How to go from hegemonic monopoly to utter irrelevance in a single generation

I visited a sociology class this morning. The instructor has an interesting collaborative writing project and we plan to use the KUMU Wiki for it.  The purpose of my visit was to discuss why the wiki was being used for this assignment, and offer a basic introduction on how to navigate and edit in the space.

I’ve been doing these sorts of orientations for more than a decade. A long-time standby to help explain the wiki concept is to ask the group about the key difference between the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia. At this question the room of forty students, to this point lively and responsive, went silent. 

It took me a couple follow-up questions, and some dumbfounded confirmation on my part, but I finally realized the truth. Not a single university student in that room had even heard of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The concept was entirely alien to them. I found myself explaining what an encyclopedia used to represent to students of my generation, and how we went to the library to use them. From their expressions, I might as well have been telling stories of horse-pulled sleigh rides to our frigid one-room schoolhouse on the prairie.

I hasten to add this observation is NOT meant as a slight on these bright and eager students. I had a blast visiting them today, I almost always find classroom visits to be energizing and highly motivating.

What gobsmacks me is the realization that a knowledge institution like Britannica could go from seemingly unassailable dominance to complete irrelevance in a single generation.

I also asked the students if they had been asked to do a digital writing assignment for any other courses. A couple had done some elementary writing assignments inside Moodle, but that was it.

Higher education seems content to sit this revolution out.  What could go wrong? Surely our position in society is irreplaceable.

I’m more worried about the future of our students and the world they will be building. I hope they can find some other means to develop the skills they’re going to need.

UPDATE: I had another visit to a class later in the day, and could not resist asking the Britannica question. This group, made up of third and fourth year English students, were aware of what the encyclopedia was and had heard of EB — though I did not get the sense that they actually used them. So, my experience this morning may have been a total outlier, or perhaps this is one of those things where awareness has very abrupt demographic patterns, or maybe it’s a few years in proximity to a university library, or…?

7 thoughts on “How to go from hegemonic monopoly to utter irrelevance in a single generation

  1. Get of my lawn!

    Amazing. Next up – CDs. Rip/Mix/Burn? What? You mean you needed to actually reroute audio from… physical media… to listen to it? like, a USB stick or something?

  2. Glen, not sure what to do with my new learning. Other than from now on, if I ever have to explain what an encyclopedia is, I will say, “it’s like Wikipedia, except…”

  3. Ouch! And double ouch that, as a kid, i occasionally hitched a ride to school in the winter on a neighbors horse drawn sleigh – ahhh suburban Calgary!

  4. I remember vividly the time I realized my students just didn’t know the Cold War, neither by lived experience nor study. At least two of these gray hairs sprouted then, sonny.

    Back to your story: it’s also interesting that nobody has been beating them about the head and shoulders with the importance of EB.

  5. I had a similar experience explaining a technology in front of a group of pre-service teachers years ago.

    I said, ” bla bla bla [instructions] ….and then hit Return…”


    One helpful soul finally says…”um…did you mean ‘hit Enter’?”

    I guess I was the only one there who learned to type on a typewriter.

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