Education’s Moment of Interplay

In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, published almost half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan observed that the world he lived in was changing shape. It was a world that, as he depicted it, was simultaneously ‘dissolving and resolving’, a world that appeared to be at ‘a moment of interplay of contrasted cultures.’

McLuhan was contemplating, in his unique and playfully-opaque way, the nature of the world that was fading, a world that had been created by the printed word, and the emerging, and quite different, world that he was able to discern, long before most other commentators gleaned it, one that was in the process of being created by the electronic age (as he termed it). He observed a necessary dislocation between the two, just as there had been a dislocation between the oral culture that prevailed in the era of the manuscript and the radically different culture brought about by the arrival of the printing press.

The invention of typography confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, the first assembly-line, and the first mass-production.

McLuhan, M: The Gutenberg Galaxy. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962, p.124

The earlier dislocation had brought about a profound shift in the nature of knowledge and in the relationship that we had with knowledge. The shift created powerful social and political forces that transformed the way we lived our lives. McLuhan could see, from his 1960s vantage point, that a similar inflection point was occurring in the juncture between the age of typography and the electronic age, a simultaneous dissolving and resolving of cultures, and a release of social and political forces that were at least as powerful as those that had been unleashed by the invention of the printing press:

The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.

Gutenberg Galaxy, p.124

This paper takes McLuhan’s assertion as its starting point and seeks to define some aspects of this moment of interplay, this dislocation between cultures, with particular reference to education, and especially to higher education. Much has changed, of course, in the fifty years since the publication of the Gutenberg Galaxy. The advent and proliferation of the personal computing device and the near-universal extension of the global network in the shape of the internet have given new weight to the issues that McLuhan dealt with in his book. I will seek in this paper to throw some light on the particular nature of this shift as it affects education.


McLuhan’s thinking, despite its occurrence at an early stage of the development of electronic media, and certainly long before the advent of the Web and the social technologies we see today, is nonetheless complex and challenging, built on wide reading and a deep historical and literary knowledge, and, if anything, even more pertinent today than it was in 1962. Those who dismiss McLuhan’s work as deterministic miss the point: given the time at which he was writing, it is clear that he was able to see further ahead than most at the time, but it is also inevitable that his thinking was broad-brush in character. The most effective way to read McLuhan is to see his writing as a combination of historical insight and predictive prose-poetry.

The culture engendered by the manuscript, McLuhan argues, was an overwhelmingly oral culture, a world in which poetry and song were as one, in which learning meant listening, memorizing and passing on, and in which the notion of copyright, the personal ownership of intellectual property, was quite meaningless (since the only way that the creativity of one person could be preserved was by its accurate re-creation by others).

It is clear that we now find ourselves at an equally profound moment of interplay. The shift from the culture of print, with all its myriad consequences for the nations and societies that have been the organizational basis for human society for many hundreds of years, from the now-passing period of mass reproduction of intellectual creativity, to the slowly-crystallizing-but-as-yet-amorphous world of digital bits, with the myriad consequences that will undoubtedly shape human society for an unfathomable period of years, decades or centuries to come, is happening, and right now.

We now live in the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth century.

Gutenberg Galaxy, p135

Given that we find ourselves at a moment of interplay between worlds, at a moment of dissolution and resolution, the least useful reaction to this shift is to decry, and to continue to wish longingly for the deferment of, change. There is little point in hoping for the perpetuation of a world that is already shimmering and fading in the heat-haze generated by the ever-increasing torrent of bits. The only useful reaction is to make the best of it that we can: we humans have always been able to adapt to profound change in the past and we must do so again. We know now that Socrates was wrong to bemoan the coming of the written alphabet. We know now why the Catholic Church detested and fought against the effects of the culture of print. And, even in these early stages of the digital era, it is interesting to watch the writhing of those who are already finding the inevitability of change most uncomfortable.

Education’s Own Moment of Interplay

There are many indications that education is sliding with ever-increasing rapidity towards its own moment of interplay. The institutional, political, economic and cultural forces of tradition and orthodoxy in education are doing their best to hold onto what they have built over the generations, but our age-old understandings of such well-worn and seemingly immutable categories as the school, the teacher, the university, the curriculum and, of course, the student are about to shift – are already shifting – under the weight of change. The foundations of the school and the university as institutions go deep down into the ground upon which our societies have stood since at least the start of the industrial revolution; the depth of those foundations mean that they are likely to survive in some form or another for a long time to come.

