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In my opinion

Gutenberg’s lessons for today’s universities

While digitization changes the role of libraries and perhaps of scholars’ relations with text, is has so far not changed the way people learn.


Most of the hype about Massive Online Open Courses comprised untestable predictions about how they would “disrupt universities” business model, leave only 10 institutions in the world “delivering” higher education and were an unstoppable tsunami engulfing higher education. Most of these predictions drew lessons from the broadcast and mass media or from the music industry, but as Martin Weller argued, the analogies with higher education are flawed.

When launching the MOOC platform edX on May 2, 2012, its president Anant Agarwal claimed, “Online education for students around the world will be the next big thing in education. This is the single biggest change in education since the printing press.”

Dr. Agarwal’s much-repeated claim was anticipated 15 years ago by the management guru Peter Drucker. He claimed in 1997 that “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.”

Gutenberg’s invention of printing with moveable type in around 1445 had deep and widespread effects on society, as has been established by many, notably by Elizabeth Eisenstein in her important study in two volumes on The printing press as an agent of change.

I recently considered Gutenberg’s effects on universities in an article published in History of Education. In it, I argue that five changes to Western European universities seem to have been influenced by printing: the gradual abandonment of Latin as the language of scholarship, libraries, curriculum, pedagogy (in particular, lectures), and assessment. Here I will consider only two, lectures and libraries. The effects on them of the printing press suggest different implications for universities from the current information revolution.

Medieval universities had at least two types of lectures. In “cursorie” or cursory lectures, bachelor’s students read set texts to undergraduates to take notes or dictation. Cursory lectures were necessary when undergraduates did not have access to set texts because hand-copied manuscripts were far too expensive to be afforded by most students. Printing greatly increased the availability and affordability of texts, thus removing the need for cursory lectures. Cursory lectures were therefore ended at Oxford University at least by 1584.

Lecturers at all medieval universities offered at least one other type of lecture, “cum questionibus” – with questions, or explanatory lectures which posed problems and questions arising from the text. Some contemporaries suggested that even explanatory lectures would be made redundant by printing. Autodidacticism or at least the pretense of self-teaching was one of the points raised by the Benedictine scribe Filippo de Strata in his Polemic against printing published in 1473. In 1483 the Augustinian biblical scholar Jacobo Filippo Foresti da Bergamo (1434–1520) in his oft- reprinted Supplementum Chronicarum asked: “Why should old men be preferred to their juniors now that it is possible for the young by diligent study to acquire the same knowledge?” In the second half of the 16th century, Isaac Joubert, who taught medicine at Montpellier University, edited a new French edition of Guy de Chauliac’s Inventarium sive chirurgia magna (Great inventory of surgery) so that “those who have a natural bent for the surgeon’s calling” could take advantage of “books which are silent instructors” and “nowadays carry farther than public lectures.”

Yet lectures cum questionibus have been as important in the five-and-a-half centuries after printed books became ubiquitous as they presumably were for the three-and-a-half centuries before printing, despite problems with attendance (then, as ever!).

When printing ostensibly could do away with the need for lectures, tutorials and the like since the 16th century, why have they persisted to this day? I suggest two reasons why traditional forms of teaching-learning have lasted for so long and are likely to persist at least during the current phase of online learning.

First, many students need support in managing their learning: directing their attention to their study, pacing themselves through the curriculum, monitoring their progress and maintaining effort despite flagging enthusiasm (Gagné 1985: 25 [1965]). More dependent students need more support in managing their learning (Grow 1991/1996). While most university students have high previous attainment, many still depend on their teachers to develop their ability to manage their learning. Without such support, students drop out of their study in increasing numbers (Copeland and Levesque-Bristol, 2010/2011).

Secondly, students also need modeling and help in mastering material and new skills, such as evaluating their progress, identifying their problems and possible solutions and alternatives they might try. Since each student encounters different difficulties in mastering the material, this support needs to be individualized. For rudimentary learning tasks such as memorization and applying routines, this support may be automated in online quizzes. But thus far, more complex learning tasks require personalized instruction, although not necessarily in person or face to face as Tony Bates observes.

A different lesson about the way new inventions affect traditional institutions is provided by Gutenberg’s effects on libraries. Medieval university libraries loaned books to academics, often for a year or sometimes longer. The remaining books were chained for reference by academics at set times or by appointment with the academic who served as librarian. Libraries were closed to undergraduates (who at Cambridge University were subject to a fine even for entering them in the early 17th century). This role of libraries became redundant when printing made books affordable for both academics and students. As Pettegree (2010: Kindle location 5873) observes in The Book in the Renaissance: “the library had struggled to find a role in the new age of print.”

Nonetheless, university libraries did not develop a new role until the 18th century, when books became so numerous that scholars could no longer have in their personal collections all the texts that they would routinely use. A pedagogical role emerged for libraries in helping students structure, navigate and manage the texts relevant to their topic. This pedagogic role was new and very different from any role that libraries had served before printing.

Similarly, the current information revolution is causing university libraries to reinvent themselves, supporting academics in developing students’ digital literacy.

Digitization, like print in the previous information revolution, greatly increases and facilitates access to information, making learning resources much more accessible. But it is not clear that this is affecting teaching in any profound way, other than bringing libraries and study resources to the desktop or tablet. While digitization changes the role of libraries and perhaps of scholars’ relations with text, is has so far not changed the way people learn. Massive open online courses and other forms of online learning remain a form of distance education, with all the disadvantages for inexpert and immature learners, seen in attrition rates much higher even than conventional forms of distance and open learning.

As Tony Bates observes, MOOCs have usefully woken elite universities to the opportunities of online learning, which they mostly ignored for two decades. But so far there is no evidence that they are likely to “disrupt” universities any more than Gutenberg’s information revolution disrupted early modern universities. More likely – as with printing – informal, open and online learning will be absorbed within universities to augment and improve their practices.

Dr. Moodie is a Toronto resident and an adjunct professor of education at RMIT, an Australian university.


  • Copeland, Kelly J and Levesque-Bristol, Chantal (2010/2011) The retention dilemma: effectively reaching the first-year university student, Journal of College Student Retention, volume 12, number 4, pages 485-515.
  • Gagné, Robert Mills (1985) [1965] The conditions of learning and theory of instruction. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  • Grow, Gerald O (1991/1996) Teaching learners to be self-directed, Adult Education Quarterly, volume 41, number 3, pages 125-149. Expanded version available online.
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