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User Generated Knowledge

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 10 months ago

User Generated Knowledge

a presentation by Professor Michael Young






Educational Potential vs Cult of the Amateur


1. Vacuousness of new media

2. Blurring user-generated and producer-generated cultures


Technological Determinism vs Creativity


Enlightenment and the Great Asymmetry


Users / Learners



A more positive approach might be to begin with how ‘specialist users’ such as researchers make use of the learning and communication possibilities of internet technologies and generate knowledge in new ways through chat rooms and other networking and user generated devices. This might suggest lessons for educationalists who might want to use similar technologies for pedagogic purposes like networking with students on an individual and group basis.


"We must not merely to resist new developments - we have to identify an education that points in a different direction through a pedagogic challenge that generates new knowledge and provoke debate"





Serious academic researchers enthuse about educational potential of mobile phones and in a less rhetorical and less publicised but may be more significant way make use of the communication possibilities of the internet  which are replacing or at least complementing the role of journals and books  among researchers.


On the other hand Andrew Keen in his new book The Cult of the Amateur launches a highly polemical critique of exactly these developments.


His book sets what he sees as the emptiness of the YouTube user-generated culture against  the intellectual strengths of old knowledge producing institutions such as film studios, publishing houses, newspapers, TV companies with all their many specialist writers, producers, designers and directors. 


There are several reasons why is easy to dismiss Keane’s crude polemic. The first is that some of the very non-user generated institutions that  he wants to endorse and strengthen are themselves responsible for producing the emptiness of the so called ‘celeb’ and semi-pornographic culture of Hello, OK , Nuts, Zoo etc. It is not insignificant that the owner of the Times and the Wall Street Journal has bought Youtube(or is it facebook?) for hundreds of millions of dollars.  Secondly it is by no means clear that we can equate his notion of user-generation with the idea of learner-generated contexts developed within the ICT research community even if they use the same technologies. There is a problem , however that the two ideas have in common that I will return to. I would want to argue that just as only a very limited kind of culture can be developed by users on their own, it is also true of learning separated from teaching. I will come back to that.

Despite Keen’s polemic there are some significant points that arise from it that have relevance to any discussion of learner–generated learning contexts. 


Firstly,  is the vacuousness of these new user-generated media  no more than the price we have to pay in a marketised society for having these new technologies and the more educational opportunities that they offer? On the other hand  does encouraging the wider availability of precisely these technologies lead inexorably to  a user –generated culture that may actually be anti-educational?  Here is an extract from an email I received recently from a comprehensive school teacher in response to a paper I wrote called “What are schools for?”


"As teachers we are increasingly finding that students are unwilling or unable to access things that are outside their realm of experience. This is something that is a social problem as much as an educational one.  Books are out, computers are in (in my Year 7 form of 23 students 15 have a computer in their room linked to the internet and at least 10 of those admitted to spending more than an hour every night on MSN.  17 students have televisions in their room and most admitted to having the television on  while they do homework. 20/23 have a computer games console"


The second issue,  more directly related to Keen’s book is  the significance of the tendency to blur distinctions between user- generated and producer -generated cultures and the parallel distinction between teachers and learners- can learners really be their own teachers? Can user and producer-generation really be  substitutes for each other in fields such as art and media and even science.


With the arrival of the internet, it can be argued that we are at the beginning of a dramatic democratization of culture and learning. The internet stores almost unlimited information and sources of knowledge, as well as  the interactive options that could replace pedagogy and be a source of cultural production. In this context the old divisions of labour and the old institutions (such as the university and the BBC)  and their traditional elitism  become increasingly marginal and even redundant. Where every user is a producer and every learner a teacher epistemological questions about truth become irrelevant- your video and your truth is no better or worse than mine.  With old authorities undermined, we either trust everyone or no one.


I see two driving forces behind these changes.


1) One is the technology that allows quite new possibilities- a few years ago creating and  posting short videos onto a global electronic network was neither  do-able no even inconceivable; it is like warfare before and after the technology of nuclear fission and fusion were understood. 


2) The second force is the spread of the idea of individual choice and the celebration of markets across every conceivable human activity; if people don’t like a Youtube clip they try another; if they don’t like a programme they switch channels. Everything is like an opinion poll. At least in appearance, what could be more democratic?