But the thick walls and deep foundations of the school and university are, of course, quite invisible to the torrent of bits. The learner – a category that need never again be restricted in institutional terms – is increasingly free to learn what, when, how, with whom he or she wants, and for whatever reason he or she decides. The school or the university (or the Government or the Church) will hold less and less sway over the learner’s answers to such critical questions. We can already see these categories dissolving in front of us as they are assailed by the same forces that are currently changing the shape of other spheres: music, journalism, the mass media generally, the travel business, the book trade and so on.

The term that is being used across many of these spheres to describe the impact on them of this moment of interplay is ‘disintermediation’.


The concept of disintermediation can be defined fairly straightforwardly:

Disintermediation is a process in which a middle player poised between service or product providers and their consumers is weakened or removed from the value chain. Disintermediation is driven by the fact that middle players consume resources and in removing them from the chain, these resources are recovered to enable either lower cost for the consumer, better value from the provider, or both. Disintermediation can be total, in which case a middle player is removed entirely. It can also be partial, in which case an intermediary is carved up and the different ways in which they formerly added value are segmented, replaced, or done away with as circumstances permit.

Tucker, R: Disintermediation: The disruption to come for Education 2.0

The notion of disintermediation is one that is playing on the minds of a number of thinkers and commentators in education at the current time. But the particular understanding of disintermediation as it is currently affecting spheres that are more overtly transactional than education is not one that can be applied in any simplistic way to the school or the university.

If we look at the example of the music industry, we can see that the advent of digital and downloadable music has more or less annihilated the business model that the industry has depended on since the 1950s, a model that depended entirely on the sale of discs, whether vinyl singles and LPs in the distant past, or CDs in the more recent past. As one commentator put it:

The music industry does what any industry would do when their precious commodity – in this case music – is suddenly as available as paper towels at your local YMCA restroom. It’s a scary place to find yourself. The natural reaction is to wrap your arms around that content and hold on for dear life. After all, it is your bread and butter. As a result, the music industry lights a ring of fire around its content and fires on sight at anyone that tries to steal it. All of their energy and focus is spent to somehow contain the damage and retaining the perceived value of their content.

Ziade, R: Praying to the Wrong God

But I do not see education as primarily transactional. There are those who disagree, however, and who see the function of the school or university as simply a vehicle for the transfer of information from the teacher to the learner.

Someone who takes this simplistic view is able to argue thus:

How deep could this disintermediation go? Deeper than we would expect. If we take the primary function of school to be the dissemination of knowledge, the disintermediation could be near total. As a thought experiment we can imagine the following: The student’s experience may be ad hoc and fluid – with constantly shifting and boundary-less “classes.” It may be much more spontaneous and self-organizing – and all the more engaging for its voluntary essence. We may see the emergence of services that check a student’s progress against algorithms of likely educational success – simple AI versions of the 20th century guidance counsellor. There may be tests that check for subject progress or mastery that any student is free to take whenever they are ready – no need to wait for “test day.” Self-paced, self-directed, self-driven. There may be constant and direct input from industry and Gov 2.0 about what students need to know: If it looks like there’s a glut of chemical engineers coming up, for example, students might be advised to shift to a track more consistent with electrical engineering.

Tucker, R: Disintermediation: The disruption to come for Education 2.0

This argument is based on a wholly inadequate grasp of the real functions of the formal institutions of education. It is a simplistic conception because it is based on a very simplistic understanding of how learning happens and of the nature of the role of the teacher in enabling and facilitating the student’s learning. It fails to take a number of core aspects of the formal educational process into consideration. For instance, it is a fallacy to accord the teacher or the professor the position of ‘middleman’ in the learning process, somehow acting as little more than a ‘purveyor’ of learning to the student. The teacher’s role, even in a 19th century educational paradigm, is still far more complex than a mere disseminator of knowledge, although it can be argued that developments in national education systems in many parts of the world over the past quarter of a century or so have partly neutered the teacher as a professional – the focus on attainment targets, on detailed national curricula, and on quantitative measures of ‘improvement’ have undoubtedly diminished the autonomy of the teacher as a professional educator.

So, how are the forces that are currently hitting these other, more obviously transactional, spheres as some form of disintermediation likely to play out in the very particular and, I believe, vastly more complex domain of education?

