done that particularly well. People have questions they want to ask and conversations they want to have. Also, as is clear from ethos question, they need help in even formulating their questions. The web is still not conversational and people are still not well educated but the good news is that many still want to know more. They typically are not trying to know more about what is taught in school, or what was in EB, as is clear from the above questions.