There are a number of  things to say about these  scenarios. First, to be suspicious of any kind of technological determinism. the second is that the market is not quite the democratic hidden hand that some think Adam Smith claimed it to be- choices on their own do nothing; people choose to buy Hello and OK or watch other people’s videos, but there have to be choices to make and someone has to decide what choices to offer; this takes us out of the user- generated choice agendas into the arena of corporate values and priorities and of course into producer-generated knowledge


Secondly, the creation of  new ideas, new tools and new machines such as those that have led to the possibility of learner-generated knowledge has never relied only on choice and experience. It has relied on systematic  thought, models and ideas which are explored, tested, developed, risked, and shared.  None of these processes involve more than a small amount of  choice or a significant productive role for users or learners. Also in the extreme scenario that Keane portrays, choice will be reduced not extended, new ideas, new  machines and new learning opportunities will not be developed  and we shall have a democracy of ignorance which will make people even more vulnerable to the few with power over the media


There is a sense in which there has always been user- or learner-generated knowledge- local and community related – crafts, singing games etc; indeed in pre-industrial societies, outside the Churches, there was little else. Its strengths were sense of ownership and authenticity. However it lead to a culture of profound ignorance  based on  short lives, high levels of child mortality, low levels of literacy, extreme vulnerability to natural dangers such as epidemics, a myriad of attempts to make sense of the world through myths, alchemy, astrology and oracles  together with  the invention of a multitude of  metaphysical or religious beings who  promise much but deliver little.  History warns us that we should not be nostalgic about what users or learners  on their own will generate.


It is this scenario that such Enlightenment heroes as Galileo, Newton, Harvey and others fought against and which with varying degrees of success every developing country is struggling to move beyond. They will not do this by extending user-generated knowledge or creating learner-centred contexts via the internet but by building and strengthening specialist institutions such as schools, colleges and universities which prepare the professionals, technicians and technologists  that they currently lack.  These institutions are  based on a division of labour between knowledge and its use and between teaching and learning; on the idea that it is primarily specialists who after considerable study, produce knowledge- write books and plays, make films and videos and teach others how to do these things. Home school may be fine for some and  Home movies are also fine but it would be a poorer culture if they became a dominant form of cultural production. Successful development in Africa and Asia will not be based on overthrowing the division of labour between producers and users. The division between production and use and between teacher and learner is part of what the philosopher and sociologist Ernest Gellner referred to as the great asymmetry. What is needed is an expansion of the proportion of people who produce knowledge and who have the knowledge and skills to teach and an expansion of learning opportunities for the majority who ‘use’ knowledge to become producers. 

Users will always generate knowledge and phenomena such as YouTube and MyFace are not going to go away- as ‘mass’ phenomena they are an extension of reality shows on TV and real life stories in magazines like CHAT. The question is ‘what knowledge can be produced in such ways?’ ‘What learning can learners achieve on their own?’ If real learning is about taking people beyond their experience I cannot see how that can be done if it relies only or largely on that experience. There is no way that learner-generated knowledge on its own, that does not engage in some way with past knowledge can generate the kind of powerful knowledge that that will take people beyond their experience.


A final point in relation to the user/learner parallel. Both can be misleading; there are many different types of each. The common assumption that Andrew Keen is so critical of is that the user is someone with no specialist knowledge of a field- like most of us in relation to most specialist fields that we rely on! There is a similar assumption about learners and the hope that somehow unsuccessful learners will be able to learn on their own with the help of the technology. It seems to me no more likely than that anything of quality will emerge out of Youtube.  As such a focus on the user or the learner can easily become a profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-specialist and even anti-teacher idea which sees specialists as privileged dominators of learners and users.

A more positive approach might be to begin with how ‘specialist users’ such as researchers make use of the learning and communication  possibilities of internet technologies and generate knowledge in new ways through chat rooms and other networking and user generated devices.


This might suggest lessons for educationalists who might want to use similar technologies for pedagogic purposes like networking with students on an individual and group basis. 


We must not merely to resist new developments - we have to identify an education that points in a different direction through a pedagogic challenge that generates new knowledge and provoke debate.




  • Michael says he want to set the debate in a wider social and economic context, particularly around the debate on consumers and producers of education.
  • Focus on 2 books: Andrew Keen "Cult of the Amateur" and Damien Thompson: "Counter Knowledge" - 'bogus sicence and fake history"
  • Also looked at various DEMOS pamphlets
  • Paper is a work in process
  • Started about thinking about newe technologies and what they offer in terms of developing "new Content".
  • Unrealistic enthusiasms on the one hand, but also intersting use of tecnologies being made by researchers.



Diana L: differentiate between, content, knowledge, context - they are all different. The technology enables learners to create in new approaches to learning which enables them to address traditional knowledge in new ways.



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