Disintermediation and Education

The deeply social nature of the technologies, the digital and networking platforms, available today, an ever-expanding set of tools that continue to offer new possibilities for self-expression and for collective expression almost on a daily basis, already puts in question many of the long-held assumptions that have been part and parcel of schooling and of university learning for so long. The very nature of what it means to be literate, to be educated, is shifting around us. The nature of what it means to know, the role of the teacher in the learning process, the relationship between teacher and learner, the diminishing importance of prescribed content within curricula, the inadequacy (some might argue, irrelevance) of the school building as a self-contained place within which learning is supposed to happen, the questionable efficacy of arbitrary ’standards’ to be tested over and over again during a young person’s school and university career – all of these and many other issues are, I would argue, signs of the emergence of a new paradigm that is increasingly asking serious questions of an outmoded reality. Where the undoubtedly powerful conservative forces in education (those same conservative forces that play across all areas of any society) continue to win out, continue to hold back the tide, schools and universities will simply become increasingly irrelevant to most children and young people most of the time.

A new reality, one that recognises the major shifts brought about by the developments in Web technology in recent years, will increasingly come to the fore. What does that new reality look like?

Pithamber Polsani, Head of the Academy of Business Learning at Nokia-Siemens, has written:

Education is being displaced from its traditional confines of institutions to a generalized form of learning that can take place anytime and any place, a form of education whose site of production, circulation and consumption is the network.

Polsani, P: Education in the Network: Knowledge Flows and Learning Nodes Downloadable PDF p.1

So, the network, and the network of networks, lie at the heart of the changes that are happening in education. If education is shifting to the network – and it is – and away from the school, away from the university – which it is – it is to the network that we must look to discern the real differences making themselves felt in education today. The biggest difference is in the shift away from a top-down, hierarchical notion of education, in which others decide for us what we need to learn, how we need to learn it, who should teach it to us, and where we learn it, to a more open, self-determined kind of learning.

It is this veering away from the notion that we need a top-down hierarchy of some kind to organise and operate education on our behalf that is crumbling under the impact of networks. In this disruptive context, the merely-smart education leaders are those who are trying to find a compromise between the two paradigms – but the truly insightful are those who know that such compromise can only be a holding pattern. The notion of the network is simply too powerful, and is already beginning to prevail as the organising model for much that we do in future as human beings, and that has to include how we ‘do’ learning from here on in.

Today, young learners are less and less willing to accept the values of a bygone age. Young people across the world today are possibly less bound by received wisdom than any previous generation in history. That seemingly uncomplicated acceptance by the young of the great forces for change occurring right now is the aspect that, above all others, will change education whether it wants to change or not. The young simply accept as given trends that some in the older generations are wont to typify as disruptive – indeed, disturbing – in some sense or other, even where they recognize and acknowledge the long-term benefits to be derived. Perspective is all, of course.

While many working in education systems around the world blithely soldier on against the rising tide of modernity and ‘disruptive’ technology, others recognize the changing reality and are struggling to prise themselves out of the factory-schooling straitjacket. Such people understand that the values they seek to reflect in teaching and learning are critical to their success in creating radical change in education. They know it is not enough to consider just pedagogy and curriculum, not enough to pin a simplistic faith on technology-as-a-good-thing-in-itself, and certainly not enough to reduce education to an instrument of economic advancement.

So, in this context, education becomes something that individuals are more and more able to determine for themselves. We are now able to look to the power of the network – for information riches, for abundant collaborative possibilities, for making connections and discerning patterns in our knowledge – to enable us to build expertise, comprehension, mastery of our subject. Learning becomes a movable feast – an unsettling experience for those tied to the notion of top-down learning – but natural and compelling for those willing to grasp the benefits of network learning.

Self-determined knowledge, constructed across and mediated by the network, can be described thus:

  • Knowledge is created
  • Knowledge is grown
  • Knowledge is personal
  • Knowledge is socially mediated
  • Knowledge is making connections
  • Knowledge is recognising patterns
  • Knowledge is perception

In other words, Knowledge is Learning.

As Pithamber Polsani also wrote:

….the knowledge economy or the information society is not a stable structure with definitive functions, but a flexible condition where diverse programs can be developed using fragments of knowledge from different fields.

Polsani, P: Network Learning Downloadable PDF p.3

The same forces that are imposing, as we saw above, different degrees of fairly unadorned forms of disintermediation on so many areas of human interaction, are exerting a whole series of complex influences on the formal institutions of learning. But what about the role of the teacher in this developing conundrum? If the teacher, even in the enduring typographic, industrial modes of teaching and learning typified by the school and by the university, is not merely the middleman in a transactional process of learning, then what effects are these changes having, or likely to have over time, on the practice of teaching?

Even within the older paradigm, the teacher has always been an additive component in learning. Whether the teacher brought expertise, or experience, or greater knowledge and insight, or even wisdom, into the classroom, the apparently simple process of transferring information from teacher to student would always be augmented and intensified, to some degree, by the very nature of the interaction between the two key actors in that process.

Professor Leslie Owen Wilson has written about the very many ‘curricula’ that exist in every classroom, every lecture hall, every tutorial room in the world. The formal, written curriculum is only one portion, and by no means necessarily the most significant portion, of the curriculum experienced by learners. Apart from the overt, formal curriculum, she has noted the existence of:

  • the societal curriculum (others might call this the informal curriculum)
  • the hidden or covert curriculum (he way the school is organised, the way the teacher talks to the pupil, the way we as educators listen to those whom we serve in schools, all affect the values which are transmitted, and affect the self-worth and self-concept of the pupil)
  • the null curriculum (what is not taught – a very interesting notion!)
  • the phantom curriculum (”….the messages prevalent in and through exposure to any type of media…”)
  • the concomitant curriculum (”What is taught, or emphasized at home, or those experiences that are part of a family’s experiences, or related experiences sanctioned by the family.”)
  • the rhetorical curriculum (”…comprised of ideas offered by policymakers, school officials, administrators, or politicians…”)
  • curriculum-in-use (in contrast to the formal curriculum, “…the actual curriculum that is delivered and presented by each teacher”)
  • internal curriculum (”Processes, content, knowledge combined with the experiences and realities of the learner to create new knowledge….unique to each learner”)
  • the electronic curriculum (”Those lessons learned through searching the Internet for information, or through using e-forms of communication”)

No matter how a school or university might be organised, all of these covert and informal influences playing on the process of learning mean that disintermediation can never be a simple outcome in education.


Marshall McLuhan, far back in 1962, was able to see the forces of change that were gathering around those early artefacts and ideas that heralded the so-called ‘electronic age’. From our much greater vantage point today we can begin to add greater detail and understanding to those early insights from McLuhan.

With the advance of the network of networks into all aspects of life, learning need no longer be restricted to the school or the university. With the Web as our platform for learning, the notion of the school (or the college, or the university, or any educational institution) as having some kind of monopoly position in the “supply and delivery” of learning very quickly becomes a dead duck. Depending on the way our societies are organized, there is no reason whatsoever that the school’s place in our ecology of learning should be endangered any time soon – the concept of the school is a persistent one – but it should lead us to question the precise role of the school in the broader learning ecology that networks make possible.

If our understanding of the learning is shifting, then our understanding of the role of the teacher in this disintermediated context must also change. In terms of our thinking about learning, George Siemens feels that (to paraphrase):

  • learning and knowledge should rest on a diversity of opinion
  • learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources
  • the capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
  • nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning
  • the ability to see connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill

Siemens, G: eLearnSpace – various

With this as a starting point, the teacher now stands at a significant juncture in the development of the formal institutions of learning – and I believe the teacher still stands at the very heart of what will continue to determine the best schools and universities from the ordinary ones. Teachers and faculty need to be freed to do what they do best – to teach, to work with young people to help them get the best out of their own efforts, to advise, to counsel, to cajole, to persuade, and, yes, to impart knowledge in the traditional where required.

The best teachers, the best professors and lecturers, know instinctively that the social and political (and media-enforced) chains that bind schools and universities to the past need to be broken so that we can begin to free our young people and start to build a kind of education that meets their real needs.

Gilbert Harcrow has written:

The future will consists of the takers (consumers), the makers (the creators) and the facilitators (those who understand things at a meta-level, uber-de / reconstructuralist). Teachers should be in the final group (good ones have been like this forever) and you only get to be like that if you live it.

Harcrow, G: Comment on Blog Post: Oz Provocation 5: disintermediation of teachers

To give Marshall McLuhan the final word:

Many educators think that the problem in education is just to get the information through, get it past the barrier, the opposition of the young, just to move it and keep it going. I don’t have much interest in that theory. My theory or concern is with what these media do to the people who use them. What did writing do to the people who invented it and used it? What do the other media of our time do to the people who use them? Mine is a transformation theory, how people are changed by the instruments they employ.

McLuhan, M: Living at the Speed of Light, in Understanding Me. MIT Press, 2005, p.231

In the age of the pervasive Web, of ubiquitous social and collaborative technologies across the Web, the effects on education, on learners and on teachers, I believe, will be profound.